As with many contemporary staples, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the overcoat first emerged. Several online accounts name 1772 as the year the overcoat was invented, while others claim the early 19th century was when they really came into their own. Regardless, usage of the word itself dates back to the late 18th century, meaning overcoats were being worn before the Regency Period in Britain.
Crafted from a heavy fabric such as wool (merino, Melton etc.), the overcoat is a long-sleeved coat that can be either single- or double-breasted, and usually has a single vent at the back. If we’re being strict with semantics, the overcoat always extends below the knee, but you’ll find that modern day styles rarely do, given the impracticality of long outerwear.
The topcoat, on the other hand, is a variant plenty of people often confuse with the overcoat, and is made from a lighter fabric, extending to the knee at its very longest. To add to the confusion, there’s the greatcoat, which – for all intents and purposes – is just a way of referring to an overcoat that’s particularly bulky, heavy and hard wearing, and was historically favoured by soldiers on the front line.
While it’s true that overcoats are available in all kinds of colors and finishes these days, it’s plain cut is its defining characteristic.
Formerly used as a means of indicating (usually higher) class and social status, the overcoat found itself the subject of some serious re-appropriation in the 1950s, when the Teddy Boys started gleaning style inspiration from the Edwardian Era.
Worn with high-waisted, stovepipe trousers and chunky brogues or creepers, the Teds breathed new life into the silhouette, lending it a little rebelliousness.
In the 1960s, as skinhead culture began to seep out of the more radical sectors of the disenfranchised British working class, the overcoat was once again given an all-new guise.
Spurred on by the Teds’ and mods’ reinterpretation of clothing traditionally associated with the upper classes, many skinheads began to team overcoats with rolled-up jeans, ‘bovver’ boots and sharply-cut check shirts buttoned all the way to the top.
Later, during the early 1970s, the suedeheads – an offshoot of the skinhead subculture – would go on to fully embrace the silhouette, combining it with smarter attire, such as Prince of Wales check suits and brogues.
It was also around this time that knee-length silhouettes really gained traction as the more versatile, practical style, rather than the dramatic full-length versions that originally defined the overcoat.
By the 1980s, the overcoat had made an almighty return to the mainstream, becoming a key piece in the power dressing professional’s wardrobe – often cut boxy, slightly oversized and worn over the relaxed suiting made so popular by Italian designers like Giorgio Armani.
We mentioned fabric briefly earlier but it’s worth expanding on. If you’re looking to invest in an overcoat that you’ll wear for years to come, choose a style that is 100 percent wool and that has decent weight to it.
Overcoats made entirely of wool will keep you warm and can weather the storm without falling to pieces. Alternatively, you could try a cashmere version, but not only are these usually eye-wateringly expensive, they’re also likely to show wear at the cuffs and collar quicker than a wool design.
Try a wool-cashmere blend if you just can’t do without a little luxury.
Scroll through to see a list of our favorite wool coats.
DKNY Boiled Wool Blend Reefer Coat, $300
Smart and streamlined, this reefer coat from DKNY is your ticket to understated style. Designed in a warm wool blend, this classic topper with a notched collar and single-breasted front layers equally well with tailored separates and off-duty denim.
Eileen Fisher Wool Kimono Coat, $448
Shawl collar, drop shoulders with long sleeves. Detachable safety-pin front closure with front patch pockets
Weekend Max Mara Hudson Wool Coat, $925
A warm wool blend shapes this menswear-inspired coat, cut in a cozy longline shape with dropped shoulders.
Helmut Lang Wool & Cashmere Coat, $1,495
Cashmere-kissed, double-faced wool infuses soft and cozy texture to this expertly tailored, timeless coat, styled with removable self-tie belt and oversized patch pockets.
Theory Eletkah Wool & Cashmere Coat, $755
A classic topper, subtly updated with a slightly boxier shape and slightly narrower lapels, in a rich blend of wool with a touch of cashmere for extra softness.