Words by Eric Twardzik. Illustrations by Luis Tinoco.
It’s tough to be a topcoat. What was once a staple of every man’s wardrobe has been mothballed to near obscurity, and is today found chiefly in thrift shops, black-and-white movies, and the back of your father’s closet. But before the topcoat goes the way of the hat (a moment of silence), the case for its defense—and re-adoption—must be made.
To understand the topcoat’s change of fortune, consider the suit. The suit isn’t in danger of extinction, but the days when most Americans wore a suit-and-tie to the job are long gone. Today only a handful of staid occupations require their practitioners to don the suit each day.
Because the topcoat was designed to be worn on top of a suit jacket, our cultural shift to casual dress nixed its status as a necessity. And when something is no longer a necessity, it becomes a luxury.
And that’s a shame. Because the modern trend toward dressing down doesn’t mean that topcoats must always be serious or stuffy. Now that the link between suit and topcoat has been broken, topcoats can be designed and worn in more ways than ever before.
Unlike inherently casual items like puffer vests and peacoats, topcoats have a tailored heritage and look. This gives them an extra degree of styling versatility, meaning they can dress up the very items that are dressing them down.
As an example, imagine a typical fall combination: a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. Throw a parka on top of them, and nothing about the combination changes the way the jeans, shirt, or parka will be perceived. But opt for a topcoat instead, and an instant reaction happens. Now the same pair of jeans and flannel shirt suddenly appear more polished when worn under your tailored outerwear, making the whole outfit more appropriate for a dinner date or an office happy hour.
And the effect works both ways. The jeans and flannel shirt also change the way the topcoat is perceived, making it appear more casual. This contrast assures that it will never look too dressed-up, keeping it laidback enough for any Sunday brunch or back porch beer session that comes your way.
It’s also important to note that the topcoats of today aren’t what your grandfather would have worn. In response to today’s casual norms, they’re often shorter, slimmer, and less structured than their more formal ancestors. They can be found in more interesting fabrics, bolder patterns, and more colors as well.
There’s one last trick in the topcoat’s repertoire that I’d like to point out, and it takes us right back to where we started: the topcoat goes great with a suit. Because after all, even the most casual among us will someday have cause to wear a suit—and it never hurts to be prepared.