THAT TIMELESS topper—the pea coat—has a salty, testosterone-laden history. First introduced by the Dutch Navy in the 16th century, the water-wicking wool style later evolved and was adopted by the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy. With deep, warm pockets; a wide collar that’s protective when popped; a short, freeing cut; and large, easy-to-grasp buttons, the coat uncomplainingly solved problems for sailors and maritime laborers who spent their days braving squalls and climbing ropes.
What Makes a Pea Coat a Pea Coat?
Generous, Firm Collar: Suitable for flipping up to protect the face.
Double-Breasted Buttoning: The classic fastening? Plastic with an anchor.
Slit Pockets: Intended to keep water out and sailor stuff in.
“This menswear staple was originally designed to combat the harsh weather conditions out at sea, and has since been reinvented for the modern customer,” said COS creative director Karin Gustafsson, who often incorporates the coat in her collections.
An early adopter among high-fashion designers, the late Yves Saint Laurent, who frequently blurred gender lines (see: his Le Smoking tux), sent a particularly boxy iteration for women down his runway in 1962. A riposte to the proper, ladylike, longer coats of the period, this significant statement nodded to the fact that women were finding their place in a man’s world. Following suit, Mary Tyler Moore donned a black pea coat in the opening sequence of her groundbreaking eponymous 1970s sitcom which demurely pushed a feminist message.
Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a fall/winter season that doesn’t feature an army of pea coats, with both accessible brands like Frame and H&M and loftier labels like Balmain and Givenchy making military outerwear a part of their visual lexicon. When it comes to pea coats, the fashion set is all aboard.
THE PRINCESSES OF THE PEA / How Seven Greats Wore It Through Time
1917: Call to Charms
An archetype for the “new” American woman, illustrator Howard Chandler Christy’s “Christy Girls” dressed up in Naval uniforms and beckoned men to join the fight in World War I.
1964: Gender-Bending Glam
Forever the trendsetter, performer and Civil Rights activist Lena Horne topped her au courant suit with a pea while parading in London.
1969: La Fille de la Pea
Jane Birkin draped a traditional take over her shoulders (Melania Trump-like) while trying on jewelry, fusing sensuality with menswear.
1970: Amorous Outerwear
While making snow angels with her beau in the tear-jerker “Love Story,” Ali McGraw wore a classic pea and an air of mild mockery.
1994: Peppy Prepster
Supermodel Shalom Harlow sports a mega-buttoned iteration (and a quaintly dated car phone) in a classic Vogue spread.
2010: Uptown Girl
The queen pea of the Upper East Side, “Gossip Girl” Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) strutted in an experimental lime-green cape style.
2016: Larger Than Life
Rihanna swapped a sailor’s hat for a white baseball cap and wrapped herself in a wildly voluminous Vetements pea coat to achieve this edgy city look.
Getting Ship Shape
How to find your perfect pea—and style it to a T
“THE BEAUTY of a pea coat is that it goes with everything,” said New York-based Israeli designer Nili Lotan, who’s been making canvas and Italian-wool versions since the early aughts. “I usually like to wear it with a casual jean or a cotton pant.” For a nostalgic 1970s vibe, layer a pea over a ribbed turtleneck sweater (or a slim mariner-striped tee) and tailored flared denim; you’ll look like Shelley Hack in Revlon’s ‘70s Charlie fragrance commercials crossbred with a tidy sailor. To conjure the earlier Mod era, team your pea with a miniskirt or dress.
Meant to fall just below the hips, the old-school Navy style’s boxy cut easily fits over most bulky winter sweaters. If completely square silhouettes aren’t your bag, fret not—plenty of designers have reinterpreted this classic over the years, offering slimmer cuts with slightly nipped waists.
Karin Gustafsson, the creative director of COS, touts the ability of a well-tailored shoulder to offset the jacket’s traditional squareness. “This makes your shoulders look smaller,” she posited.
Color-wise, those who want an updated, more feminine take might forgo the classic blue-black shade and choose a less expected hue like lavender. Or go wild with leopard.
IN THE NAVY / Six Current Riffs on the Traditional Jacket That Demonstrate Its Mutable Nature
Hedi Slimane, no stranger to an authoritatively cut coat, has crafted a clean, gold-buttoned, classic pea for French brand Celine. Jacket, $1,900, celine.com
One way to avoid pea fatigue is to experiment with color: COS’s caramel-hued classic coat is a refreshing switch from deep navy. Jacket, $250, cosstores.com
A crisp twist on the classic pea coat, this wool Loro Piana topper is enlivened by maritime-ish bands of bright white. Jacket, $3,250, 212-980-7961
Max Mara is a master of the modern coat, and this snappy pea from its Weekend line evokes midwinter sunshine. Jacket, $775, Bloomingdale’s, 212-705-2000
Merging the collar flap (and longer sleeve) of a trench with traditional pea elements, this Sacai coat reads cool-Japanese. Jacket, $1,730, Bergdorf Goodman, 212-753-7300
A miniaturization trend loomed small in the 1990s, and this cropped pea recalls the shrunken shapes of 1995’s “Clueless.” Jacket, $2,490, ralphlauren.com
The Pod Couple
In which an actual legume brutally questions a pea coat
Pea: So, Pea-thing, I gather you claim to be a distant relative of mine?
Peacoat: I never suggested—
Pea: Do you even grow in a pod? Are you delicious? Are you green?
Peacoat: Well, I occasionally come in forest, moss or loden green.
Pea: What a “loden” of baloney. No one wants to eat some old mossy pea.
Peacoat: I don’t actually encourage anyone to chew on me.
Pea: Chew? A pea should be crisp or delectably tender, not…chewy. I’d like to see you pull your weight in a pasta primavera.
Peacoat: I’d like to see you battle a gale.
Pea: Challenge accepted!
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Appeared in the January 12, 2019, print edition as ‘The Pea Coat Getting Ship Shape The Pod Couple.’