The waxed jacket is to British menswear what marmalade is to toast. From the 1930s onwards, it has been an undeniable and integral part of countryside attire, but also motorcycle culture and adventure.
From the original four-pocket waxed cotton field jackets, we’ve seen an evolution of the genre to include more contemporary silhouettes such as cropped blousons and minimalist silhouettes, but the heritage shapes are still the most popular thanks to their unique combination of supreme functionality and flattering form.
Here, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about this British menswear icon, from its humble seafaring origins to the best brands on the market today.
History Of The Waxed Jacket
Like many great pieces of men’s outerwear, naval necessity is the genesis of the waxed cotton jacket. Way back in the 15th century, Scottish tradesmen were braving the wild northern seas travelling between their home country and their Scandinavian neighbours, largely importing flax and linen for the weaving industry.
Sailing on open ships in rough seas was of course treacherous. Both the sailors and the sails of their ships would be constantly drenched, but some bright spark saw purpose in coating the linen sails with fish oils in a bid to waterproof them and improve performance. Needless to say it worked, and the very same oils were applied to their clothing.
Linseed oil, a by-product of linen manufacture, replaced fish oils around the 1700s, being more efficient and decidedly less pungent. The sailors used sail cut-offs and other bits of waterproofed fabric to fashion full-length capes and hats, reapplying the linseed periodically so that their garments became bright yellow (a colour we now associate with sailors’ attire).
A weaving mill called Francis Webster Ltd began weaving cotton treated with linseed oil after demands from the captains of the famous Tea Clippers – extremely fast vessels that would race from China and back with precious cargo. But it was Webster’s next innovation that really changed the game.
As the 1930s rolled round, Webster began testing a paraffin wax treatment alongside a number of partners, including British Millerain, a cotton finishing specialist. The treatment proved to be more breathable, significantly longer lasting than linseed oil, and a genuine breakthrough. After much testing on the seas around New Zealand, trials revealed that the paraffin treatment was also extremely effective when proofing cotton clothing, and was subsequently adopted by the British Army during World War II.
It went on becoming a hit on Civvy Street when marketed as a rugged, weatherproof fabric perfect for adventurous, motorcyclists and outdoor workers. British Millerain acquired Francis Webster in 1987 and to this day is the world’s biggest and best supplier of waxed cotton fabrics, and has continued to innovate with new finishes.
Waxed Jacket Purchase Considerations
Given its countryside/outdoors heritage, the waxed cotton jacket’s most popular and widespread silhouette is that of the classic four-pocket field coat. The four-pocket style also comes belted with slanted chest pockets, which is commonly the configuration for most waxed motorcycle jackets (the slanted pocket makes it easier to slide your hand in while on the bike). The belted option is definitely the sportier version and naturally looks more flattering by way of cinching the waist and making your shoulders look broader.
Two-pocket field jackets are definitely more adapted to country attire and rugged workwear looks, especially the longer versions, whereas the slightly more cropped styles will be better suited to transitioning between the country and the city.
More modern variations include cropped blousons, and while you don’t get as much protection from the weather, they do offer a slick shape to pair with contemporary pieces such as hoodies and black denim.
Traditional details to look for in waxed jackets are mostly functional: storm collar fastenings, double-zip front fastening, flap bellows pockets with popper closures, and occasionally internal drawstring waistbands.
Collar styles can vary, with classic biker styles tending to favour a stand-up storm collar, while the two- and four-pocket country styles will often feature a turn-down collar cut from a contrast cloth such as corduroy.
Linings are absolutely essential in waxed jackets in order to create a membrane between your clothes and the wax treatment on the outer. Traditionally they have been cut from cotton tartan cloths which have been treated themselves with a fluorocarbon coating to aid water repellency as well as keeping the wax out.
Most good outerwear brands producing waxed jackets today have gone the modular route, creating thermal liners that zip or popper into the jacket so that you can wear it year round.
Most waxed jackets exist on a pretty narrow colour spectrum between black, brown and a muddy tan, simply because the paraffin-based waxed turns brighter colours a dull hue. That said, you can now find different ‘wax’ treatments using hydrocarbon coatings that are pretty much invisible, allowing for much brighter cotton dye treatments.
If you’re going to wear your jacket in the city, we’d almost always recommend a black version since it looks that bit smarter than the brown and tan styles and can be more easily worn with smarter black attire.
The Best Men’s Waxed Jacket Brands
Founded in Stoke-on-Trent by Eli Belovitch and his son-in-law Harry Grosberg in 1924, Belstaff has forever been associated with waxed and leather motorcycle jackets and outerwear for the world’s most intrepid adventurers. The likes of Sammy Miller, Steve McQueen and Che Guevara were all owners of waxed cotton Belstaff jackets.
The four-pocket belted Trialmaster is perhaps its most famous and recognisable silhouette (the Fieldmaster being the unbelted version), followed by the cropped Racemaster style, which functions more like a riding blouson, but in truth any of Belstaff’s waxed cotton styles will slide right into a sophisticated modern wardrobe.
For over 120 years, family-run Barbour has been the first brand on anyone’s lips when the words ‘wax’ and ‘cotton’ are mentioned in the same sentence. Founded by John Barbour, a Scot from Galloway, Barbour first began producing oilskins for the naval industry before seeing an opportunity in supplying weatherproof garments for the military.
In 1936 it created its first waxed cotton ‘International motorcycle jacket’, which was worn by almost every rider in the International Six Day Trials circuit from the 1950s to the 1970s, including Steve McQueen.
Today, Barbour makes over 50 different versions across men’s, women’s and children’s ranges. The Beaufort, Bedale, and Border models have country style written all over them
Founded in 1850 in Seattle, Washington, Filson was the unofficial outfitter of the Great Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, as precious metal prospectors headed to the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest in search of riches.
Today as then, Filson makes a short waxed Tin Cloth Cruiser Jacket as well as a waxed Tin Cloth Field Jacket. Both are built with the same water-resistant waxed tin cloth that has saved the bacon of outdoorsmen for over a century. Lined with a dry finish cloth and polyester-lined sleeves, Filson specialises is best known for its rugged tan tone, as well as a navy style.
Private White V.C.
Born and made in Manchester, Private White V.C. has long been an advocate for sustainable fabrics, which is why they are a vocal proponent of Ventile – an extremely sophisticated and incredibly dense cotton fabric that the brand uses to create its field jackets and Harrington jackets. Although it’s not ‘waxed’ per se, it is treated with a durable water repellency finish on both sides of the fabric (which can be topped up annually with Nikwax or similar).
Peregrine has been family-run since 1796, which is testament to the quality of the garments they produce. Peregrine’s three-pocket waxed cotton Bexley jacket is constructed from antique 8oz British Millerain cloth so it has a stunning worn-in look and will only get better every time you re-wax it.
Available in gunmetal, brown, black and mustard, the storm collar detail and gun shoulder patch give it the country credentials you need in bad weather, but the slim cut silhouette can also transition to weekend wear in the city, too.