A Century of Belstaff

By Andrew Court

When most people think about wax cotton jackets, they think about Barbour.

This piece of classic English outerwear, designed to repel the damp old Blighty weather, is a staple of the aristocratic country shooting weekend lifestyle. These jackets are also popular in the Anglosphere metropolises of London and New York, but  you’re more likely to find a baggie of coke instead of a box of 12 gauge shells in their urban owners’ oversized pockets.

Don’t get me wrong, Barbour is amazing, but what if you want something a bit more rebellious? For a hundred years, Belstaff has provided the motorcycle riding, pistol toting, adventurous rogue’s alternative to the staid wax cotton hegemony of Barbour.

The story began in Staffordshire in 1924 when Eli Belovitch and his son-in-law Harry Grosberg decided to make specialized waterproof garments for aviators and motorcycle enthusiasts. They imported fine Egyptian cotton which, when waxed, was both waterproof and breathable. During World War I they cut their teeth producing garments and rubber goods for the British military. These service items had to be a bit more hardcore than a simple zip-up Barbour. A belt was needed, plus a tab to close the collar and seal out the elements.

Belstaff quickly caught the eye of the inter-war era adventurers. Lawrence of Arabia wore a Belstaff coat riding around the British countryside. Chris Bonington kept the chill out with his Belstaff while he summited “the Ogre”, a 23,901 foot peak in Pakistan’s Karakoram range. Amelia Earhart even wore one.

Motorcycle racers adopted them as an alternative to the more traditional tie and sport coat.

By 1940 the company had launched their most iconic model, the Trialmaster.  Its name and inspiration came from the Scottish Six Days Trial—a grueling off-road motorcycle trial. The jacket’s design featured four large bellow pockets on the front, a buckle-fastened throat latch, and a waist belt. The rugged appearance and functional design of the Trialmaster became synonymous with the Belstaff brand. If you know Belstaff at all, this is the coat you think of.

The jacket entered pop culture in the 1960s when Steve McQueen was regularly seen in a Trialmaster at motorcycle events around the globe. There’s even a rumor that he missed a date with then-girlfriend Ali McGraw because he preferred to stay home and wax his coat.  More ignominiously, the garment was a favorite of the pretty fucking evil communist guerilla Che Guevara.

In today’s marketplace, filled with plastic-bottle-derived performance outerwear, Belstaff jackets have become more of a fashion accessory. David Beckham loves his, and the roughest duty it probably sees is sitting on Posh’s shoulders when she gets a chill. Their retail stores can be found in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and on London’s Regent Street.

While the company is fashion-focused, Belstaff still makes jackets that are designed for motorcyclists. Modern versions have technical fabric to resist abrasions and hidden interior pockets to add protective armor. Their gear is significantly more expensive than the competition, but who can put a price on looking cool during the group ride?

Mine has lasted five years at this point. I picked it up at Union Garage in Brooklyn. The jacket has been all over the world with me. I wore it in my Field Ethos article about riding in Greece, and it effortlessly took me from the hot coast, to cold mountains, and out at night to Athenian watering holes. The garment looks worn, but that only adds to the style.

I liked it so much I ordered another one, in mesh, for the South Florida heat.

You don’t have to be a film star, a record breaking mountain climber, or a long haul rider to appreciate these jackets. The leaves are changing and the air is decidedly crisp. A Trialmaster will have you looking sharp for pumpkin picking with the Mrs as well as rakish for the office commute. If you don’t live in Minnesota or Finland, layer it with a chunky sweater and this jacket will earn its keep all winter long. This isn’t a bad thing since the coat costs almost six hundred bucks.

You and the jacket might have both been domesticated, but don’t forget to take it for a little adventure every now and then.

From the FE Films Archive

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