British Leisure Jackets
They wanted clothes that were resistant to the wind when racing down country lanes on their bicycles, or when standing on open moorland surveying the towns and cities beneath them. They wanted space to swing a golf club without feeling their chest and shoulders restricted. Recognising this desire for comfortable and conveniently casual clothing, the fashion industry responded with clothing that reflected the changing times.
One style of casual jacket that has endured since the 1930s is the short, zip front leisure jacket. From the cyclists who filled the lanes of rural Britain as they escaped the cities on the weekend, to professional and amateur golfers, or the young ramblers at the Kinder Scout trespass, the short leisure jacket – usually in khaki of stone coloured cotton - was the defining style of the period, worn by both men and women alike.
This jacket, which would later be known as the Harrington Jacket by generations of teenagers, indeed has its roots in the increased leisure time enjoyed by the working and middle classes of the UK during the interwar years. The heavy woollen Norfolk jacket was often selected by gentlemen for golfing and cycling purposes, but with the booming leisure industry of the 1920s and 1930s, combined with new technology allowing bikes to travel faster, people wanted superior comfort and movement. These desires were soon realised as textile technology improved the ability of lighter weight garments to resist the almost constant British rain, and thus lighter jackets became possible. Tightly woven cotton fabrics meant that rainwear no longer needed to be heavy oilskins or rubberised cotton.
Perhaps the most iconic version of this style is the Baracuta ‘G9’ golf jacket. Launched in 1937, its popularity soon exploded worldwide. After starting life in the sportswear market, it became famous in the 1950s after the company began exporting the jackets to the USA. In an era of leisure and casual clothing, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen all sported the ‘G9’. It was, however, Ryan O’Neill’s character ‘Rodney Harrington’ in the TV series Peyton Place who gave the jacket its famous name.
Now no longer the preserve of the golfer or the cyclist, the jacket became synonymous with youth rebellion. It was depicted in cinema in the UK as the jacket of wayward youths and petty criminals, and in America as a symbol of defiance against the older generation, most famously in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ with James Dean’s red Harrington.
Having returned to public consciousness in the UK, it was no surprise that the style became a favourite in the London Mod scene. However, it was the adoption of the jacket by the subsequent Skinhead youth movement that really cemented its subculture prominence. No longer was the original Baracuta jacket needed by the aspiring rebel, indeed cheaper knock-offs became available in every clothing market across the country. By the time of the early 1980s Skinhead revival, the Harrington jacket was available in an array of colours, with green and red rivalling the more common black jackets.
Despite the high profile of the G9 Harrington jacket, it was just one of many casual jackets that existed in the 1930s, and it was by no means the first. The sportswear brand Bukta offered the style for golf wear, describing their ‘Bux-Gab’ (or Bukta Gabardine) jacket as the best ‘rainbeater’ that money could buy. The outdoor clothing company Grenfell also made jackets in this style, also advertising them to the golfing community. The name given to the jackets, both by manufacturers and the public, was also variable: ‘lumber jacket’, ‘windcheater’, ‘windbreaker’ or ‘windjammer’ were all used to describe the style.
The jackets also came in a variety of styles. Zip fronts were the most common, although button fronts were also available. Some had buttoning cuffs, some had elasticated cuffs, whilst others had matching knit collars and cuffs. One distinctive feature of early British leisure jackets was the striped elastic used to hold the jacket in position at the waist. Khaki cotton gabardine was the standard fabric although suede, faux suede, and moleskin versions were also available. Most had a stand-and-fall collar, while the Baracuta ‘G9’ had a short collar that buttoned closed at the front. Zip and buttoning pockets were both available and most had pleated patch pockets, whilst others had slit pockets. Sleeves were either set-in or raglan.
The details may have changed from manufacturer to manufacturer and from era to era, but the essential shape and style have remained constant. What also remained constant was the popularity of the garment. Challenges may have come from leather and denim jackets, in addition to polyester flight jackets that became popular in the 1980s, but the 1930s leisure jacket did exactly what it was supposed to do - it weathered the storm and proved its worth as a stylish and practical jacket.