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Identifying an Icon: The Field Jacket

09/24/14

Serpico. Taxi Driver. Bloodsport. If you’ve watched a movie with Pacino, De Niro, or Van Damme at some point over the last 30 years, you’ve probably seen it. Chances are, you probably even own one.

The M-1965 Field Jacket seeped its way into pop culture since the year it was made for US soldiers serving the military in, you guessed it, 1965. As is often the case with fashion, sometimes you forget the original function, and an icon becomes so unquestionably iconic history becomes happenstance.

So let’s have a refresher course.

Up until the ‘40s, US soldiers were sporting a whole lot of winter wool: wool shirts, wool pants, and wool four-pocket service coats. The latter proved both impractical and unsustainable. In addition to lacking water-resistance, wool service coats had to be traded out seasonally for something lighter come spring and summer, which meant one more item the government had to spring for and one more thing a solider had to worry about packing. And, given the army’s singular fabric fetishism, wool started having a supply problem, experiencing shortages on account of too much demand.

Field jackets were born of a need for something practical in both design and fabrication. A riff off of a civilian windbreaker, the Olive Drab Cotton Field Jacket (OD) was more wind and water resistant, made with a cotton poplin outer shell and drab wool flannel lining. The result was a jacket that could be worn year round and by nearly all army personnel during WWII. At least in theory. Over the course of the war, the jacket’s weaker points shone through with actual field-testing, much to the regret of the wearer. The lining was too thin for winter and the cotton shell, as it turned out, wasn’t that water resistant. Bummer.

By 1943, the OD Cotton Field Jacket got the boot, replaced by the superior M-1943, which came down to the upper thighs and was made out of a cotton sateen. Alternating between seasons was made easier with a removable jacket liner that could be buttoned in when the temps dipped and worn solo during warmer months. A more drastic change from the OD version was a return to the four-pocket design of the wool jackets: two at the breast and two at the waist—a massive functional improvement from the previous option of only two slash pockets at a cropped waist.

Less than a decade later, the M-1951 Field Jacket brought some advanced textile technology to the already improved silhouette provided by the M-1943, plus a sharp-looking pointed collar that guys who liked ironing were apparently fans of. Using 9-ounce wind-resistant, water- repellent-treated cotton sateen cloth, the M-1951 favored snap closures as opposed to buttons and zipper up the front. It was easier to get on and off and tougher on the elements. A nearly perfect military staple.

From the sounds of it, soldiers were still happy with the M-1951 when the M-1965 came around. Building upon the ease of use of its predecessor, the M-1965 used Velcro fasteners at cuff and collar, as well as a built-in hood that could be stored away at the neck. Previous versions had to be buttoned on and off and kept elsewhere. Widely used during the Vietnam War, the jacket’s water resistant properties were put to the absolute test with monsoonal rains.

Though a couple designs have come forward following the M-1965, it is the image of this particular jacket that stands the test of time, and proof that you gotta make some mistakes to end up getting anything right.