In the eternal search for a jacket that actually keeps the rain out – rather than just looking as though it would, which goes for 99 per cent of trench coats – without making you feel like a boil-in-the-bag curry, or look like a geology student, the Barbour ticks the boxes. But it’s not that simple, is it? The Barbour comes with baggage.
I have always thought that wearing them in the city was the absolute cringey end; the sartorial refuge of the Sloane Ranger throwback and those who aspire to be seen as one. But that’s all changing. And I do recognise that my prejudice is the result of a particular personal history with this most British (three Royal warrants and counting) of brands.
The well-worn Barbour wasn’t just a useful jacket that kept the rain and wind out; it was a membership badge. This wasn’t a club to which I wanted to belong
I first encountered the Barbour when I started university. It was St Andrews and even 20 years pre-Prince William, well-stocked with young titled dudes, heirs to major earldoms, braying yahs, etc. I was surprised to see how many of them were into motorbikes.
That’s what I assumed, as they all seemed to be wearing Belstaff jackets like the ones sported by my biker brothers and their pals. Except in an odd shade of murky green rather than the usual black.
Eventually I realised that, while made of similar ingenious waxed fabric, these algae-green jackets, with their corduroy collars and brass zips, were an entirely different breed, and worn by an entirely different breed.
It wasn’t long before I could have written a doctoral thesis on the semiotics of the Barbour, with its intimation that the wearer – male or female – led a privileged sporting life, even if they were strolling at that particular moment along Cadogan Place.
The well-worn Barbour wasn’t just a useful jacket that kept the rain and wind out; it was a membership badge. And since this wasn’t a club to which I wanted to belong, I didn’t rush out and buy one (although years later I caved in to a special offer in You magazine for a fake version, as I thought it would be useful to keep at my parents’ windswept redoubt).
Never have I owned a garment less flattering or more evil smelling. It made me resemble Henry VIII in both regards and was soon consigned to an outbuilding, then the dump.
My next foray into waxed jackets was a fabulous old Belstaff unearthed in a junk shop, which I wore as a private joke alternative to a Barbour for country pursuits. It did keep the weather out marvellously, but the complicated frontage with four pockets, a belt and a buckled neck strap, which looked so cool on the biking boys of my youth, made me look ready for Cell Block H. Out it went.
So given all this back story, I have watched with great interest as both these iconic British brands of pragmatic clothing have been rejuvenated according to the Burberry model as high-fashion labels, with a dizzying array of fabulous styles. And not only do they look chic, they’re guaranteed water-proof.
I knew I had to have one – but which? The gritty, chic Belstaff, or the hooray Barbour?
The Belstaff was my first choice, but the formerly Stoke-on-Trent-based outfit has been bought by a company from Italy and relocated there. So while the designs are dreamy (the leather ones in the Conduit Street shop have caused me to wimper) and the workmanship superb, the price tags are terrifying. The leather Triumph jacket is £946.
Instead, I took a trip round the Barbour website, which quickly had me hyperventilating with shopping lust. There are so many thrilling variations on both the sporting and motorcycling – who knew? – back catalogues, it’s quite overwhelming.
I headed for the Covent Garden shop, where I quickly found that the groovier biker styles had the same effect on me as the Belstaff, so I fled upstairs to the more classic lines. After trying on everything else, including the amazing leather-trimmed trench designed by Alice Temperley, I finally relented to the (lovely) sales assistant’s urging to try on the Bedale, which I had resisted as this is the most trad of Barbours, as worn by all those public school dreamboats at St Andrews…
But in black.
It was like falling in love. Most heavenly perfect of garments, it fitted me as though tailor made. It wasn’t even too long in the sleeves, which are finished with a ribbed knit inner cuff, the better to keep out a sharp Highland breeze.
Unlike the ghastly fake one, it doesn’t smell like a ram’s arsehole and the wax doesn’t come off on your hands. From the rich pile of the elephant cord collar to the gleaming brass of the chunky zips, it feels not like an overpriced anorak, but a true luxury garment.
And by some extraordinary trick of fine tailoring it takes two dress sizes off me. I thought I must be seeing things and only bought it – £199 – after checking I could return it, should it turn out they had distorting mirrors in the shop. But my toughest critics – sister, mother, daughter, niece – unanimously confirmed the flattering effect.
All this and it’s waterproof, too. So will I be wearing my Barbour in town? Absolutely. And everywhere else I can think of. Yah.