The Sport Coat
The sport coat is without doubt one of the most versatile garments in a gentleman’s wardrobe. And it is also one of the most essential. Mere men may go through life with a wardrobe of casual clothing plus one suit for special occasions—the wedding, the funeral, the graduation. But for gentlemen, a sport coat is worn the way a college student wears a sweater or a hoodie: For a gentleman, a sport coat is a part of everyday wear. And every gentleman should have at least two at all times: one for the warm months, and one for the more frigid months.
The sport coat (also called “sport jacket”) has its origin in the sport of shooting. It is believed that the forerunner of all sport jackets is the Norfolk jacket, first worn at shooting parties on the estates of the Duke of Norfolk in the late 1800s. Made of tweed, the Norfolk jacket is a single-breasted garment typically featuring three or four buttons, is belted at the waist, gusseted or pleated at the side-back for ease of movement, and is equipped with large, functional pockets for holding cartridges and provisions. It is traditionally worn with trousers of a different fabric and color. By the 1920s, the sport jacket had taken the riding jacket, rather than the shooting jacket, as its inspiration, thereby losing the gussets, belted waist, and large pockets. The custom of wearing the jacket with trousers of a different, but complementary, fabric, however, remained.
The length of a sport coat is typically slightly shorter—perhaps by as much as two inches—than the traditional suit jacket, thereby giving the wearer the appearance of longer legs. But otherwise, a sport coat’s styling is similar to a suit jacket’s. (When the longer jacket of a suit is combined with trousers of the same fabric, it, too, because of the uninterrupted color and pattern, can create the impression of a longer “line,” even on the shorter gentleman. But if the sport coat were the length of the typical suit jacket, it would “dissect” most gentlemen, making them appear short-legged on account of the break in flow of color between the jacket and the trousers. Since around 2008, with the overall silhouette of men’s suits becoming more closely fitted, with raised armholes, closer-fitting sleeves, narrower pants, and shorter, more body-conscious jackets, the modern sport coat and the modern suit jacket have equalized lengthwise).
Even more so than a tie, a sport coat tends to serve as an exclamation mark for whatever a gentleman is wearing. It is also a mark of distinction: A man who “throws on” a linen sport coat over a polo shirt and adds a pair of jeans will be smartly dressed for a picnic or an afternoon at the races; then the following day, he could wear that same sport coat with a shirt and tie and be dressed for a business lunch or for Sunday Mass. When appropriately worn in the company of suits, a good, well-fitting sport coat is like a breath of fresh air blowing through a dark, congested, urban street. And when worn in casual settings, it is like a peacock amidst turkeys.
Early in its history, the sport jacket was a garment of privilege: Only a man who already had a suit would invest in a sport jacket. Today, however, a sport coat is regarded as a necessity—as a transitional garment that seamlessly vacillates between casual and semi-formal at the whim of a gentleman.
The terms “sport coat” and “blazer” are oftentimes used interchangeably—but incorrectly so. A blazer is typically of a solid color—usually, but not always (especially in the United States), navy-blue—and features brass, enamel, pewter, mother-of-pearl, or gilt (usually gold or silver) buttons. But colors such as red or hunter green are also popular blazer colors. Boating blazers are usually boldly striped. And club and cricket blazers are typically embellished by contrasting trim, piping, or braid. A jacket with any other patterns/decorations is not considered a “blazer.” It is impossible, for example, to have a plaid blazer.
The blazer, whether in its double- or single-breasted variations, can be traced back to the 19th century. It is believed that the word “blazer” derives from the frigate HMS Blazer, the crew of which would wear the short navy-blue, double-breasted jackets typically worn by the British navy in the 19th century. In 1837, in celebration of the newly crowned Queen Victoria’s first visit to the ship, the captain commissioned new jackets for his crew. And when the uniforms were met with royal approval, the jackets, in longer versions, became popular as civilian wear. The single-breasted blazer, on the other hand, has no military provenance; it owes its origins to the jackets worn by members of the English rowing clubs, the respective club’s insignia emblazoned onto the face of the buttons. (One school of thought attributes the origins of the blazer to the Lady Margaret Boat Club, St. John’s College, Cambridge, the twelve founding members of which, in 1825, donned scarlet-colored flannel jackets. And since they “blazed,” the jackets were called “blazers.” The club exists to this day, and its membership still wears the traditional red blazers). As such, single-breasted blazers were not always made of dark-blue fabric, but were instead made in the color of the club, though, by far, navy-blue was, and remains, the most popular single-breasted blazer color.
Traditionally, the pockets of the single-breasted blazer had no flaps, thereby giving the jackets a more formal appearance than the sport coat; but today’s blazers are usually designed with flap pockets, such that if a blazer were not embellished with the traditional brass or gilt buttons, it would be indistinguishable from a solid-colored sport coat. Because of the blazer’s resplendence—primarily on account of its gilt buttons—it is dressier than the sport coat, but not as formal as the suit. Blazers are traditionally paired with gray flannel, khakis, or white linen or flannel and worn at festive, daytime occasions such as graduations, lawn events, and informal morning weddings. But rarely are blazers worn for business or at the office.
The classic double-breasted blazer features six gilt torso buttons, two of which are functional, and flap pockets. The traditional single-breasted blazer features two gilt torso buttons, both of which are functional (though only the upper button is buttoned). For purists, blue worsted serge, an exceedingly durable fabric that can withstand every-day wear, is the only fabric for a blazer; but flannel, linen, hopsack, and light-weight worsteds are also used.