Formality, for all its rules and regulations, is relative. Case in point: The Chesterfield, the British overcoat introduced around 1840 and subsequently named for the sixth Earl of Chesterfield. Though it’s currently one of the most formal overcoats a guy can wear, it actually rose to prominence as a casual alternative to the Victorian frock coat, replacing the former’s heavily suppressed waist seam with simple vertical darts for shape, and favoring a straighter, streamlined silhouette.
But aside from the reworked lines of the thing, the Chesterfield isn’t all that different from its ancestor. Like the frock coat, it’s a full-length overcoat cut from dark, heavy wool and worn over a sport coat or suit jacket. Single-breasted versions are marked by a fly front, in which a cloth placket covers the buttons so they can’t be seen when the coat is closed. Double-breasted versions also exist, but feature exposed buttons. In either case, pockets are flapped and hit at the hip, and a single vent at the back gives your legs some room to move. And though it’s not technically a requirement for a coat to qualify as a Chesterfield, most versions feature a velvet collar. Originally worn by the wealthy as a sympathetic nod to the beheaded, aristocratic brethren who fell during the French Revolution—think about where a guillotine hits your neck—it also served a far more practical purpose: The velvet section could easily be removed and replaced after it became soiled. Longer hair was the style at the time, and as bathing was a once-in-a-while kind of affair, the oils that built up in a guy’s locks tended to transfer to the collar in short order. Seems that hygiene, like formality, is a relative thing as well.