Tweed, ivory cashmere and dark grey lambswool are the signature textiles of fall. And camel hair, that specialty textile of the gentleman’s wardrobe, is still considered the best-looking cold weather fabric a man or woman can wear.
Today, camel hair appears in many wardrobe items, from socks to sweaters to dozens of jackets. But the original, wide-lapeled, double-breasted camel hair polo or trench coat is still revered as the best use for camel hair cloth. The reason first-grade camel hair produces one of the true specialty cloths for coats is because of that magical combination of warmth, lightness and beauty it offers which no other natural fiber cloth can, at least not without being several times as heavy. Brooks Brothers and Gucci both sell one, each with their own spin.
G. Bruce Boyer once wrote, “all male costume in the West derives either from warfare or sport.” And indeed the use of camel hair cloth originated with polo – that crusader-like game of men gallivanting on a horse – a sport which was responsible for adding a variety of other luxury items to the modern day men’s closet as well, including The Jodhpur boot, the polo shirt, and the wool or suede desert boot or chukka (the word chukka refers to one of the 7 minute plays in a polo match).
Arguably it was the camel hair coat’s first appearance on Ivy League campuses that developed its reputation as a specialty cloth. Before that, camel hair was known only for its use in the polo coat, which served as a sort of robe for polo players in India among the British cavalry. It was their “waiting robe” (known also as the “wait coat”), worn between matches to help the players stay warm.
The American polo players caught on quickly to the British uniform, and by the 1920s, the coat made its way to Yale and Princeton polo matches until soon the players were not the only ones donning the soft, tan colored wrap. The coat ignited a fever such that the Worumbo Mill textile manufacturer in New England developed a camel hair cloth just to meet the specific demand for the coat, even registering the name of the fabric as “Polo Cloth.” For a time they essentially held a monopoly on the top-grade woolen cloth from which the best camel hair polo coats were made, and the coat became something of a trademark for the mill, as can be seen in many of their old advertisements.
The polo coat, while it has since moved away from its original function as a warming robe, is now defined by its features. The polo coat is double-breasted with peaked lapels, meaning the tops have been folded back, a common feature of the majority of formal coats and considered very stylish design in the 1920s-30s; a style that went from strictly evening to day fashion because of the popularity of the peaked lapel dinner jacket.
The button-holes on the lapels are not a critical characteristic of the polo coat, though many varieties now have them. Though in preserving the original history of the coat it’s important to note that the first ones worn by polo players had no buttons at all, since the open flaps were not a hazard to the players or their game, as they weren’t wearing the coats but to rest in. The original polo coat also had a full belt like a robe, rather than buttons; another aspect highlighting the purely leisurely purpose of the coat.
The camel hair polo coat is traditionally referred to as an overcoat, though some call it a topcoat, the biggest difference being in the weight of the coat. As you might infer, an overcoat is heavier all over, and typically longer than the topcoat, which would fall just above the knee or shorter. Overcoats are made of wool and variations of heavier materials known for their warmth, while topcoats are made of gabardine, worsted wool, polyester or cotton and lighter fabrics.
In the 1950s, the all-purpose trench coat with its detachable lining began to overshadow the popular and ubiquitous camel hair polo coat, making it harder to come by. Today, it is really only found in the wardrobe of the style-conscious man who did some hunting to find the classic piece.
Camel hair originated from the Silk Road, when the hair of the camels was collected during molting seasons of June and July, and sewn into luxurious cloths for the Tartar and Mongolian chiefs. The camel polo coat is woven from the molted hair of the Bactrian camel, or the camel with two humps.
Camel hair consists of two layers, the outer hair, which is relatively coarse due to the camel’s exposure to arid climate and the elements, and the inner downwool or underwool, which is finer and softer. Garment fabrics made from camel hair usually come from the inner downwool, which is spun from hair that’s been sorted according to shade and age of the animal. The outer hairs are used to make non-garment items, such as yurts, carpets or tents, and for camel herdsmen’s winter coats.
The pureness of top quality camel hair makes it so soft that it tends to be less durable. When a coat is made of 100% camel hair it tends to wear out in certain areas of frequent use, like the collar and cuffs, which has led manufacturers to experiment with the blending of camel hair and finer wools, usually lambswool. A blend of 50 percent camel hair and 50 percent fine wool results in a perfect fabric for the polo coat: it combines maximum warmth with minimum weight and is a bit tougher to withstand wear.
Blending camel hair with another wool also fixes the problem many luxury fabrics share, of retaining their shape. Garments made from delicate and soft cloths tend to bag, the shoulders may sag, the front may lose its line, and wrinkles become a problem. If a person sits in the coat a great deal, the seat can become shiny or start to wear down.
In a 1968 short story, Peter Smith of St. John’s University remembers his camel hair blazer in this way: “I was deeply satisfied with the purchase. I had been borrowing my father’s sport coats since eighth grade, and Pop was a 40-regular at best. His cuffs rode halfway to my elbows, and my shoulders hulked. I had looked like a Brooks Brothers Frankenstein.
But my new jacket hung gracefully—so gracefully I wore it all night on the train from Chicago to Minneapolis, then on the bus to Saint Cloud, and in the cab out to Saint John’s University, where freshman orientation had begun. I wore it for my freshman photo too. I remember feigning a Nelson Algren Chicago street tough attitude.
I rested the coat for a few weeks after that. It needed to un-rumple. I hung it on a hook in the locker that served as my dorm room closet. The weight of the coat on the hook stretched the $24.99 fabric just below the collar. I discovered the damage the evening of the Saint John’s—Saint Ben’s freshman mixer. I splashed on several handfuls of English Leather cologne to bolster my spirits and, light-headed from the fumes, I proceeded to the old gym, hump and all. My coat and I stood there stylishly, lumpily, aromatically watching throngs of young Johnnies and Bennies dancing and mingling…I remember trying to pull the stretch out, and I rolled my shoulders as wide as they go these days, trying to pull the hump out of my camel hair soul.”
The camel hair polo coat has changed its style over the years, but has retained its place as a classic item.
Unfortunately, the Bactrian camel is now considered an endangered species, with less than a thousand of the animals still roaming the Mongolian deserts, and making the camel hair coat even more of a hard to find item.
The cloth is also largely produced and exported from China, rather than in the old New England mill which once made the coats alongside those lambswool cardigans for Ivysport apparel. But as the world changes, so do the fashions, and the new set of conditions is left to inspire the next, and magnify the value of the old and the everlasting. The camel hair polo coat, when it can be found, is an undying vestment, still, and ever so, characteristic of the well-dressed woman or man.