December 9, 2014
The pea coat is an attractive fall or winter coat that has its origins in the Navy. Every man should own one pea coat that he cares for and keeps for life. The pea coat is made from wool, is very warm, and though it was originally a military garment, it has become a common sight.
The pea coat was first issued to seamen by the British Royal Navy before World War I. The United States adopted it for their own sailors, starting with an 8-button version pre-WWI, and ending with a 6-button version which is in use today. One distinguishing aspect of the pea coat is that it is cut shorter than a trench coat and other traditional winter coats. This was designed to aid seamen in keeping their legs free for their daily tasks, which included climbing the riggings, bending, and lifting.
Military issue pea coats come in a very dark blue color, called “Blue 3346”, which is essentially black. Modern pea coats created for civilian use come in a wide range of colors, including navy blue and gray. Blue, black, or gray are, in my opinion, suitable colors for a civilian pea coat. Any other color or style seems extravagant to me.
Military issue pea coats are distinguished from civilian coats because they have the signature “fouled anchor” plastic buttons. The Navy issued metal pewter buttons on their coats in the 70s and 80s but moved back to plastic buttons in the 90s.
The original pea coats were made with 100% wool. Today, most civilian pea coats are a wool blend. In fact, it is nearly impossible to find a pea coat that is 100% wool. That’s why I suggest purchasing a used, vintage military-issue pea coat from your local vintage shop.
Vintage Pea Coats
Now, it may be hard to find a used pea coat. I managed to find a slew of them over at vinatgetrends.com. They currently have a selection of hundreds of vintage military-issue pea coats issued from the 1940s to the 1990s. The great thing about buying vintage pea coats is that you’re guaranteed high quality and 100% wool. You can also get them for far cheaper than buying a new one online. I saw some as cheap as $44. Additionally, you may get lucky and find an 8-button one, which is likely a very old pea coat indeed. When I last checked, I saw one rare 8-button pea coat in stock.
The drawback to buying a vintage pea coat is that they will come with some wear. In my opinion, this isn’t a drawback at all, as a little bit of wear adds class to a quality garment.
To sum up, here is what you need to look for when purchasing a genuine military-issue pea coat:
- It is made from 100% wool
- It is so dark that it looks black
- It has buttons with the “fouled anchor” design
Pea Coat Sizing
The hard part about buying coats online is not being able to try them on to see if they fit. As far as pea coats are concerned, the primary measurement you need is chest size. To measure your chest size, take a cloth tape measure and wrap it around your chest, across your nipples. See the diagram below.
So, if you have short arms and a 42 chest size, buy a pea coat with the measurements “42 short”. Understand that you will likely need to get the sleeves taken in a bit. Just take your coat to your local tailor or alterationist. Most dry cleaners also alter clothes, and changing sleeve length is very easy to do. It should cost you around $10, if your alterationists are anything like mine.
One drawback to buying vintage pea coats is that men were made smaller back then. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a Big & Tall sized pea coat if you buy vintage. The largest chest size I found on vintagetrends.com was 52. If you’re a big guy like me, you may need to buy a civilian issue coat.
Civilian Pea Coats
With all of that said, you don’t have to get a vintage pea coat to get a quality garment. Today, the military-issue pea coats are manufactured exclusively by the Sterlingwear of Boston company, which also produces a line of civilian-use pea coats. The great news is that their civilian line is still 80% wool, and comes in a huge range of sizes, including Big & Tall sizes (all the way up to 60XL). They have two versions–the 6-button or the 8-button version.
Other Pea Coats
Traditional pea coats, both military- and civilian-issue, come in one color–black (well, very dark blue, anyway). If you want something different, you’re forced to buy a commercialized interpretation. These will be only slightly less expensive than the traditional issue, and thankfully, they come in a wide range of sizes. The Navy and Charcoal ones below get as large as 60 inches. Sadly, they are only 70% wool.
You’ll notice that the non-traditional pea coats lack the fouled anchor buttons. Let’s say you have a pea coat that does not have the fouled anchor buttons, or you need to replace some. Thankfully, they are easy to find. In fact, you can cut off your plastic buttons and replace them with traditional metal ones, if you want to pull off a vintage look. This is a cheap way to make your pea coat look and feel like an expensive item.
Over time, your pea coat will develop little balls of fuzz called pills all over it. These are unavoidable, but you can shave them off easily with a fabric shaver. There are many electric ones out there like the one below, but my recommendation is a simple sweater stone.
Simply scrub the sweater stone over your coat gently, and it will nip off all those annoying pills. Then, just use a lint roller to sweep them all up.
And there you have it! You now know all you need to buy a quality, long-lasting pea coat. Have at it, chaps.