The look is iconic, traditional, and something we instantly associate with a certain type or kind of person. They come in many colors, and server a huge range of purposes. They are Oilskin coats. From humble if yet unknown origins, they are a go to staple during bad, harsh or wet weather across the world. Oilskin was originally was a heavy canvas or other thick fabric with a strong cotton base that would be then coated in linseed oil. It was the oil that made the fabric resistant. As technology increased the next improvement was paraffin wax. The wax smelled less strongly and was more water resistant than the linseed oiled coat.
One of the older stories that is out there is the discovery of making “oilcloth” from accidentally spilling the candles dripping on to a quilt. Upon trying to first rub it off then wash it off they discovered that it had become water resistant. While this might be true or not, no facts can back the story up. One of the first uses aside from the rain protection was table cloth. Once it was discovered, it was only a natural process to start using the cloth for more mundane purposes. If it could keep rain off it could keep a table looking cleaner for longer. They also came in many colors and patterns.
The second most well know use of an Oilskin coat belongs to a certain fisherman wearing all yellow. It was a natural for the fisherman to pick up on anything that is waterproof, water resistant, or the like. When a good day out to sea involves waves, wind, water, it was matter of survival. While over time the technology has changed and oil and wax gave way to latex, plastics, and vinyl, the function remained the same, stay dry and warm in the face of nasty weather.
When some one says “duster coat” what is the first thing that comes to mind? I bet it involves a man with a hat, horse and a gun. We are talking about the classic cowboy. The duster coat for him was a standard in his daily wardrobe. While the coat was meant for keeping the rain out, another advantage was how it got its name. Cows and cow trails are dusty things. Cowboys wore dusters to keep the trail dirt and dust off their clothes. Not that cleanliness was anything back then, but a cowboy has to look good when he comes into town to visit his lady. This is also where the duster got its back gusset and slit. Try riding a horse in a long coat that doesn’t separate in the back. It is really not comfortable. Also if your coat does have a slit. What happens when the wind blows? The coat that was covering your legs just moved. With the addition of the slit and leg ties the duster coat was to become a legend of the west.
From the table to the ship to the back of a horse, the duster will never go out of style. These coats have come a long way from the humble beginnings. From linseed oil to the modern polymers and plastics the duster coat is something that I think we will have around for many many years to come.