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What’s the Deal with Toggle Coats?

Why the style is called a duffle, and where to buy an awesome authentic one. 

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Photo: ASOS

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The duffle coat — with its characteristic hood, reinforced shoulders, and toggle buttons — is one of few garments that looks good on absolutely anyone. The style is worn by men, women, children (and even stuffed animals if you count Paddington), and goes with just about any outfit.

It’s also pretty safe to say the look isn’t going anywhere, as it’s still going strong after over a century. Outerwear using toggle closures started appearing in Poland and later Britain in the 1800s, but the first true “duffle” coats were commissioned by the Royal British Navy to keep sailors dry and warm through sea-faring conditions in the 1890s. The toggles could easily be done or undone with gloved hands and the generous hoods could fit over navy-issue hats.

Based on feedback from naval officers, extra fabric was added to the shoulders and the initially bulky size was trimmed down to fit better while still allowing easy movement. Made from thick, woolen material that kept out wind and rain, the jackets became known as duffle coats likely as a reference to the Belgian city of Duffel, which was well-known at the time for making a thick, black wool textile of the same name.

Photo: IWM/Getty Images

The look was popularized during WWII, when the coats were issued to all Allied forces and prominent figures were photographed in the overcoats; after the war, surplus coats were snapped up by students and intellectuals, prompting companies like Gloverall to manufacture new, civilian versions based on the navy coat’s design.

If you’re looking for a duffle coat of your own, there’s no shortage of options. You’re as likely to see the silhouette in fast-fashion stores as you are at the big mid-range chains like Gap and J. Crew; outdoorsy brands like L.L.Bean and Land’s End almost always have one on offer, as do some designer labels, including Burberry.

If you want to go more fashion than tradition, there are plenty of updates on the market. Quirky British brand Lazy Oaf even makes a millennial pink, color-blocked, furry version ($271).

But for an authentic toggle coat, I’d suggest turning to the companies that made them first. Original Montgomery touts itself as the oldest duffle coat maker; the brand manufactured them for the navy as far back as the 1890s. Today, Original Montgomery produces long, short, woven, and knitted woolen duffle coats in a number of bright and neutral colors starting at $175.

Similarly, Gloverall, formerly a gloves and overall wholesaler called H&F Morris, had such success selling surplus navy coats that the brand designed and manufactured one of the first civilian duffle coats in the 1950s. Today, the company makes men’s, women’s, and children’s coats (check out the huge selection on ASOS for easy shipping) in a number of lengths, cuts, colors, and even prints (well, plaid), starting at $335.