Browncoats? (not the Whedon kind)
October 21, 2016 10:31 PM   Subscribe

Many years of Anglophilic TV-watching have left me with a clothing question. What's the deal with the light brown, mid-length, indoor overcoat that certain British workers wear?

The easiest examples to point to are Mr Harman on Are You Being Served? and Mr Dekker in Torchwood: Children of Earth. I know I've seen it in a lot of other UK shows & films, too.

It seems to have a working or middle class association, as the "proper" scientists tend to wear a white coat instead of a tan one, or wear none at all. I think I usually notice it when the coat-wearer (usually a lower-billed actor) is interacting with a main, higher-status character. Not all the on-screen workers wear them when there's one on screen, so that makes me think it signifies some kind of mid-level rank like a non-military NCO. ("I get to keep my street clothes on, unlike you coverall-wearing yobs, but I do enough real work that I can't just prance about in tweeds.")

It's more coat-like than something I'd call a smock, but plain and thin enough that it's clearly not just a raincoat that someone forgot to doff. I don't think I've ever seen a female character in one, but that might be due to gendered casting for those job roles in the older things I've watched.

Does anyone know whether there's a name for that garment, and what it means if someone's wearing one? Is it a period/anachronism thing now? My searches keep turning up just clothing catalogs, but not the sartorial sociology that I'm after.
posted by NumberSix to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Dust coats.
To protect your business clothes from dust etc when working on the shop floor.
posted by Thella at 10:47 PM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yes! Put me in mind of Ronnie Corbett. I think "dust coat" may be right, although when I search for that there's a lot of noise from Western-style dusters. Searching for "dust coats" while excluding "dusters" brings up some relevant looking tradesman's coats. Mostly from Australian and NZ sites, though. Maybe there's another term out there?
posted by col_pogo at 11:10 PM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

In Canada I'd call it a shop coat and they are conventionally blue or medium grey. The purpose is to protect ones clothes from the dirt. More popular with older guys who still wear business shirts (and sometimes ties) in shops; younger guys tend more to coveralls.

They come in different weights.
posted by Mitheral at 11:24 PM on October 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Yup, dust coat.

When I were a young apprentice here in Aus, there was a definite hierarchy of them - light grey for shift leaders / foremen, white for experienced / upper level tech staff, and the stereotypical Mr Mash / Mr Harman brown for normal techs, apprentices, and assistant techs.

Although those specifics were probably employer/industry dependent, I certainly remember it being the case that brown dustcoats generally indicated a lower-level or manual worker regardless of industry.
posted by Pinback at 11:26 PM on October 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, and people with the dirtiest jobs generally wore overalls or coveralls (usually the former, with just underwear underneath, since a coverall over normal clothes is just too damned hot here).
posted by Pinback at 11:29 PM on October 21, 2016

Is there a chance you mean donkey jackets? I came across the term recently in a british crime novel, and there are some specific articles of clothing in the UK from the working class that got co-opted by punks/fashion.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 1:30 AM on October 22, 2016

A donkey jacket is a short coat, usually navy, with a waterproof section across the shoulders. I'd associate it with trades working outdoors or maybe refuse collectors.

I'm pretty sure the OP is talking about a dust coat / warehouse coat as everyone else has suggested. Definitely still in use but not so much in brown I think, more navy/blue/grey ones with corporate logos.

There is a manufacturing place down the road from me where I see all the younger staff going in wearing these over their regular clothes. I also wouldn't be surprised if I saw an older school caretaker wearing one. And yes nearly all of the wearers seem to be men, even now.
posted by emilyw at 2:34 AM on October 22, 2016

I'm from the UK and would call that a shop coat. They aren't a common thing now and in a TV show they are definitely "period".

I think they were worn mainly to protect clothes, hence the association with lower/lower middle class jobs. People doing work that wasn't very clean (in and out dusty storerooms, anything manual) who couldn't easily afford to replace clothing very regularly.
posted by *becca* at 2:50 AM on October 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

You do still see these from time to time. A removal van driver I always see on my street wears a navy blue one.
posted by Ted Maul at 7:08 AM on October 22, 2016

Shop coat; definitely slightly period. Regarding status, would either be worn by a janitor (so, considered lower but critically important) or factory foreman (so, higher). Sometimes management would pull one on to come down to the machine shop. In a factory, they were very distinctive compared to the standard blue overalls. If you saw the hint of one, you might quietly signal to your mates to look lively.
posted by scruss at 9:01 AM on October 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Pre-WW1 there were also office coats, because clerical work was so inky. (Probably also to indicate working-class clerical work.) In some novels it's a big social step to move up to wearing just a suit with no office coat, and a sign of ambition (or snobbery) to insist on taking off the office coat when running a work errand outside the building.
posted by clew at 1:23 PM on October 22, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks very much for all the helpful answers, both on the coats and the customs. I did get a lot of western-style "duster" hits from Google, but didn't think to filter the way col_pogo did. That's just what I was thinking of, and a terrific amount of context.
posted by NumberSix at 3:56 PM on October 22, 2016

Response by poster: Oh, and now I remember the most famous dust coat in all of Western literature: Michael Palin's in the Parrot Sketch.

(must ... not ... quote ... )
posted by NumberSix at 4:05 PM on October 22, 2016

Piazza Piece
By John Crowe Ransom

—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.
posted by clew at 7:27 PM on November 20, 2016

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