Celebrating the Camelhair Coat


Since the weather has turned cold in places where, up until now, unseasonably warm weather has prevailed, people are putting on their warming outerwear.

The North Face: Semi-ubiquitous winter uniform / via
The North Face:
Semi-ubiquitous winter uniform / via

As in several past winters, this winter’s coat of choice is the horizontally quilted down jacket, typically by The North Face. From my observation, three or four people out of every 10—sometimes entire families—walk by so attired. Most of the coats are cropped at the upper thigh, but there are various lengths, ranging from ankle to waist. Generally, people wear them in black, but there are other colors.

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At the bagel factory where I begin my mornings, things were so cold recently that just about every patron had his or her coat on, and most of them fit the pattern. Black prevailed, but I saw a few blue ones and a brown one. On the street, black was also prevalent, although I saw a dark green one and one where the quilting had a herringbone effect. I saw none where the ribbing, narrow or wide, was vertical.

Though the quilted down jacket was ubiquitous, I wasn’t wearing one. I do own a waist-length black down jacket with a major designer’s label in it that I like a good deal. The ribbing widths vary, and the jacket is delicately quilted across the shoulders.

But that’s not what I’ve been wearing these days to combat the daunting wind-chill factor. Instead, I’ve pulled out of my front closet a double-breasted camelhair coat.

Let me tell you about this silk-lined item: I bought it several decades ago. For reasons of male vanity, I’m not going to say how many. I will say I bought it when camelhair coats were as fashionable as quilted down coats are now. Men wore them, women wore them, children wore them in smaller versions. Often they had a belt across the back that served no purpose other than to be esthetically pleasing. In those not entirely forgotten days (long before “back in the day” was a ubiquitous phrase) we called it a Six-Button Benny in my New Jersey neck of the woods. Apparently that’s what it was called in other woods’ necks as well.

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The coat was so popular that Doc Starkes and the Nite Riders recorded “Got Me a Six-Button Benny” on the Teen label. The jaunty lyric goes in part, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know that a coat would thrill her so…It was a charcoal Benny with a belt in the back.” As far as I know, nothing along those lines about the quilted down jacket can be downloaded from Spotify.

Camelhair Coat: classic, elegant, tan
Camelhair Coat: classic, elegant, tan

As I have worn the coat of late, and as I have spotted very few people wearing it on Manhattan streets except for men and women of a certain age, I got to thinking about why I felt so good in it and why I was getting the occasional compliment on it.

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I felt good because the substantial coat keeps me very warm. More than that, I like it because it’s not just a classic design. It’s been a proven, durable classic. It was manufactured when pride was taken in clothes built to last, which isn’t as widespread a practice now as it was then. The lining needs modest repair, but otherwise it continues to stand the test of time.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the coat has the effect of whispering “affluent” when it passes by, and I don’t object to that, even if I should think twice about it. Perhaps camelhair coats were expensive enough so they weren’t easily purchased by people of less-than-modest means. But amortized at this point, it may have cost me something like a dollar or less a year.

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More than that, there’s something comforting about it. It came to me that since we readily talk about comfort food, there’s no reason why we can’t talk about comfort clothes. I suppose “casual clothes” approximates that designation. Yet it doesn’t quite connote the same thing. “Casual” suggests times and places where less formal wear is appropriate. “Comfort clothes” implies an internal ease conferred.

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Henry David Thoreau wrote that we must “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” It’s not advice that I instantly take as irrefutable. How wedded to the dictum was Thoreau himself? After all, here’s a fellow who would have us believe Walden Pond was some far-flung retreat, when it isn’t as distant from his Concord home as he hinted. If he could fudge that, he might also be personally lax about the apparel matter.

Still, in the cold weather, I wouldn’t retreat (pun maybe intended) from wearing my erstwhile Six-Button Benny to any enterprise, including those that might require new clothes. So, yes, I’m happy to lend credence to Thoreau’s warning—or possibly amend it to say something like, “Keep in mind that it’s perfectly acceptable to wear old reliable clothes to enterprises that ostensibly require new clothes.

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By the way, there’s another vintage number in my closet I’ll be sporting if the weather keeps up as it has been. It’s a calf-length tweed coat in a subtle blue-white-and-red pattern. I think I bought it around the same time as I bought the camelhair coat. I think I bought both coats at the venerable Harry Rothman’s Fifth Avenue and 18th Street emporium, which now—as Rothman’s—is north of Union Square and not really what it was, uh, back in the day.