Waxing Lyrical: The Past, Present and Future of the Wax Jacket

With more choice of jackets and coats available to purchase than ever before across menswear, finding your correct style with the required functional elements of an outerwear piece can be a daunting experience. Rikesh Chauhan takes a deep dive into the iconic wax jacket and how this has come to be a staple in every gentlemen's wardrobe.

Within the below article, Rikesh discusses the following topics:
  • How did the wax jacket come to be?
  • What was the wax jacket traditionally designed for?
  • When to wear a wax jacket appropriately
  • Does the wax jacket fit into the new menswear casual trends?
  • Functional elements of a wax jacket for everyday wear
  • How to mix and match styles to suit any wax jacket

(Source: Pinterest.com)

The wax jacket is certainly one of the key staples everyone should have in their wardrobe, alongside other outerwear favourites including the trusty mac and overcoat, the slightly-niche-but-equally-imperative military-inspired peacoat, M-65 and A1 jackets, as well as sports-meets-workwear favourites such as the Harrington. The thing they all have in common is their utilitarianism as well as functionality. They’re great pieces that provide significantly more to the wearer than simply an aesthetic box ticking, if you will.

When situated in climates such as London, it’s worth having a selection of these pieces because you never quite know what the day will bring, and even more so if you live closer to the coast or pretty much anywhere up North. Deciding exactly how many items you genuinely need will often come down to your day-to-day lifestyle, and, rather unfortunately for some (yes, by some I mean me), closet space.

Another thing that makes outerwear so appealing in my opinion, is that the tonal colourways and styles mean you’ve got something that will go with everything. Staple items should always be classic in this regard, durable, and made of quality material that can stand the tests of time, weather, natural wear and tear and whatever else you feel you want to throw into the mix.

(Source: GQ.com)

So how did the wax jacket come to be? It’s said that around the 15th Century, where international import and export of trade goods took place predominantly via sea, journeys were often difficult due to unwavering conditions — and made even worse during the extremity of the winter time. With industries including weaving and fishing a key part of Scotland’s livelihood, travelling to Scandinavia, therefore, was a must.

Fishermen and seafarers in general would require rugged, hardwearing and insulating garments to tackle the voyages to and fro, where they would often have to face the elements in abundance, for weeks if not months on end. Oils from linseed, animal fats and fish were initially used to coat sails (then subsequently smocks) in particular in order to make journeys ever so slightly smoother. This treatment resulted in outerwear and sails eventually turning yellow — which is why it is the colour most often associated with seafarers today. Although these linseed oil-treated smocks went so far to help sailors, after a while, the material would often crack. And along with the discolouration, it wasn’t the most convenient for long haul travel.

A few decades on, advanced technology and experimentation resulted in a company called British Millerain creating a paraffin-based wax. Using this treatment, it eliminated the issue of the deterioration, and would become the basis of the wax treatments we find today. The paraffin-based wax jackets that began being produced following the innovation commonly came in black and green iterations, and in drier finishes, which remains the case. 

(Source: GQ Magazine)

Although initially designed for arduous travel in temperamental climates, today they serve a more versatile purpose. Egyptian cotton and lighter cloths were introduced to the silhouettes, allowing for a lighter and slightly more breathable version of the jacket. While you may not necessarily come across a wax jacket sported around Savile Row or in a boardroom per se, the jacket continues to be worn in casual situations as well as outdoor activities including fishing, camping, hiking and much more.

A morning walk in the countryside on a brisk winter’s morning is often the perfect scenario in which to break out your well-worn and beaten up jacket. These garments, though now a lot less rugged than their predecessors, still hold their own, with innovative technology at its peak to ensure you’re still warm and protected should the heavens open. They’re designed, ultimately, to be worn, and worn often.

(Source: Gentleman’s Journal)

Not only does the natural wear and tear of time and activity soften the structure and silhouette, but the wax will often develop a unique patina — which essentially is a general fading of colour through oxidisation — and even pick up a few scratches here and there. All of these things add character, which, personally, is what makes these jackets so special. Similarly to denim, a well-worn aged denim jacket that has faded over time and washes is so much more interesting to look at and appreciate than something fresh off the rack.

Quality clothing often gets passed down from generation to generation, so when an item has several incredible stories associated with it, so much greater is its appeal. There’s something quite cool about owning a piece of clothing that was first born several generations earlier. Something that found its way across the world, survived wars, adorned by several noteworthy people, and finally made it into your wardrobe. Knowing you’re part of a story that still has a long way to go. It’s the beauty of storytelling and history, all within a simple piece of clothing. But more on the future, later. Let’s instead focus on how one would wear such a jacket in the present.

Due to the natural characteristics of the wax jacket, autumn and winter are the ideal seasons to adorn it when in the city. With the majority of these garments also being wind resistant as well as water, you’ve ticked a lot of boxes when it comes to dealing with irrational weather conditions when travelling around town. There have genuinely been a few days in London where I’ve experienced every element, perhaps bar snow, in a single day. Being obliterated with hail whilst walking from Burlington Arcade to Savile Row is something that still moderately haunts me to this day. How I could’ve gone with a waterproof jacket, or waterproof anything for that matter.

(Source: GQ Magazine)

Anyway, whether it’s a dark khaki, navy or black, the jacket can be worn over a heavy cotton crew neck ribbed tee — natural or raw cotton often works the best as a merino wool tee or something of similar weight may still be a bit too thin for single-digit temperatures. Complete the outfit with dark Japanese selvedge denim jeans and classic footwear like a black scotch grain leather Chelsea boot, or a desert Chukka for when you’re 100% certain it’s not going to rain. Or hail.

For countryside walks or retreats where one often finds themselves situated in slightly higher altitudes, where the air is significantly crisper, and certainly thinner, it’s a great opportunity to layer up cleverly. Layering doesn’t always mean greatcoats, scarves and wellingtons in abundance, as it’s important to be able to navigate testy terrain with ease.

You don’t want to end up struggling to make it through the door frame because of the amount of clothes you’re wearing. Let’s leave that to Joey. The durability and thickness of the wax jacket will help keep you warm, whilst the clever design and proportions will still allow enough room to move around without issue.

(Source: Primer Magazine)

Paying homage to the origins of the jacket, team it with a fisherman jumper or a heavy cable knit to find the perfect balance between comfort, style and functionality. The casual nature means you could easily pair the jacket with some well-constructed, and comfortable, trainers for a long morning walk. If you’re looking to do something a little more active, be it shooting, hiking and so on, the jacket will still fit in with all the necessary accoutrements for such pursuits. A small, functional element which also provides a nice aesthetic is the contrasting collar, which is usually made up of a dark corduroy or tartan fabric. This not only helps keep your neck protected when buttoned up, but depending on the style, you could team it to pattern match with other elements of your ensemble.

The lining is also an interesting element which offers both stylistic and practical points. Well-thought out jackets can often feature little details that make a big difference, such as velvet hand warmer pockets, and patterned trims that enable one to style it in ways that adhere to personal style and preference. Finally, one of the key elements I always look for when it comes to this form of jacket are the metal fixings.

(Source: The Times)

You want the buttons — usually snap fasteners — and the zips to basically be close to indestructible. There’s nothing more annoying than having a jacket designed for the outdoors being let down by the construction and quality of materials used. Especially considering that these types of clothing seldom come very cheap, and if they are cheap, they should probably be avoided at all costs.

When it comes to these staple pieces, as I say time and time again, it’s worth spending the money on something that will last you decades. It works out more affordable in the long term, and you have a trusty, reliable garment that’ll do no wrong. The other thing to factor in is that most brands producing quality garments and accessories will usually offer a repair service. Wax jackets may occasionally require re-waxing, so it’s worth researching and finding the perfect brand for your personal ethos, as well as style.

(Source: The Times)

Taking the jacket to the water is where you really get to make the most of it in its true element. For those that have access to waters where fishing is a favoured pastime, the wax jacket couldn’t be any more perfect. The deep pockets can help with keeping all the little things you need close at hand (even a can of beer if you’re so inclined), whilst the signature properties will help you stay dry. The jackets are often hip length, so you needn’t worry about having to navigate narrow boats or precarious perches on the river bank.

The cuffs, often ribbed or button fastened, stay plush against the wrists so you’re sealed and set. From pristine tranquillity to high octane travels, taking the jacket out on the road — and subsequently off-road — the durability comes into play once again to create the perfect high-speed accompaniment. It’s an ideal garment to do your best Steve McQueen impersonation.

During the 1950s through to the seventies, McQueen was just one of the many famous people that wore a wax cotton jacket during the International Six Day Trials — one of the world’s oldest off-road motorcycle events. Icons such as McQueen and James Dean went some way to boosting the popularity of certain garments, taking them from niche to must-haves. Their iconic looks have been etched into sartorial and silver screen folklore, so what better way to play your part than investing in a jacket that will last a lifetime in every sense?

While the jacket is most often worn for specific conditions and surroundings, every now and then, a waxed number can be a sartorial crowd pleaser when mixed and matched with slightly ‘higher brow’ attire.

Preppy or Ivy style has really come back into — excuse the pun — fashion, and the experimental nature of it all now is what I most enjoy about it. If I was asked to incorporate a wax jacket into my outfit, I would start with an Oxford cotton button down shirt in either soft pink or pale blue, worn with a white cricket jumper if it’s particularly cold out, and a pair of tweed or cotton drill pleated high-rise trousers.

(Source: Pinterest)

Finish the look with some penny loafers (again, I’m a sucker for scotch grain so that would be my go-to, in a dark brown calf leather) and throw the wax jacket on over the top. The college look would work well in most scenarios – from classes, to boardroom meetings, to days in the city or afternoons in your local pub. It’s whatever you make it.

One of the biggest elements when it comes to the discussion around the future of menswear is the relaxation of rules and, essentially, no longer taking everything so seriously.

Mixing and matching high and low, experimenting with styles and bringing together different worlds enables so much more freedom and creativity, as well as personal expression and understanding of self. Garments like the wax jacket which are inherently adaptable anyway, are the perfect pieces to begin trialling this with.

Another topic which will hopefully disappear sooner than later is that of gender associations. Wax jackets have commonly been worn by, and marketed to, men. It needn’t be the case anymore. I’ve always found that clothing made for men generally always looks better on women, and the wax jacket is certainly no exception. A timeless piece of clothing, in a classic style and colour, will work for anyone and everyone — the only thing that will need to be taken into account is the sizing.

(Source: British Vogue)

An oversized wax jacket for example, defeats the functional purpose of keeping one warm and protected against the elements. Should it fit you, that’s the only thing that really matters. The perfect jacket is one that is worn and appreciated, aged and patinated. It’s lived long enough to share a few stories, knowing that there’s still a whole world yet to discover.

The question is, where will your jacket take you?

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