70 years of history: a 1952 Australian Army officer’s greatcoat

On a recent thrift trip, I happened across an interesting greatcoat.

Sporting a drab khaki colour, clearly heavy and a little worse for wear, the coat was distinctively of military make. It featured a buttoning arrangement I’d only ever seen on uniforms, sturdy epaulettes, and the brass buttons still shone bright. I recognised that it would have to be Australian Army, as other nations’ military uniforms seldom make it into thrift stores here, and knew from the signs of age alone it was worth a look.

I picked it up, knowing it’d be heavy, but I was still a little taken aback; it weighed a tonne. I always thought my old Dior topcoat was heavy, but it felt like a bag of feathers in comparison to the sturdy garment currently resting in my hands. There were some distinctive – yet relatively minor – signs of wear, a label which identified the coat as a bespoke commission from many years ago, and the somewhat musty smell that denotes much time spent in storage. However, there was very little in the way of structural wear, and it looked like it might be my size. I tracked down a mirror and put the coat on, instantly becoming half an inch shorter, yet seeing that the coat was a decent fit for me.

I felt it would’ve been a crime to leave it on the rack.

vintage 1950s Australian Army officer overcoat greatcoat

A faded maker’s tag resides inside the front of the coat, denoting the maker’s name, the date of manufacture and the name of the gentleman who commissioned it. The former and the latter have been lost to the erosion of time, however two key numbers remain on the date. This greatcoat had been commissioned in 1952 to keep the elements at bay for a man who would now either be very old or deceased; seventy years later it was sitting on a rack at the local Savers, waiting for me to come along.

Whenever I come across old items like this one, I always find myself wondering what kind of moments throughout history it witnessed. I soon discovered that this particular greatcoat would likely never have seen a serious deployment; the insignia on the buttons belonging to the Adelaide Universities Regiment, a training regiment in the Army Reserve. From that, it’s a guess as to whether the coat would have belonged to a cadet or an officer in the command structure, as no other insignia – or marks from their attachment – remain with the coat.

The construction of the garment is beautiful, boasting a number of practical features which signify it as an expertly tailored coat. Beautiful swelled edge pick stitching is present, as seen in the picture at the top. The large turn back cuffs are stunning, and the layout of the buttons allows for the coat to be buttoned all the way to the top. The inclusion of the hooks at the collar means that the collar can be turned up and fastened too, protecting all but the wearer’s face.

At the rear of the coat, it features an inverted box pleat with a half belt. The pleat is deep and allows a considerable range of extra movement, and the belt can be tightened or even removed. A single rear vent runs from the waist down, featuring inner buttons that can be fastened to stop the vent from opening.

vintage 1950s Australian Army officer overcoat greatcoat

A closer look at the top of the back and under the collar provides an image of some sturdy vintage stitching work. This piece won’t suffer a tear without putting up a fight. The fuzzy texture of the fabric is also clear to see, with its dreadnought class weight. Also visible is the variation in thread colours used, which is part of why the fabric appears to be different colours in these images, as they were taken at varying times of day.

Two of my favourite features found on this old greatcoat are ones I’ve never really seen on modern tailoring, other than high end bespoke pieces. The first is that the lower front of the coat features button fastenings similar to those in the rear vent, allowing for the front to be buttoned below the knees for maximum weather repellence. The other is a nifty slanted pocket at the left of the waist; when the flap of this is unbuttoned and a hand stuck in, I found that there was no pocket bag, rather this particular pocket’s function is to allow the wearer to reach into the trousers pockets. The latter is a feature I had heard about before, however I had never seen a garment sporting the feature with my own eyes. Frankly, I wish I could have that feature on every coat!

I was really blown away at the make and timelessness of this old greatcoat. Laden with features and aesthetically pleasing, it stands out to me as a great example of balancing form with function. I’m looking forward to giving it a few wears when the mercury goes south this year.

vintage 1952 Australian Army officer coat

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With content features ranging from appearances on popular menswear hubs (The Rake, StyleForum, Put This On) to French perfume newsletters and university course readings, Sam is a writer, designer and enthusiast in the fields of menswear and fragrance.

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