I own a motorcycle jacket which is definitely a fashion piece. It contains armor made of a space-age material that hardens on impact but is hidden. The exterior is constructed of “pull up leather” which has been tanned in such a way that the jet black color artificially fades in areas that see a lot of movement, such as the cuffs. With its padded shoulders and sharp angles, the jacket suggests an ownership history dating back to the cafe racers of the 1960s, despite being only five years old. Although it looks cool as hell and helps keep me safe, I still feel a bit sheepish wearing the thing. The “biker cosplay” is what I sometimes call its forced authenticity. An old friend had another take: “It’s cool that he has a story, even if that story isn’t yours.”
On the other hand, I never feel sheepish when I wear my Barbour coat. It’s a fall staple that’s made its way from sheep farmers and sportsmen in the UK to department stores in the US. It has a story, of course, but I’m part of it. Participant more than contender.
One intriguing thing about Barbour is that the brand connects the late Steve McQueen and the late Queen Elizabeth II. It’s considered a fashion item, but unlike my riding jacket, it carries its practicality outside. McQueen and the Queen, although fashion icons, valued their Barbour pieces for function more than form. In fact, one could say that the coats, utilitarian and boxy in appearance, would not have become fashionable without these famous devotees.
The typical Barbour is a dull olive green, coated with a wax coating called ‘thornbush’ intended to protect hunters and farmers navigating the heathers of the English countryside. This makes the layers waterproof and tear resistant, but the coating eventually wears off and needs to be reapplied. Wax can also give jackets a characteristic musty smell. A well-worn Barbour, on the other hand, develops a beautiful patina over time, the uniformity of its signature green changing to reflect the way it hangs and moves with its wearer. And it makes a damn good raincoat. It also has lots of pockets. Some models intended for hunting even have a “game pocket” on the back, a large enclosure intended to hold a freshly bagged pheasant.
It was protection from the elements that Steve McQueen sought from his Barbour. McQueen is best known for his acting, but his real passion was racing cars and motorcycles, which he sometimes did under the name Harvey Mushman to avoid trouble with the studios and insurance agencies that subscribed to his films. McQueen was so serious about motorcycling that in 1964 he was instrumental in forming the first American team to compete in the International Six Days Trial, a historic off-road race still contested to this day. In fact, McQueen rode as part of the team, and did it while wearing his Barbour International, a model designed for cyclists who expect to be muddy. The International has four front pockets, one of which sits at a slender angle so its wearer can quickly access a map while in the riding position, leaning over the gas tank. Barbour still manufactures the International range, as well as a range of McQueen commemorative products.
Queen Elizabeth II was another notable owner of Barbour. If you close your eyes and snap some footage of her on one of her hunting trips, she’s probably standing in front of a Land Rover Defender on the grounds of Balmoral and wearing a green jacket. The jacket was from a British brand that she helped promote as much as Land Rover. The Queen loved her decades-old Barbour so much that she refused to trade it when the company offered to give him a new one for his Diamond Jubilee. The brand is now associated with the royal family, several of whose members have given the company royal warrants and are regularly photographed wearing Barbour.
Mine is a Sapper model whose name and shape suggest military use. I first saw it at Macy’s and knew the brand primarily from its association with McQueen. Its four pockets reminded me of riding jackets, but lacked the slant that would make them less practical for everyday use. My wife, seeing how much I liked the coat, bought it for me for Christmas.
What neither of us knew was that wearing a Barbour is a commitment. They don’t tell you about the possible smell at Macy’s. They don’t say much about rewaxing. If you don’t wax your Barbour periodically, it loses the waterproof quality that makes it so good in the rain. Worse still, the fabric can become “dry” and tear more easily. The company offers re-waxing and repair services, but perhaps as a penance for my motorcycle jacket, I wanted to give it a try.
From the company instructional video makes it easy, even romantic. A man lights a fire in his shed and waxes his jacket on a weathered oak table. In reality, wax hardens almost the second its tin leaves boiling water, making it nearly impossible for the jacket to absorb the thickening white stuff. The professionals at Barbour avoid this by filling slow cookers with wax to maintain a constant temperature and by working on heated tables.
My American compromise was to run a hair dryer over the wax after blotting it up. You can actually see things sinking into the fabric. The process was messy and took several hours, but it saved me the $70 I would have paid Barbour. More than that, it placed marks on the jacket that are more than suggestive of my history with her.
This article was originally published in The SpectatorThe World Edition.