Three Barbour Jackets in 12 Years


Children are the sort of ingrates that need to be tricked into nourishment. My parents, lovers of the arts who didn’t decide to have a kid until their very late 30’s, knew this to be a truth. Just a few years ago I convinced my Mom, both of us still grieving a freshly dead father/husband, that we needed to get a new cat in the house. It was Christmastime. Get in the car, Mom said, we’re going kitten shopping. She then drove us straight to the hospital. I should have realized it five times along the way, It’s the same smattering of buildings where i’d hang around while Dad got chemo, but no. As the elevator opened onto the second floor of the Fabiola building I muttered “This isn’t where the kittens are.” 20 minutes later I had received the flu shot I had put off for two months, and we were on our way to adopt a cat, because children, even grown ones, are ingrates that must be tricked.

If you are privileged enough to not face up to your own mortality while you’re still in single digits, and I was, you might get the impression that things are about you. It is increasingly tolerated that children feel this way, and I wonder if there’s something in between a leash and corporal punishment to strike fear and understanding into the stupid, wondrous, imaginative, sponge-like mind of the child. It’s probably a righteous path of parenthood, involving patience, care, attention, time, and empathy, all things labeled luxury intangibles in our time, casting doom over our culture and species. If doom is being cast about, an adult might want a midweight jacket, and if the adult in question truly fashions themselves as an adult, they might find a gore tex jacket worn anywhere but a mountainside to be presumptuous, sporty, and off-color. This sort of adult might wear a waxed cotton jacket, and if they feel so strongly about the whole thing, that waxed cotton jacket is probably a Barbour.

Barbour is just a kind of waxed jacket, but it works the way “Frigidaire” was the only name for “refrigerator” to my shtetl-raised Bubbi, the brand has encompassed the item. It doesn’t eclipse the sun of the waxed cotton jacket universe in the way that the curves of a coke bottle are as legally protected as the red and white markings on them. There’s always Belstaff jackets, which are also an exceedingly British product, but they have this motorcycle bent in both form and function, rendering those who wear them more attractive, or worse, attempting to render those who wear them more attractive. They are tied to the dashing and handsome through marketing that leaves me unconvinced, using the perennially over-referenced Steve McQueen as a visual aid. And yet, despite a lack of Steve McQueen type marketing, Barbour has found itself in the good graces of the upwardly mobile this past decade, opening its arms to financial success while maybe possibly fending off the Coach bag-ification of the jackets that are licensed to be sold to British Royalty.

And so, on some weekend where my parents were tricking me for my own betterment, honoring their wishes over that of a child who didn’t even need to worry about getting killed all the time, we stopped off at the sort of store that won’t exist in twenty years. This sort of upscale odds and ends, the “Want some Clarks Wallabees, a overshirt that fits the way J. Press used to, and an unbranded plaid Scottish-made scarf in one place, and yes we take returns after 10 years and the repair shop is in the back” type places will be gone because those rich enough to be serviced by and or frequent them don’t want that anymore, and the people that do want that like the idea of that sort of thing because they like the idea of a time when that sort of store was afforded to the sort of person they are, that is to say, in the top 10% of wage earners, but not the top 5%. I barely clocked the experience at the time, except that my Dad was picking up a jacket he’d gotten re-waxed, I concept I didn’t grasp, and they’d fucked that up in some demonstrable way, a wrinkle which cast into doubt even the premise of what a re-wax might be, but it was all over in an instant, we were late for an event I hadn’t been told about.

The entire ride from the haberdashery to what turned out to be a matinee of Handel’s Messiah performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra smelled deeply of crayons. My parents wanted to go to the symphony and a child’s matinee ticket was cheaper than a babysitter. More than that, they wanted me to see some culture and stuff, but certainly weren’t going to take the time to convince me. I squirmed through the entirety of the luxurious kidnapping, and am thankful to this day. I do remember that they sang the last “Hallelujah” for ten fucking minutes and it felt like a prank. I just texted my Mom, she concurs that it was prank-like. When we got back to the car, it stank so much of that waxy Crayola that the jacket was not to be let back into the house, and it went into the trunk of the car for a decade.

When I was 19 I was long term lent the Crimson Volvo 850 that had taken me to and from the great symphony caper, and one day I drove it to the area called “Pill Hill” that’s above and behind the hospital I mentioned earlier. My friend Matt was moving into the large house our mutual friend has held under a miraculous spell over for longer than I’ve known him. The roommates come and go quite literally with the seasons, and this fall it was Matt’s turn. A native New Yorker, he’d recently returned from the homeland with news and tidings. There was a club called Beatrice, “and check out my new jacket.” Matt had recently finished his thesis, he was a material physicist, to be exact, with a mind for business as well as math, who now had a handsome face and mans body to take him social places his mind had not, and he’d splashed on a Barbour, which unbeknownst to my parochial bay area self were back in style. In an instant I walked to my trunk, Handel’s Messiah playing in my head, a dirty smirk on my face. The weaponized crayon scent hit my face as I dove past a bright orange down vest into a milk crate, unfolding the dormant specimen, I appeared out of the trunk holding up my Dad’s banished Barbour. “Oh you mean one of these?” I was such a little prick, wriggling as I claimed the unwanted shell as my own. Our mutual friend Jeremiah never bought into anything sartorial that got that close to the monarchy, and clowned us both when we appeared at his door like a before and after picture in matching jackets. (1)

For the next five years that Barbour jacket was the most expensive thing I owned, aside from a computer and a bike. It moved with me to Wisconsin, where it was the only one for miles, at least until the trickle down began, and that New York trend that’d sent me digging into the trunk of my car touched the suburbs and finally the midwest. When I first moved to New York I’d stash a toothbrush and other assorted toiletries in the the game pouch, hoping to split to Max Fish after work and then never make it home before work the following morning. I’m no longer 24 and disgusting, but I am 31 and hungry. I find myself employing this trick once more. Now the game pouch smuggles roast beef sandwiches into movie theaters.

Shortly after my Dad died my Mom was back in New York. It might have been her first trip back, since he had a small funeral out here so his East Coast friends wouldn’t have to fly out to Berkeley on short notice. The dark green Barbour had been in tatters for years but the death made his physical stuff matter much more, injecting the stupid and powerful magic of memory, sentiment, and longing into pedestrian items like blank black Calvin Klein T Shirts from Nordstrom Rack. All the pilfered T shirts and button downs wouldn’t smell like anything but me and my life after a wash or two, but the Barbour jacket would always reek of crayons. Girls I knew as a teenager would remember the smell crayon jacket, and the smell would linger in my friend’s cars too.

Barbour jackets are expensive for those posing as upwardly mobile, and I’d worn mine as a hopeful visual gag, since i’d come into mine by pure luck, although I wanted the upward mobility too. I hoped I looked like a prep school drug dealer, and not another walking lick of a Berkeley High graduate. By then I had swooped up oxblood penny loafers from the same Nordstrom Rack by the Costco where the blank Calvin shirts came from, and wore them with white socks. I definitely still looked like a walking lick, but maybe also the other thing. I’d injected my Dad’s jacket from the 70’s with my own set of pubescent happenstance, but when he died it belonged to him again. So on a fall New York day, my Mom and I went to Orvis and split the difference on a new black Beaufort, the classic Barbour model, which now features pockets for your hands, as well as flapped outer pockets for your stuff. The green one, without the new hand pockets, still lives in my closet.

Presently, the black jacket is so faded that it has turned grey in the body, and light brown where the sun hits my shoulders. It’s flopped over on the limping yellow couch behind me, the open wound of a rip, just below that new pocket they added, is staring at the back of my head while I write this. It’s toured the United States 4 or 5 times, and it is already falling apart. My love for the once and future jacket that will truly only be mine is matched by my disdain for the drop in production quality of said garment. It looks as weathered as the crayon jacket, which is something like 35 years its senior. Plenty of my friends have made the plunge and bought themselves a handsome corduroy collared specimen, and to be perfectly fair none of them have trashed theirs like I have mine. Something about the need to service an expensive garment, making it interactive, is attractive to a certain type of person who doesn’t just relent to the ritual but loves it. I like that the jacket can be reborn but wish it wouldn’t die without an annual rebirth, as they were never prone to this level of degradation in the past. The person who likes the upkeep also seems to be the worst kind of record collector. For a moment I retired my jacket all together as it became the blazer of big indie, the jacket that let you know which A&R had cocaine and still listened to guitar music.

But I didn’t give up on Barbour jackets altogether, which is a stupid thing to say out loud, and even stupider to type here now. Something about the thoroughly unsexy shape keeps drawing me back. In the United States, Barbour didn’t come with many sartorial tells until recently, the only hidden meaning it was injected with was they’re casually worn by quietly rich, to whom the $400 price tag isn’t eventful. The down market appeal is supposed to be the durability and quality of the product, which has clearly gone by the wayside. My Dad, never one for peacocking or deference to the wealthy, loved them so. He was respected in his field but financially unsuccessful. He couldn’t stand commercial photography so he taught photography courses at night at Stanford Extension and SF State, substitute teaching in Oakland and Berkeley to fill in the blanks. I’m mad that the new one broke down so quickly, but I wonder if it’s what I get for wearing what is now clearly a strivey item. The classic Barbour, made when they were still a secret of the rich, is tucked safely in my closet, while the new one rips again and again.

My dad had another Barbour ready to go, one that he wore until the end. It wasn’t waxed cotton, but a big khaki thing he treated himself to in his last year. Its voluminous manner attracted me despite the looming prospect of cancer in every stitch, probably because I think the billowing shape of the thing is Liam Gallegher-esque, though those brothers would never be caught in the Queens licensed country jacket, not when Stone Island, Paul&Shark, and CP Company are available. Somehow, a jacket that was originally made for workmen is now somewhere else, as meaning and intention tend to travel with time and socialization. I read a painfully preppy article describing waxed cotton as “the performance fleece of its day.” This lighter Barbour nods to the reality that performance fleece is the performance fleece of our day, and the silhouette is as timeless as the fabric that means something much different now than it did when it was introduced to the market in 1894. I suspect Dad bought this khaki bit so he could have a nice jacket that made room for his belly, which grew suspiciously large just before the damning diagnosis. I still wear the jacket often, interchanging it with the new unwaxed cotton that’s dying on my body with every wear. I feel like a million dollars with three bucks in my pocket, $80 in my bank account and $400 on my back, fending off memories with my imaginary Gallagher look that tells the ghosts “Anyway, here’s Wonderwall.”