The British Gaberdine School Raincoat

Figure 1.--These two English school boys in 1935 are visiting the Tower of London and assessing the spot where Henry VIII had Ann Boleyn beheaded. They are from different schools (note tge cap badges). The boy on the left wears a gaberdine raincoat. The boy on the right wears a shorter coat, perhaps a reefer jacket.

For a period in the middle decades of the 20th century, the gaberdine school raincoat formed a distinctive part of British schoolboy clothing. It was of woollen or cotton gaberdine, a close twill-weave fabric with a smooth finish. The raincoat was frequently worn not only for school, but also as general boy-swear. Interestingly, the gaberdine raincoat is the one major element of British school uniform (other than black leather lace-up shoes) which is not derived from some form of sportswear--not surprisingly since topcoats are not typically worn for games! At some schools the gaberdine raincoat was compulsory, some schools even specified the brand. Boys had different opinions about the coats. Some have complained that they were "utterly useless for repelling more than a minute or so of the gentlest rain". Others thought them quite serviceable. While opinions vary, quite a number of HBC readers from England still remember the gaberdine raincoats that they wore as boys.


The gaberdine school raincoat was of woollen or cotton gaberdine, a close twill-weave fabric with a smooth finish. It notmally had a belt belt. The belts were usually 'captive' - that is, attached by a loop to the back of the coat - to avoid loss, and there was a plaid (check) woollen-cloth lining. Attached to the lining was the manufacturer's label, sometimes with directions on how to treat the garment when wet. There might be a space for a boy's name to be written, although many parents purchased woven name tapes which could be sewn into a boy's raincoat - and, of course, into all his other school uniform items. There was normally a small fabric loop for hanging the coat up, at home or in the school cloak-room, although the Robert Hirst brand had a small metal chain for this purpose. Like all garments, they were available in different qualities (and prices!), and some had an interlining of rubber or other material in the shoulders and were fully rain-proofed. Quality also affected their ability to maintain their shape and smartness, woollen gaberdine being better in this respect than the cheaper cotton gaberdine.


There were two types of gaberdine raincoats. The most common was the double breasted style. The vast majority of the coats were double breasted. A variation, however, was the single breasted equivalent. One reader reports, "I think that the single breasted gaberdine was actually rather smarter." [Clifford] It was also available for both boys and for girls and again some had detachable hoods. One interesting variation was a rather expensive version made by a company in Leeds or Bradford (forget the name) that was single breasted but suitable for boys and girls. This had two rows of button holes (one on the left and another on the right) and the fastenings were two buttons joined by a strong cotton (or possibly thin wire) shank. This meant the coat could be buttoned either way. Being somewhat more expensive the material was more generous and better cut, and the hood was notably larger and more comfortable to wear. I think this (or a similar one) was also available in a sort of neutral stone colour. [Clifford]


The raincoat was frequently worn not only for school, but also as general boy-swear. As Alice Guppy notes, the 'gaberdine raincoat was the all-purpose topcoat' for both boys and girls (Alice Guppy, Children's Clothes 1939-1970: the Advent of Fashion, 1978, p. 59). This near-ubiquity of the gaberdine raincoat as British children's wear is nicely captured in a novel set in Manchester immediately after World War II (Tony Warren, Behind Closed Doors, 1995, 113, 150, 169), whilst an advertisement for the 'Driway' brand in the (English) Eagle comic, vol. 10, no. 32 for 26 September 1959 makes the sig-nificant claim that its coats are 'smart for schoolwear and at lots of other times too'. For school, it was part of what came to be regarded as 'traditional' British school uniform - also exported to former colonies and dominions - although like so many things 'traditional', it was in fact comparatively recent and lasted for a rela-tively short time. The full school uniform dates from just after World War I (with the V-neck pullover replacing the waistcoat only by the 1930s) and persisted down to the 1960s, when many elements began to be shed. The gaberdine school raincoat, as a commonplace garment, belongs to the same central decades. So familiar did it become as schoolwear, that some manufacturers and retailers advertised it simply as a 'schoolcoat': everyone at the time would have known which garment was being referred to. Similarly, references to a 'school raincoat', a 'school mac' (for 'mackin-tosh'), or a 'school gaberdine' would have left few, if any, wondering what sort of coat was being referred to. Interestingly, the gaberdine raincoat is the one major element of British school uniform (other than black leather lace-up shoes) which is not derived from some form of sportswear - not surprisingly since topcoats are not typically worn for games! As noted, the gaberdine raincoat became popular after 1918. It was, in fact, based on the military trenchcoat of World War I. This derivation is explicitly acknowledged in the 'Driway' advertisement already cited: 'The boy on the right [that is, in the photograph in the advertisement] is wearing a trench-coat style made from fine quality gaber-dine': it is, in fact, the standard schoolboy's gaberdine raincoat. In its transference to schoolwear it lost its back-vents and epaulettes, but usually (though not invariably) retained its cuff-straps, which might be either functional or merely decorative. These changes, together with the widespread adoption of navy blue for the school version, made the latter sufficiently different from the original version for some boys to prefer the one to the other: 'I wanted to look like Humphrey Bogart with a trench coat and a turned-up collar,' wrote the late Oliver Reed, 'but my father ... still insisted on a blazer, a blue [school] mac and a school cap' ( Oliver Reed, Reed All About Me, 1979, 38; Reed was 16 years old at the time).


The colour of the coat varied with the school. Schools might specify a particular colour, navy blue being the most popular though not the only one - Skegness Grammar School, for example, insisted on a green version to match the blazer and school cap (Alf Walker in a radio talk, 'Just Do Your Best', BBC Radio 4, 28 March 1992, refer-ring to the World War II period). The gabberdine school coats were also available in fawn, brown, grey, and maroon. But navy was by far the most common and many mail order catalogues stated that the gaberdine school raincoats that they sold were available in 'navy only'. Gaberdine school raincoats in maroon or brown were normally stocked only by the official outfitters for schools which specified the particular colour. [Smith] Another observer reports that the most common were: navy blue, bottle green, brown, grey, maroon, and royal blue. [Clifford]


The gaberdine raincoat came both with and without a hood. The author of this article tells us that the hooded coats were for girls and not commonly worn by boys. [Smith] A HBC reader takes exception to this and reports that boys also wore the hooded versions. [Clifford] HBC suspects that the hooded version was more commonly worn by girls, so the two reports are not as conflicting as one might imagine. HBC does not want to be "sexist" here, but we suspect that female observers may not be as atunded to sometimes strongly perceived gender based differences in the part of boys as male observers. At any rate here we will be interested to see observations from other British readers. Notably the hood was not always popular with the girls, perhaps because some schoolsequired that it be used in inclemant weather--a not infrequent occurance in Britain.


The color of the linings, as the color of the coat itself varried from school to schhol. Sometimes the lining colour even varied within the school from one house to another. Navy blue (self lined, or tartan-lined, or blue sateen-lined) was probably the commonest, but many variations did occur. A HBC reader repprts, "I particularly recall brown with gold lining, grey with red lining, and grey with blue lining, in addition to the tartan, self-lined and shiny sateen-lined equivalents in these other colours. The contrasting lining was much more attractive, and the sateen-lined much more comfortable to wear." [Clifford]


At some schools the gaberdine raincoat was compulsory; one Manchester school even specified the brand (Robert Hirst) which was to purchased by parents for their sons! Some schools, too, had rules about how the raincoat was to be worn - with the buttons and belt properly fastened; otherwise it had to be removed and carried over one arm. At other schools the gaberdine raincoat was strongly recommended without being enforced: at my own grammar school, in Luton, in the 1950s and '60s the parents of new boys were informed that in the school's experience the navy gaberdine raincoat was the 'most popular' form of topcoat, with the result that most parents (mine included) pur-chased such a coat and it thus remained the 'most popular'! Some manufacturers and retailers advertised the gaberdine raincoat as a 'regulation school raincoat' and one mail order catalogue of the 1950s even described the raincoat (I do not know with what justification in those pre-advertising-standards days) as 'accepted by all educational authorities as the ideal school coat'.

Boys' Opinions

Some have complained that they were 'utterly useless for repelling more than a minute or so of the gentlest rain' (Richard Passmore, Thursday is Missing, 1984, 70). In a novel set in the 1950s David Lodge has Kath Young describe her younger brother Timothy to a German friend: '-Sixteen ... a real English schoolboy.... You know those terrible raincoats they make them wear in England?... No, of course you wouldn't, well, they're navy blue and they're too hot in summer and too thin for winter and they don't keep the rain out anyway, and they're tied up in the middle like a sack of potatoes' (David Lodge, Out of the Shelter, revised edition, 1986, 100).

My own experience was different, finding such a raincoat a good protection against all but the heaviest rain, warm, and comfortable. (In fact, I still do: I possess a couple of examples from the late 1960s: they are genuine schoolboy raincoats and my small stature is an advantage in this respect!) They were also hard-wearing, and usually boys would grow out of them long before they were worn out - which made them ideal as hand-me-downs! They are not much seen these days, although a few schools, normally pre-paratory schools(in the British sense of that term), still specify them as part of uni-form, usually in navy, occasionally in another colour, such as green. They are now of, or incorporate, artificial fibres, whilst the woollen plaid lining has given way to a plain artificial-fibre material.


Yet another variation was the gabardine cloak or cape, plus the equivalent in melton or woolen cloth. These were also usually hooded, some hoods being permanently attached and no collar, others being permanently attached below a collar, and some being detachable. Some detachable hoods were associated with mandarin collars. Colours I remember were navy, grey, green, with again various hood and cloak linings. For example, navy with gold, royal blue, or crimson; grey with red, gold, green or blue; Green with gold. Generally I think these were restricted to girls although again I do recall some younger siblings wearing them, and even a few adults. The nicest cloaks were really quite elegant. [Clifford]


HNC note: We note that Terence in England uses "gaberdine". HBC in America generally uses "gabardine". We thought that this might be another difference in English and America spelling. Our dictionary shows "gaberdine" as an alternative spelling of "gabardine", but does not identify it as a specifically British spelling. Terrance tells us that both spellings are used in England, but that he grew up using the "gaberdine" spelling.

Personal Experiences

Some personal experiences about the gaberdine raincoat are available on HBC.

Scottish boy: The 1950s-60s

English boy--Bill: The 1960s

English boy--Brian: The 1950s-70s


Clifford, Jane. Jane has provided some important insights, many focusing on girls wearing the gabardine coat and the use of the hood as well as some interesting information on linings.

Guppy, Alice. Children's Clothes 1939-1970: the Advent of Fashion (1978).

Lodge, David. Out of the Shelter (revised edition, 1986).

Reed, Oliver. Reed All About Me (1979). 100).

Smith, Terence Paul. Terrance provided the initial draft of this page and for the most part the text is still largely his work.


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Created: November 1, 2001
Last updated: 6:35 PM 5/20/2005