The Field Jacket

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The Field Jacket

Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher

20 May 2015

As this staple of safari life is having a moment, we steal a few style cues from the artists, auteurs and adventurers who wore it well.

The field jacket, and the clothes that go with it, are garments of unrivalled practicality and style. They work as well in the city as they do on the savanna. And over time the field jacket has become a sort of “un-blazer”, a favourite of those whose careers are creative or rugged. From the bad old days when great white hunters decimated the wildlife in Africa, to a more enlightened era when writers, film-makers and artists went out in search of ideas, art and inspiration, this jacket has endured.

The reason for this is that it’s as useful as it is flattering. Over the years the cut has slightly changed, the belt and epaulettes have come, gone and returned, and the fabrics used have varied, but rather than dilute the appeal of the field jacket these changes have served to reinforce its essential rightness. It’s such a classic form that it can take these variations without being diminished. The fact that it’s seen men through adventures (including wars) that were far more demanding than anything modern life is likely to throw at it, only serves to burnish its appeal.

This spring that utilitarian appeal is enhanced with a dusting of fashion magic, as safari is one of this season’s trends. So for a primer on how to wear this classic garment we’re looking back to the men who really made it their own. You may be going no further than the city limits, but it’s reassuring to know that you’ll be sartorially prepared if do you need to explore the wilderness this summer, not least because all those pockets make it incredibly useful when you’re travelling.

Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent

Mr Saint Laurent at his Rive Gauche store, London, 1969 Mirrorpix

The famous “French” designer was actually born in Algeria, had his ashes scattered in his Majorelle Garden in Marrakech and used African models throughout his career. This is the context in which he developed his first safari jacket in 1968. However, it was a year later that Mr Saint Laurent was photographed wearing a safari suit, by Mr Helmut Newton, at the opening on his Rive Gauche menswear store on Paris’s Rue de Tournon. Half a century later and Mr Hedi Slimane is the creative director of Saint Laurent Paris, and has brought his unique rock’n’roll sensibility to the brand. This spring Mr Slimane has designed a radically simple field jacket, which, with its rectangular pockets, owes a greater debt to the US army M65 jacket than to typical safari jackets.

Mr Ernest Hemingway

Ms Mary Hemingway and Mr Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1953 Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

A larger-than-life character, both literally and metaphorically, Mr Hemingway’s interest in fishing, bullfighting and hunting seems like something from another, more brutal age. His experience of hunting big game in Tanzania was turned into his second work of non-fiction, 1935’s The Green Hills of Africa, a book that deals with its author’s chief preoccupations: drinking, writing and killing animals. Mr Hemingway is said to have had his safari clothes made by the original incarnation of Abercrombie & Fitch (back when it was a high-end New York travel outfitter), and the manner in which he wore them demonstrates the way these comfortable, casual clothes can be both elegant and practical. The activity it was designed for now seems horrifying, but the outfit remains a rare but winning combination.

Mr Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient

Mr Fiennes as Count László de Almásy in The English Patient, 1996 Allstar Picture Library

The real star of Mr Anthony Minghella’s 1996 epic melodrama was surely Ms Ann Roth, the costume designer. In the film, which was a huge hit on its release, Mr Ralph Fiennes sports an enviable collection of outfits that between them constitute an exemplary summer wardrobe. The cut of the clothes may look a little loose to modern eyes, but that makes them far more comfortable in the extreme heat (the film’s most memorable scenes are set in Egypt and Libya). Mr Fiennes wears a great selection of khaki shirts and trousers, a notable blue chambray shirt, and a sand-coloured field jacket. His best outfit is accessorised with a canvas rucksack and a turban, although it would be easier to carry off the former than the latter.

Mr Francis Ford Coppola

Messrs Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro on the set of Apocalypse Now, 1978. United Artists/ Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

The filming of Mr Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now was famously as difficult as the film is great. Remembering his time on location in a recent interview with the Financial Times, the director said, “Little by little we went insane.” The shoot suffered the ill effects of meteorological disaster befalling the set in the Philippines, the near-fatal heart condition of the film’s alcoholic star Mr Martin Sheen, Mr Dennis Hopper’s drug habit and the fact that, in an act of dazzling high-risk creativity, he was often shooting without a script. Shots taken of Mr Coppola on the set, and in the making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness, portray him looking more like an extra than a director, in faded T-shirts and wrinkled safari jackets. Of course, a man needn’t be filming a cinematic masterpiece to wear such T-shirts and jackets.

Mr Norman Carr

Mr Carr, Zambia, 1960 Courtesy Norman Carr Safaris/

The man who, in 1950, invented the African eco-lodge when he started charging tourists to shoot animals with cameras rather than guns, had actually killed 50 elephants by the time he was 20. Before starting his safari business in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) he worked in the area as an elephant control officer, ensuring that the animals didn’t destroy the subsistence crops of local villagers. Born in Africa, but educated in England, Mr Carr taught himself about life in the bush by walking across Rhodesia and living off the land. He spent the rest of his life trying to transmit some of that extraordinary knowledge to his guests, and in so doing defined the modern safari. He took a purist’s approach to dressing; his four-pocket safari shirt and shorts make us long for a trip to Africa, even if we’d rather keep a bit more distance between ourselves and the wildlife.

Mr Jack Nicholson

Mr Nicholson, Los Angeles, 1974 Araldo di Crollalanza/ Rex Features

The American M-1965 Field Jacket was named after the year it was introduced, and represented an evolutionary development from the M-1951 Jacket (there are no prizes for guessing the year in which that jacket was introduced). The M65 – as it’s popularly known – has gone on to be worn by a roll call of stylish men including musicians Messrs Bob Marley and Nasir Jones (the rapper Nas), and actors Messrs Robert De Niro, Tim Roth and Christian Bale. In doing so it has been entirely drained of its military associations, and become more keenly associated with countercultural figures. However, not even these esteemed guys manage to wear it quite as well as Mr Jack Nicholson, who here appears to be sporting a washed, lightweight version of a M65 over a T-shirt. It’s a look any man would do well to emulate at the weekend.

Lord Snowdon

Lord Snowdon in the Australian Outback, 1975 Camera Press

Hailed on this website as “the sexiest royal ever” Lord Snowdon, who married HRH The Queen’s late sister Princess Margaret in 1960, has the clever knack of being both an exceptional and versatile dresser. Most stylish men find the look that suits them and stick with it, but Lord Snowdon’s far more adaptable than that. He’s as much at home in a suit and tie as he is in the kind of casual clothes that are appropriate for a photographer working on location. In this shot the textured, heavyweight field jacket is given shape by the cinched belt, while the collared shirt and silk scarf strike a dapper note. It’s either a flamboyant look, judiciously dressed down by the jacket, or a casual look distinguished by the scarf. Either way, it’s bold and inspirational.