Image: Illustration: Simphiwe Mbana

I once almost bought an army coat from a dusty military-surplus store in Simon’s Town. This story doesn’t actually begin there, though. It probably started many years ago, when I first saw the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This album, the volta in the Beatles’ musical trajectory, was probably one of the earliest examples of a concept album: it was the Beatles pretending to be another sort of band entirely. Accordingly, they were dressed up in Day-Glo military-style satin coats. I remember that my 10-year-old self would have given his right hand for John’s green-and-gold jacket.

A couple of years later, I watched one of those late-night VH1 documentaries about the 1960s: you know the type — where they somehow simultaneously make it sound like a fiasco of national bloodletting and like a cool party to which you would never crack an invite. At any rate, this doccie featured a young Jimi Hendrix doing something unorthodox to a guitar while wearing a navy hussar military jacket. It was not yet what we would later call “retro”. Even appending the term “vintage” to it would have been stretching the point. It was just old. But reader, I wanted one.

I have no idea whether this sort of coat is actually good for any practical purposes. But practicality is a tedious irrelevance when you want something. I was drawn to the confidence that allowed the Fab Four or Hendrix to reimagine a piece of army formality as an anti-establishment outfit.

All coats have something dramatic about them: it’s the echo of the billowing cape. A good coat, buttoned to the hilt, the quality of its twill apparent to all, is an easy way to project well-being. But there’s also something joyous in the incoherence of something taken from another context and made interesting.

There is joy in the unexpected angle. The hussar jacket, with its boxy frame and ornate venting, is to sartorial elegance what Marcello Gandini’s dramatically slashed arches were to the automotive world. They rebuke the idea that coherence is always beauty. They strike a defiant line through idiom and convention. And just as you couldn’t make a Lamborghini Countach today (too low, too sharp), you couldn’t make a hussar jacket in its original fashion because machines, or people treated like machines, cannot economically make a coat now the way it was made in the 1850s.

I do like a good trench coat, but you can’t walk through a park while wearing one without fearing that you’ll be taken for a sex pest.

Perhaps that is what makes them so covetable to me. The key to the Hendrix coat is a large helping of irreverence. It’s a jest and, like all jokes, it probably helps to have some context, so you know what’s being lampooned. In post-1968 London, the ghost of stiff-collared imperial England-of-old was still a tangible thing, but in a space-race, jet-age society, that past era probably felt as far away as it ever would. If it were closer, it would have been mere nostalgia. It’s good manners not to wear your nostalgia too publicly, which is why fashion houses will save you the trouble by riffing off a Prussian overcoat in a way that’s more accessible.

I’ve always rebelled against the mainstream options offered for barricading oneself against the cold. Most men’s coats are boring: someone long ago decided that we all want to look like either Shackleton or Captain Ahab. I have nothing against a finely cut peacoat of rough twill, but it is dispiritingly predictable. I do like a good trench coat, but you can’t walk through a park while wearing one without fearing that you’ll be taken for a sex pest. This would be fine if coats and jackets were the sort of thing you wore in the privacy of your own home. But you don’t wear a coat in your living room unless you’ve blundered in your choice of home, so the overgarment is always to be placed before the cruel eye of the public.

Winter is nothing if not a public activity: it’s a site of collective struggle against unpleasant weather. And, as with all collective activities, it is perhaps best not to draw unwanted attention to yourself by dressing strangely. Thus, my conundrum. If I could afford an authentic military coat of noble colours, where would I wear it? And if, throwing caution to the wind, I bought such a thing and set off on my regular ramble around my winelands town, would I not be met with incomprehension and whispered wonderings about the line between eccentricity and battiness? Of course I would. And this is why I did not buy the army coat from the military-surplus store in Simon’s Town.

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