A woman’s coat or jacket is rarely worn just to ward off the elements and keep warm, although these garments certainly do both of those things. More than a means of covering up, they are as important to an outfit’s overall fashion statement as the right dress, pair of shoes, or hat. A look back at the vintage coats and jackets of the 20th century reveals how these articles of clothing evolved to signal the styles of the women who wore them.

At the beginning of the 1900s, some women’s coats extended all the way to the calf at the back but had open fronts to show off a matching vest as well as a coordinated dress, which was so long it dragged on the ground. Other coats were almost poncho-like, with enormous collars, equally large patch pockets, and puffy balloon sleeves. Today, these coats seem like period pieces compared to other knee-length, belted coats with fur collars, cuffs, and hems, which hinted at more modern looks.

Jackets were often worn as the upper part of a suit. Shorter than coats, and adhering to the Edwardian habit of tight waists, such jackets were usually paired with a matching skirt that was cut loose so women could participate in everything from sports to the Tango.

By the 1920s, outer garments ranged from three-quarter-length Russian-style coats, with buttons running in a vertical row below the left shoulder and high Cossack collars, to colorful tailored jackets that stopped at the knees. Fur at the collar and hem remained popular, but so were Art Nouveau and Art Deco prints on silk. Meanwhile, velour and other luscious fabrics were made even richer with embroidery and costume-jewelry clasps.

Coco Chanel was just one of many designers who came into their own in this decade—other big names included Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin, and Paul Poiret. These designers, and many more, made clothing—including coats and jackets—that was almost androgynous, borrowing heavily from the styles of 1920s menswear.

This trend toward masculinity continued until World War II. Many jackets got shorter, resembling tuxedos, while others drew from gaucho and toreador styles. Shoulder pads took off thanks to their dramatic use in the movies. Meanwhile, in Paris, Elsa Schiaparelli and others produced coats and jackets that were almost architectural in their structure and cut.

During the war, shortages of materials caused designers to economize—in England, the style was formally known as Utility. Double-breasted jackets used more fabric than single-bre...

Numerous looks for coats were born during the war years. Though many were designed for male soldiers and seamen, women’s coat-and-jacket designers appropriated these styles freely. There was the peacoat, a stiff, woolen garment that was particularly good at beating back chilly ocean winds.

Women also claimed World War I-era trench coat styles during the 1940s and ’50s. But some styles took longer to catch on—the bomber jacket, which evolved into the motorcycle jacket, wouldn’t gain popularity among women until the 1960s and ’70s.

The big news of the 1940s for fashion, though, was Dior’s New Look, launched in 1947. Like a lot of designers, Dior had wearied of all that wartime austerity. He wanted something fresh and elegant, and his aesthetic translated well to coats and jackets. The military influence could still be seen, but flaring hems and tight waists that flattered and hugged the figure feminized his New Look.

Materials like linen suited the change that was in the air, but so did big prints and loud colors. In the 1950s, a billowy purple coat would not have been out of the ordinary, but a tight-fitting Mandarin-style jacket in vibrant blue might also be embraced.

Suits in velveteen, twill, and man made materials such as Dacron were smart and conservative, a counterpoint to coats and jackets lined or trimmed with everything from real mink to faux leopard. Such was the 1950s, a decade when opposites routinely attracted.

By the 1960s, all bets were off. Yves Saint Laurent designed pink tweed suits with short double-breasted jackets—Sears sold Seersucker suits with jackets of the same basic cut. Also in the ’60s were denim jackets by Levi’s and Wrangler, designed ostensibly for blue-collar males. Much to the chagrin of their owners, fashion-forward wives and girlfriends frequently borrowed these jackets from their partners, sometimes permanently.

One of the most influential designers of the decade was André Courrèges, who not only invented the classic 1960s go-go-boot but also brought the fitted leather bomber jackets of World War II into the swinging sixties. The Courrèges jacket was made of patent leather, usually in a pastel such as pink, had plastic snaps, and sported a collar that looked even better turned up than folded over.

Chanel and Dior produced similar versions of the waist-length jacket—First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy made Chanel’s internationally famous. Cardin excelled at short jackets, too, but also floor-length maxi coats, which were trimmed in geometric designs from the waist to the collar and at the cuffs and hem—for shock value, these long coats were often paired with a mini-skirt.

Another women’s jacket icon of the 1960s was the double-breasted blazer. And for coats, especially for women in Manchester, England, bone-clasp duffels were the outwear of choice, probably because they made those long waits in line to get into one of the city’s legendary Northern Soul dance clubs just a little bit warmer.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

While primarily designed to steer buyers to online vintage clothing shops, this blog is chock full of interesting, … [read review or visit site]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Laura Ashley Black Victorian Riding Dress Coat Wool Velvet 12-14Vintage 1945 Spotted Lynx Ocelot Leopard Real Fur Coat Jacket Gilet Cites ExemptRainbow Mink Chinchilla Fox Real Fur Batwing Jacket Coat Stole Cape Poncho Smlxl33" Canadian Red Amber Silver Real Fox Fur Long Vest Gilet Jacket Coat StoleFabulous 1930s French Vintage Woven Cashmere Paisley Coat Rare FindNatural Golden Sable Real Mink Fur Vtg Jacket Coat Cape Zobel Chinchilla Lynx MRukka Red Vinyl Raincoat 1960s. Rain Coat Regenmantel Rubber Pvc. Latex Gummi Rare 1930s Silk Velvet Opera Dress Coat By Marshall & Snelgrove - Uk 12 / 14Exceptional Original 1940s Wool Crepe And Grosgrain Coat Dress - Uk 10Vtg 80s Ethnic Moroccan Moss Green + Blk Chevron Drape Cocoon Maxi Duster JacketBurberry Great Trench Double Breasted Coat Mac Checked Prorsum Buerberrys Sz 14Chimayo La Azteca Handwoven Jacket 1940's Vintage Native AmericanVintage 1960s Honey Mink Fur Walking Coat Sz SVintage 40s 50s Original Blue Silk 2 Piece Dress N Jacket Novelty Print 12 M Fab 1970s Vintage Genuine Ranch Mink Jacket In Excellent Condition Vintage Dereta 1960's Robe Cream Mohair Wool Blend Coat M / L 14 - Cl2 B06Canadian Coyote Wolf Fox Chinchilla Unisex Hooded Real Fur Bomber Jacket CoatVtg 60s Champagne Pink Silk Brocade Baroque Coat Spring Princess Mod Dress LGlistening Vtg 1960s Autumn Haze Mink Real Fur Coat Jacke Chic Swing Retro 14 16New Red Herring Green 100% Leather Trench Retro Vintage Style Coat 14 - Cl2 P03Vintage 1960s Luminous Dark Brown Mink Fur Glam Coat Sz S30" Multi Rainbow Real Blue Fox Chinchilla Mink Fur Gilet Vest Jacket Coat StoleVtg 80s Woven Ignacio Peri Oversized Cocoon Avant Garde Wool Stripe Jacket CoatWomen's Edwardian Steampunk Velvet Jacket 1900 Fancy Vintage Coat Antique FabricVintage 1945 Ocelot Leopard Mink Real Fur Jacket Coat Stole Gilet Cites ExemptSumputous Vintage 1960's Silver Fox Real Fur Stole Coat Shrug CapeBurberry Great Trench Coat Mac Short Checked Prorsum BuerberrysMagnificent 1912 Cashmere Caftan Vintage Evening CoatAuthentic Civil War Era Dress Jacket Hand SewnVtg House Wife / Dinner Lady Nylon Overall Work Wear Dress Coat Sz L-xxl Luxurious Vintage 1980's Brown Persian Lamb Astrakhan Real Fur Coat Retro 18 20Vintage Laura Ashley Blue Velvet Purple Floral Lining Evening Coat 10-12ukVintage 1960s Ivory Handmade Crochet Wool Chunky Cardigan Sweater Coat Sz L1950s 50s Elegant Vintage Silk Tulip Cocktail Party Wedding Dress Coat Set MOriginal 1950s Vintage Silver Fox Real Fur Stole Coat Shrug CapeRare And Beautiful Real Seal Fur Coat By " Jeanne Nataf " Paris Amazing Fur CoatAuthentic Civil War Era Dress Jacket OrnateRaincoat Rain Coat Pvc. Regenmantel Rubber Gummi Vinyl Vintage 1930's Black Silk Velvet Fox Fur Trimmed Coat - S - As Is Fabric SalvageVerynice Vintage 1930’s Dress & Jacket Pink Chiffon Needs Tlc Art Deco RepurposeVintage Balenciaga Paris 60s Inspired Structured Jacket Sz MVtg 60s Jeanie Blue Bell Pop Art Cotton Travel Jacket Country Names Mod Hippie Christian Dior Vintage 80s Midnight Black Wool Velvet Trim Tuxedo Jacket Sz 14Reproduction 40s/50s Wartime Audrey Hepburn Swing Dress Coat Goodwood Ww2 12Vintage Astraka Acrylic Faux Fur Natural Long Coat Jacket Uk 12 - Cl8 D36Vintage 1920s Gold Lamé Evening Coat Colorful Jewel Tones Silk Lining M/lLuxurious Vintage 1980's Black Persian Lamb Astrakhan Real Fur Coat Retro 24 26Luxurious Vintage 1980 Cream Rabbit Real Fur Full Length Coat Boho Crafts 16 18Vintage 90’s Black Lurex Lavish Cropped Jacket Sz LVintage 80’s Black Schott Leather Fringe Worn Motorcycle Biker Jacket Sz 46Vtg 1950s Dark Chocolate Brown Mink Fur Stole Wrap Jacket Cape Shawl S-lVintage 90s Turquoise Shell Lace Moroccan Edge Kimono Festival Jacket One Size Vintage 80s Does 50s Laura Ashley Cotton Polka Dot Dress N Matching Jacket 10 SVintage Womans Vicuna CoatLuxurious Vintage 1980's Dark Brown Musquash Real Fur Coat Stole Retro 22 24Vintage Cache Topaz Gromit Suede Jacket Sz SAntique Handmade White Tambour Lace Waterfall Jacket Bell Sleeves1920s Silk Coat, True Vintage, Classic StyleVintage 90s Does 50s White & Black Polk A Dot Ruffle Trim Jacket Sz XsVintage 1980s Rosette Ruffle Collar Pencil Pleated Blazer Jacket Sz S