Definitions

covert coat

Overcoat

[n. oh-ver-koht; v. oh-ver-koht, oh-ver-koht]

The term Overcoat is a type of long coat intended to be worn as the outermost garment. Overcoats usually extend below the knee, but are sometimes mistakenly referred to as topcoats, which are short coats that end at or above the knees. Topcoats and overcoats together are known as outercoats. Unlike overcoats, topcoats are usually made from lighter weight cloth such as gabardine or covert, while overcoats are made from heavier cloth or fur, because overcoats are more commonly used in winter when warmth is more important.

History of the overcoat

In many countries, coats and gowns reaching below the knee have been worn for centuries, often for formal uses, establishing either social status or as part of a professional or military uniform. In the 17th century, the overcoat became widely stylised and available to the different classes.

In the West, the general profile of overcoats has remained largely unchanged for a long time. During the Regency, the fashion was to have very form-fitting clothes, with sidebodies, waist seams, and a flared skirt. Examples of this included the frock overcoat and paletot. This gradually shifted to the looser styles more common now, typified by the Chesterfield coat, which became popular by the end of the Victorian period. Until then, most coats were double breasted, but Chesterfields and accompanying styles like the guard's coat were worn in single and double breasted varieties.

More recently, there is a decline in the wearing of full-length overcoats, and double breasted ones are much less common.

Military use of the overcoat

Overcoats in various forms have been used by the military since at least the late 18th century, and were especially associated with winter campaigns, such as Napoleon's Russian campaign. The full length overcoats was once again popularised by the use during World War I of the trench coat.

Stereotypically, overcoats used by the army tended to be single-breasted, while navies often used double-breasted overcoats. Overcoats continued to be used as battle dress until the mid 1940s and 1950s, when they were deemed impractical. However, in colder countries, such as the USSR, they continue to be issued and used. When more efficient clothing and synthetic fibres became readily available, the overcoat began to be phased out of even there.

Examples of overcoats

We note here some of the most common historical overcoats, in roughly chronological order.

The Greatcoat, a voluminous overcoat with multiple shoulder capes, prominently featured by European militaries, most notably the former Soviet Union
The Redingote (via French from English riding coat), a long fitted coat for men or women
The Frock overcoat, a very formal daytime overcoat commonly worn with a frock coat, featuring a waist seam and heavy waist suppression
The Ulster coat, a formal daytime overcoat with a cape top covering sleeves
The Inverness coat, a formal evening sleeveless overcoat, with faced lapels and a cape top
The Paletot coat, a coat shaped with sidebodies, as a slightly less formal alternative to the frock overcoat
The Paddock coat, with even less shaping
The Chesterfield coat, a long, tailored overcoat of herringbone tweed, with a velvet collar, worn over a suit; a coat with no seams or waist suppression, being the equivalent of the 'sack suit' for clothes, it came to be the most important overcoat of the next half-century
The Covert coat, a classically brown country coat that quickly became accepted for wear in the city with a suit as well as with tweed.

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