Redford and pea coat in Three Days of the Condor, 1976
We think few garments are as flattering to the male form as the good old pea coat. Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Craig, and generations of true blue, all-american sailors—not to mention their wives and girlfriends, all seem to agree.
Steve McQueen wore one in his portrayal of the quintessential tough guy loner—pre-war China Fleet sailor Jake Holman, in 1965’s The Sand Pebbles.
King of Cool McQueen and Sir Richard Attenborough share a moment in their pea coats in The Sand Pebbles, 1965
Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young raised a lot of hell and still looked cool doing it in theirs (despite the bell bottoms) in The Last Detail.
Young, Quaid, and Nicholson in The Last Detail, 1973
Even more telling was Robert Redford’s choice of a pea coat in the mid-70s spy thriller Three Days of the Condor. We think the fact that Redford was a civilian (well, a civilian CIA book analyst anyway) and not a sailor in the film, is important.
Redford could have worn any kind of coat he wanted in the second half of the film—a trench, or a green army M-65 would have been very anti-establishment and au courant—but he chose the pea coat to help develop his character in a pretty subtle way.
Like Redford’s bookish-but-brave CIA analyst turned action hero (which presaged Clancy’s Jake Ryan by almost a decade) the pea coat was a little bit unexpected and refreshing.
Redford pairs pea coat with jeans and hiking boots in Three Days of the Condor, 1976
Bogart made the trench coat an icon of style in the 1940s, and super star Redford did the pea coat no harm in the mid-1970s. He knew he would stay warm and look muy cool in a pea coat, and it paired well with his chambray shirt and jeans and hiking boots.
A trench coat couldn’t have done that. Nor would an army green M-65 field jacket have been as right for his character or looked as stylish and preppy.
Why it Works
So, if we accept that it looks great on Redford (what doesn’t?) the real puzzler is why does the pea coat look so utterly decent on so many different guys who aren’t blessed with Redford’s looks and mojo?
Most of all there’s that deep midnight blue, almost black color. There’s a reason the classic tuxedo is so frequently described as one of the most flattering looks any man can wear. A black-colored garment doth indeed hide a great many sins.
Whatever the reason, the pea coat just looks right on most of us. It looks as great with jeans and a sweater and Chuck Taylors as it does with chinos and a button down and desert boots. It even dresses up nicely with a tie as Daniel Craig proved rather convincingly in Skyfall.
Daniel Craig on the prowl in a Billy Reid Bond Peacoat in Skyfall, 2012
Craig may be single-handedly responsible for giving the pea coat its greatest modern boost in popularity. Supposedly, the stylish actor purchased a Billy Reid Bond Peacoat (a modernized, updated, slim interpretation of the classic navy pea coat) at Billy Reid’s Nashville store for his own use.
He liked it so much he then convinced the movie’s producers to use one in the film. The rest is sartorial history—and the source of a lot of backorders at Billy Reid’s.
Interestingly, it was already called the Billy Reid Bond Peacoat before its use by Craig as James Bond…read more about that at Reid's.
Sourcing a Pea Coat
If you really like the slim fit and the modern look, just suck it up and buy the Billy Reid coat. You know you won’t be happy until you do. It’s not cheap with an MSRP of $695, but it’s truly a beauty coat, and it does sometimes go on sale.
Sterlingwear of Boston still makes classic, heavy duty, mil-spec melton wool pea coats for the US Navy and even sells them (and updated versions) to the rest of us, too.
If you are a little more adventurous and a true vintage cool hunter, consider the possibilities of trying your luck on eBay. We have a 1949 production US Navy pea coat here at VCH that is simply superb. It was purchased for well under $100 and is in excellent, near mint condition. It’s made of the old school, dense, heavy kersey wool the original pea coats are known for, and it has wicked cool corduroy-lined pockets!
I949 Vintage US Navy pea coat
I know, I know…just when you thought it couldn't get any better, we throw in corduroy-lined pockets!
The new navy coats are made of a less dense melton wool that sometimes has a fleece liner added to it since the melton wool doesn’t have quite the wind cheating density of the old kersey. If you can find a good kersey pea coat in your size that’s in decent shape, snap it up. They are very, very well made and seem to last forever.
If you want to know more about dating the old navy coats and pea coats in general, check out this thread at the Fedora Lounge.
If your lust for pea coat lore still isn’t sated, check out the mega thread on pea coats at the Style Forum…at your peril.