The most arresting image of the shearling coat is, unfortunately, not its most effective advertisement. Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy has cemented for many the relationship between the trusty sheepskin and market trading, a wide fluffy collar for the wide boy. If not him, the sheepskin was for many years a staple of football managers screaming from the sidelines during frosty winter fixtures, or of John Motson, a little cosier in his commentary box.
But what unites their appreciation for the sheepskin coat – more widely known as shearling, a coat that’s been made from sheepskin, tanned and dressed with the wool left on as its natural lining – is the fact that few winter coats, outside of the highly technical ones, are quite as warm. Seriously warm, in fact. And, often, since so much work goes into making said coats, seriously expensive.
The same idea was not lost on the aviators of World War Two. Undoubtedly more stylish, if only for its more macho associations, the flying jacket associated with The Few of the Battle of Britain – all outsized and belted up over those RAF blues – was also a shearling jacket, its exterior tanned and polished to a sheen, but the fleecy interior and huge collar retained. Before the advent of electrically heated flying suits, a jacket like this one literally kept you alive at altitude, as was the intention of its designer, one Leslie Irvin, who also invented the parachute ripcord system.
Those of a less patriotic bent might suggest that it was the USAAF – the US wartime equivalent of the RAF – that wore the style best, with its B-3 model, complete with various waist and cuff adjustors, zips and pockets, and sometimes made from untreated raw white sheepskin. It became an icon of military clothing. The model had been standard in the USAAF since 1934 and such was its success it was still being worn well into the 1950s, when packing more technology into a cockpit – and a new wave of synthetic fabrics – made its bulkiness impractical. Not that it was a new idea for either side of the Atlantic – Iron Age man wore sheepskin coats, which had their moments of high fashion during both the Medieval, Tudor and Victorian periods.
But, of course, the warmth of the sheepskin or shearling coat is just one of its benefits. It’s the style that really sells it in these centrally-heated times – which is also why, for ethical reasons, many modern interpretations are faux shearling, with the best examples looking just as good. Levi’s classic trucker jacket with sherpa collar – sherpa being a kind of synthetic, wool-look polyester fleece – is a case in point. Plenty of brands, from Zara to AMI, YMC to Stella McCartney, have rightly ridden this horse.
Not for nothing did Skinheads – that austere style tribe spin-off from Mod – make a sheepskin their go-to winter outerwear, when the cropped 501s or Sta Prest trousers and Doc Marten cherry reds kept the winter out, but that MA-1 bomber jacket really didn’t. Worn over button-down gingham shirt and braces, the sheepskin looked its best. The various panels that come together to make a sheepskin coat – as yet sheep big enough to provide a skin sufficient for an entire coat alone has yet to be born, though genetic tinkerers are no doubt working on it – have to be stitched. And a good example is sewn with a precision flat stitched seam which is so flat that the coat can be worn reversed, albeit at risk of looking something akin to a yeti.
Perhaps this is why, despite lighter, warmer, more compact and ethical man-made alternatives today, the sheepskin coat endures. Look at Marlon Brando with his shearling collared jacket in On the Waterfront or James Dean’s ranch coat in Giant.
Funnily enough, you don’t get much in the way of slim-fit best shearling jackets. This is hefty outerwear with a chunky silhouette and big lapels or collar. You feel the weight of it when you wear it. Short, stocky guys are advised to go for a long overcoat rather than a cropped boxy jacket for similar reasons.
In recent years, flight jackets have been the most common shearling coats, possibly to the point of overexposure. They’re masculine, practical and style up or down quite easily. Shearling or borg truckers are more casual – think that Brokeback Mountain, winter-in-Wyoming kind of aesthetic. Longer shearling styles include dusters and overcoats, but you’ll also find the odd shearling parka or trench coat.
Some conscious consumers refuse to buy the real thing on the grounds of animal cruelty. Only you can decide what the right option is.
Tan-coloured best shearling jackets is the most natural and common style you’ll see, but it does come with those Del Boy connotations.