As an Englishman it is sometimes difficult for me to find much clothing of the “made in England” variety which is really my thing, though part of me feels that I should, I have always preferred denim (fairly obviously), American style work boots and Japanese styled and detailed work and street wear. The main reasons for this being that American styles have always suited my rather awkward frame better than the English which have a tendency to be a little more delicate in my opinion. Add this to the fact that I favour utility over aesthetics having never really followed fashion to any degree and you will see why brands such as Iron Heart, White’s and Wesco hold such a strong pull for me, I have in the past tried English footwear from luminaries such as Trickers and Grenson, but always found myself going back to my White’s SD’s or Bounty Hunters. There is one particular garment though, which is both English designed and English made (until recently), and it happens to be one of my all-time favourite pieces of utilitarian work wear.
Call it what you will, a moto jacket, a trials jacket or a vintage styled biking jacket, what the two best known examples are called is the Barbour International and the Belstaff Trialmaster, and they are a different as night…..and later that same night. Both companies have a long a distinguished history of producing tough jackets and trousers for the military, motorcyclists, and outdoorsmen of many a persuasion, both are famed for their liberal use of heavy ounce waxed cotton to provide a breathable waterproof garments and both are genuine English heritage brands. Barbour stake a claim to the patent of the first waxed cotton jacket in 1924, they also supplied deck suits and jackets to the British military in the second World War which bore a startling resemblance to the later itineration’s of the bike jacket for which both brands would become famous.
If Barbour’s history begins with military hardware then equally it is Belstaff who can claim genuine racing pedigree, producing jackets for such esteemed riders as Trials legend Sammy Miller, still racing today at the ripe old age of 75. Belstaff partnered with other well regarded iconic British brands such as Lightning zippers, and even had their wares produced under license in Australia by the bushman’s brand Drizabone. Both brands lay claim to the man who, perhaps more than any other, personifies real man’s style, the illustrious Steve McQueen. The story goes (and I have seen no actual proof of this), that McQueen wore Barbour jackets to ride in as they had a sponsorship deal with him, but his personal preference was for Belstaff, with the story even going so far that he once failed to turn up for an evening appointment with a Hollywood beauty because he was waxing his Belstaff (not a euphemism). As a result of these dual claims both brands have at one time or another produced a Steve McQueen tribute jacket, with the current Belstaff S Icon being based upon the jacket which they provided for “The Great Escape”.
Unfortunately the stories of the two companies have diverged in more recent times, whilst Barbour have become the standard for the faux landed gentry in the UK, and come in a variety of colours to co-ordinate with their Land Rovers, Belstaff have declined at an alarming rate to the point where they are now almost exclusively bought by reality TV stars, footballers and minor Hollywood celebrities who are eager to show their love of all things “heritage”. Barbour are now the standard for waxed outdoors wear, Belstaff are owned by a Swiss fashion conglomerate (after a few years of Italian ownership), and manufacture things which would not look out of place in an auction of Michael Jacksons 1980’s stage costumes, a truly sad decline. The beginning of the end for Belstaff came when, feeling the economic pressure of the late 70’s/ early 80’s in England, many of their key suppliers (including Lightning) went to the wall, quality dropped off and so did orders. The original Longstaff plant was closed and moved to a much smaller facility, sensing blood in the water and before the brand name lost all its value, they were ripe for takeover and reimagining into the vacuous fashion oriented brand which they remain today. Barbour themselves have also been through a minor reboot, from being the standard working garment of the agricultural set they now firmly pitch their tent on the well-manicured lawns of the rural middle class, with a price point matching their new ambitions (although nowhere near the daylight robbery which accompany the fashion conscious Belstaff offerings).
This tale of woe particularly resonates with me as I really love the trails jacket style, it is a perfect piece of iconic British design combined with true sense of practical usefulness, so to see them being poorly made for movie product placement (see Will Smith in I Am Legend sporting the Belstaff Trialmaster Legend edition), or underused by Essex housewives taking young Theodore and Jasmin to their private school in the Bentley really irks me. This is a piece of clothing made to be used, abused, waxed, worn and kept for life. It is not an accessory for your Prada jeans and Gucci bag and I believe that the time has come for this jacket to be reclaimed by people who will use them properly, the only problem being that the new offeringsfrom Belstaff are awful and ludicrously overpriced, and even Barbour have priced their International jacket at about £100 more than it should be for a “proper” version. What this has led to is the creation of a second hand market for well used jackets which can also be priced disproportionately high, but there are still bargains to be had if you have time and patience.
The main body of the pictures for this article are of a pair of vintage Belstaff Trialmaster jackets which I have acquired in the last 12 months, the first jacket proved to be much too small for me, but as it only cost £35 and I auctioned it for over £300 it certainly proved its worth. The second and most recent purchase is a pre-1974 Sammy Miller edition Belstaff Trialmaster Professional, complete with fully working Lightning zipper, in short it is my idea of the perfect example of this jacket. I paid £89 for it from eBay and have sent it away for some much needed restoration on a few small rips and tears, but when it comes back I am extremely confident that it will continue to perform its job for a further 40 years, probably outliving me.