Ask ‘what is a sports jacket?’ and the mind immediately goes back in time: to post WWII movies and their very English heroes: to Brideshead Revisited with Sebastian and Charles driving through the countryside; to that favoured, pipe-smoking uncle who was always such good company.

A very romantic view that probably says more about your correspondent than you need to know. But more importantly it places the sports jacket in a very particular time and social group. And that would be wrong. The sports jacket goes back much further than the mid-twentieth century, but more importantly, it remains very relevant today. Indeed, it should be an essential part of any man’s wardrobe.

What is a Sports Jacket

But what is a sports jacket? It is a tailored jacket in a patterned or raised weave cloth. Often the pattern is a check, sometimes it’s made of tweed, occasionally it’s quite colourful. There are so many options it is difficult to be too prescriptive. But most importantly, it the tailored jacket of choice for most men.

It is also worth noting what it is not. It is not a blazer, nor a suit jacket – despite being of a similar cut. The sports jacket is a less formal and stylistically more versatile. It’s a distinct item.

A brief history of the sports jacket

But first a bit of history. The first recorded sports jacket was made for the Duke of Norfolk in the 1860s and it was made for taking part in country sports. A keen shot and angler, the Duke wanted a practical garment that he could wear out in the field. 

In many ways the jacket looked quite different to how it looks today. For a start it buttoned up to the neck. It had an internal belt. And its outside pockets were large – big enough to hold everything the Duke might need when out on his estate. But it was also designed for ease of movement, with a large pleat at the back.

But there were similarities as well. It was made from tweed, and it was shorter than the standard jacket of the time - the frock coat. 

Most importantly, it was fit for purpose. It was sturdy garment suitable for hunting, shooting and fishing. So much so that other members of the nobility and the landed classes asked their tailors to make them one too (there was no ready-to-wear in those days). And as it was copied so the design was modified and variations were developed – see for example the hacking jacket, which was developed for horse riders, cut away at the front and with a single vent so it sat properly on the rider and his saddle.

And over time the jacket moved from the rugged outdoors to the refined drawing rooms of polite society. In the same way sportswear inspires fashion today, so the sports jacket was adopted as a more relaxed, comfortable alternative to the suit. By the turn of the 20th century the sports jacket had become widely acceptable. 

Noticeably, the cut had developed so that it looked similar to the jackets we wear today, it buttoned lower, the pockets weren’t so large and the pleat was applied less. 

And by the 1920s Edward, the Duke of Windsor, a very definite ‘style-leader’ had adopted it as one of his favourite forms of dress. He paired it with grey flannel trousers, though the formality of shirt and tie remained. 

It was a ringing endorsement of the sports jacket and it became the uniform of the middle and upper classes – from teenagers at minor public schools to businessmen who didn’t want to wear a suit at the weekend. And it remained popular in the countryside, the standard uniform for farmers,

Such universal popularity in turn brought about a great diversity of style, primarily in terms of cloth but also to how the jacket was accessorised. Given its rural roots a hardwearing tweed was the most popular cloth, either checked or in a herringbone and the colour palette was mainly greens and browns with russets and rich yellows adding highlights. But over time greys and blues were added and less hardwearing cloths, with a bit more drape and a softer handle became popular. 

Accessories included suede elbow patches and leather buttons to comensate for some of the less robust fabrics.

By the 1960s the sports jacket was ubiquitous. It was no longer just a casual, weekend item. It had started to appear in the offices of ad agencies in London as an alternative to the suit – especially in the creative departments. Initially frowned upon by other areas of business attitudes gradually thawed and the sports jacket became a mainstay of the business wardrobe as an alternative to the suit.

The Modern Sports Jacket

Today the once ‘casual’ alternative has become the closest many men get to formal dressing. Teamed with a shirt and chinos it is standard dress in offices during the week and in restaurants or at dinner parties over the weekend. For a more relaxed look it can be paired with T shirt and cotton trousers, or even jeans.

But while there is still a certain man who opts for the heavy tweed and strong check, generally worn with cords or moleskins, the modern sports jacket is very different to its predecessors, both in terms of construction and cloth.

For a start, it is much lighter. Today’s jacket has far less padding inside. It’s thinner at the chest and there are no shoulder pads – the modern gentleman doesn’t need the same sort of robust garment that they had in the last century.

And this is enhanced by the choice of cloth. Previously it was all thick, heavy wools, now the garment is just as likely to be made from a lightweight blend, perhaps wool with cashmere, creating a super-soft handle and adding a real sense of luxury.

Pattern also plays its part. There is a new, urban tweed that takes the checks of the past and reinterprets them for now. Think bold checks on a muted ground, say navy on an airforce blue base cloth, or a subtle Prince of Wales check in mocha on light brown.

The modern sports jacket is sophisticated and refined, more Duke of Windsor than the sporty Duke of Norfolk. But there is a common thread that links them all – they are a pleasure to wear.

To arrange to have your own sports jacket custom tailored for you at Ashworth & Bird fill in this form:

Harri Clews