Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Whatever Happened to Donkey Jackets?

As autumn starts to bite my thoughts always turn, with pleasure, to coats.  I have always loved wearing a winter coat, and it is a mystery to me why today's kids prefer to walk the icy streets at 3 a.m. dressed for a Californian beach party.  No doubt my grandfather felt the same about my failure to wear suitable headgear whenever leaving the house; he wore his flat cap when gardening or even, according to a snapshot I have somewhere, sitting in a seaside deckchair with an ice-cream.  If the trend continues, in a couple of generations Brits will be walking the streets in swimwear at all hours in all weathers.

But, coats!  Part of the joy of the return of the colder weather is the knowledge that now is the time to get a favourite coat off the peg where it has hung all summer, to be surprised by the weight of its heft across your shoulders, and to rediscover the odds and ends that got left in its pockets somewhere back in March. Amongst (many) other things, I keep a Leatherman multitool and a blindingly-bright LCD mini-torch in my winter coat, and it is great to finger their familiar contours again.  Not to mention the conkers, pebbles, and escaped medicinal lozenges with their protective coating of pocket lint, reminders of last winter's bouts of colds and flus.  Ah, you Fisherman's Friends and Strepsils!

This week I found myself remembering the coats of my youth, checking them off in my mind like old girlfriends.  Of course, we used to have proper winters back then, cold dark nights after the pubs had closed, hanging around the recreation ground swings, seventeen going on seven, so it would have been madness not to have worn a coat.  Besides, where would you put your tobacco tin and copy of A Confederate General From Big Sur otherwise?  Let's see, there were several cheap unlined duffel coats, a green fishtail parka with a bright red lining and a cheap zip that never quite worked, an impossibly heavy army surplus greatcoat, but above all I remembered a series of donkey jackets.

Donkey jackets are great.  Originally designed as workwear for manual labourers, they are everything a coat should be: warm, cheap, shapeless, capacious, easily buttoned with cold-numbed fingers, with big pockets and a decent collar to turn up against the wind and rain.  A really echt donkey jacket had PVC shoulder panels bearing the name of the local council or a building firm: my Dad had one with "FORD DAGENHAM" stencilled across the back. You could have any colour, so long as it was black or very dark blue.  Thinking about it, I realised that everything I now feel about coats had its origin in those donkey jackets I wore well into the 1980s.

So, naturally, I thought I might buy myself one, for old time's sake.

"What's a donkey jacket?", asked the guy in the surplus store.  "A what jacket?", said the girls in Milletts and Oswald Bailey.  I got the impression they thought I was taking the piss, like someone asking for a left-handed spanner (or, for that matter, like the time I wandered into El Vino's on Fleet Street, asking for a bottle of Pisco, but that's another story).  "Is that like a pea-jacket?", or "Oh, you mean a reefer jacket!", were other responses I got, before giving up my quest.

I suppose I hadn't noticed, but it seems no-one wears donkey jackets any more, not even dustmen. Perhaps the supply of donk, or whatever they were made out of, ran out.  When did that happen?


Addendum at 17:30:
My friend Gerry pointed me at this atrocity.  I am speechless. A donkey jacket from Burberry...  Costing £850...  With a WAIST!  Next thing you know, they'll be selling shiny pink Doc Martens boots!  (What's that you say, Sooty?)

3 comments:

zythophile said...

Fear not, mate, I strongly suspect that, judging by this the donkey jacket is due a hipster-inspired revival, just like plaid shirts, vinyl LPs and dimpled pint beer mugs. Only you'll have to pay 200 quid for a genuine 1960s example nicked off the back of a London Borough of Haringay dustbin man.

I'm with you entirely on the joys of wrapping up warm: I came late to the joys of hats, but thinning thatch means I now never go out between November and the start of March in the UK without a hat to go with heavy coat (pea jackets are OK but I prefer a properly long overcoat) smart scarf, gloves, jumper (or cardigan), flannel shirt, vest, thick trousers, woollen socks and thick-soled shoes. It's what winter is about.

Martyn

zythophile said...

feck - Blogger swallowed my link. Try this

http://outwiththeincrowd.com/2010/06/01/vintage-finds-c-1960s-donkey-jacket/

Mike C. said...

My god, Martyn, I thought you were exaggerating with £200... That's ridiculous. Curse you, hipsters!

Have you discovered thermal long-johns? In really cold weather they can't be beat, though there's not a lot to be said for looking like an extra from a Deadwood bordello scene.

Mike