Fashion

Straight Men Quite Simply Can’t Quit the Barbour Jacket

An explainer on "Heterosexual Male Fashion", with a bonus sociology professor perspective.

by Louis Staples; illustrated by Marta Parszeniew
18 June 2019, 8:45am

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

You know the jacket: it’s thin, light and quilted, or smooth with a corduroy collar, and always worn in dark colours like navy, green, brown or black. In Edinburgh last month I saw a sea of them out shopping, paired with jeans and deck shoes or trainers. A week later near Liverpool Street Station – an east London area brimming with corporate lawyers and bankers – I saw the same thing. This time, the quilted jackets were worn over suits and with sheauxs, as the men made their way back to the office buffeted by a cool wind and clutching burritos.

When looking at how most men, particularly heterosexual ones, dress in everyday life, you could generalise to say that “look at me” fashion is not the norm. I’m not the only one who associates this particular brand, and its knock-off designs, with heterosexual maleness. Someone I follow on Twitter recently tweeted a picture of a couple holding hands on the London Underground. The man pictured wore a navy one, captioned by the comment: “Siri, show me the most heterosexual image imaginable”. But why this jacket? Why do straight men love the Barbour jacket so?

Despite being imitated by other brands following its revived popularity, the original quilted jacket was created by Barbour. Founded in 1894, Barbour supplies outdoor clothing to the Royals and prides itself on producing garments that “espouse the unique values of the British Countryside and bring the qualities of wit, grit and glamour to beautifully functional clothing”. Barbour’s most popular quilted styles are the Eskdale and Liddesdale jackets, which are described as “the ideal lightweight quilted jacket for cooler days in the country and town”.

It seems odd that men, even young ones in urban areas, are besotted with a jacket so firmly rooted in tradition. Jack Wills may have faded from relevance, but the continued popularity of Barbour’s quilted jacket – often paired with chinos, gingham shirts or boat shoes – shows how men still feel the influence of this decade-old trend. Where women by and large left both Jack Wills and the ladies Barbour jackets in the 00s, men just can't let go.

Douglas Greenwood, culture writer and contributing editor at i-D, tells me that mainstream menswear trends often stick around for longer and men tend to be slower to adapt. “Most men, especially those that don't care for following fashion trends, are usually notorious for being a few steps behind,” he begins. Douglas believes that you can also attribute Barbour’s popularity to aspirational dressing.

“It's an attainable level of luxury and status for a whole group of men who come from middle class backgrounds,” he says. “The Barbour jacket is seen as a 'timeless British style’ and is an instantly recognisable symbol of affluence to men who are a little more relaxed with their style. For middle class men, who have a desire to be seen as ‘posh’, the quilted jacket is an attainable status symbol.”

But something deeper definitely motivates the bromance between man and coat. Douglas tells me that “every straight man loves being familiar with his wardrobe”, so they tend to adopt a “uniform” in their early twenties that changes very little over time. “It's about knowing what they wear is not going to instigate a conversation,” he says. “Whereas womenswear, in a general sense, is designed to be eye-catching and asked about.”

The mass popularity of the Barbour jacket exemplifies that men often want to look “normal” more than they want to look good. Or more precisely, many straight guys equate looking “good” with the conformity and normalcy their clothes display.

Sociology professor Erynn Masi de Casanova wrote a book on this very subject. 2015's Buttoned Up: Clothing, conformity and white-collar masculinity analyses interviews with hundreds of working men about their approach to clothing. In one particularly revealing chapter, “The F-word”, the book focuses on men’s attitudes towards the word “fashionable”. Erynn found a preference for the words “presentable”, “well-dressed” or “stylish” over descriptors like “fashionable” or “trendy”. Even in creative professions, men felt that being perceived as too fashionable would bring their heterosexuality into question.

Erynn’s research highlights just how much collective male identity relies on the need to conform, and how clothing can in turn be used to maintain hierarchies. “For so many, their goal was to blend in and not stand out,” she tells me. “This connects to other ideas about masculinity, that men’s bodies shouldn’t be what draws your attention – that their brains and ideas should be what draws your attention.”

Erynn also tells me that if something is easily identifiable as being very expensive, then that puts men in the category of being flashy or attention-grabbing, which many are keen to avoid. “Even men with a lot of money might not want to wear things that people can identify as very expensive because that opens the door for them to be perceived as vain or taking too much care of their appearance,” she explains.

Seeing as the Barbour jacket is attainable and plain, it is the perfect way for men to look “well dressed” without being flashy. “The plainness of this quilted jacket is clearly meaningful,” she says. “Nobody's going say that they're trying too hard with a plain jacket like this, right?”

Erynn’s book also delves into how men are coping with society's changing expectations of them. Despite not wanting to be fashionable, she says men don’t want to seem “out of step” either. “They would go into stores and ask what people have been buying a lot of and they would purposely choose that,” she says. “There’s anxiety for a lot of these men that they didn't feel before. But now men's bodies are being looked at and men's fashion has expanded.”

And so the tyranny of choice shakes up their uniform approach to dressing. Consider it a sartorial version of what happens when you go to a restaurant with a giant booklet of a menu, and quietly think you'd rather leave than have to pick one item from allll those pages. “The increasing amount of choices makes them nervous," Erynn continues, |because now they don't know what to do. Wearing a suit every day, you understand what what's involved in that. But when somebody says 'business casual,' well, that could mean a whole lot of different things.”

Fashion’s association with femininity and consequently homosexuality greatly influences straight men to gravitate towards conformist garments. Of course not all fashionable men are gay, and not all gay men are fashionable, but in his 1976 essay “It’s Being So Camp as Keeps Us Going” Richard Dyer analyses the relationship between camp – the theme for this year’s Met Gala that left so many straight men looking visibly uncomfortable on the pink carpet – and gay men. In his essay, Dyer argues that, because gay men and women have historically had a strong footing in fashion design and beauty, these areas are consequently dismissed as frivolous and feminine.

Men's roles feel as though they're undergoing real change, and with that comes a certain nostalgic masculinity wrapped up in the affection towards middle class wardrobe staples like the Barbour. “Men’s social and economic position is being challenged; we no longer take it for granted that men will be in charge and running the show," Erynn says. "So I think there's an affection for a different time where that was not the case that is being projected through clothing. With regards to the quilted jacket, it brings images of hunting and farming and masculine traditions. It’s interesting that urban men who don't necessarily know how to do any of those manly things are keen to associate themselves with that kind of rural masculinity.”

However mundane or everyday the quilted Barbour might be, its popularity with so many British men is deeper than it seems. After all, this traditional, versatile and quietly aspirational jacket is distinctive because of how forgettable it is. It functions like social camouflage. Even in 2019, conformity is key. While the quilted Barbour remains a symbol of normality, long may it reign – just don’t expect me to be seen dead in one.

@LouisStaples