A recent spate of unusually cold weather throughout my recent travels reminded me that the virtues of the so-called teddy bear coat, like that pictured, are not limited simply to being able to make a ridiculous spectacle of yourself on today’s streets. Reassuringly heavy, massive and dense, it practically invites you to envelope yourself in a layer of warm, deep pile impervious to cold and wind.
Usually made out of alpaca pile, the teddy bear coat was a mainstay for the slightly dandified gentleman of the first half of the twentieth century. (I understand there’s a picture of Churchill in one, although I haven’t tracked it down.) Usually styled like a double-breasted belted greatcoat, it has the dash, heft and bygone eccentricity of something a character in an Edward Gorey cartoon would wear, perhaps the unwell-looking “obscure essayist named Frowst.” The “teddy bear” name was no doubt inspired by the plush softness of old teddy bears also made in alpaca pile. Paul Stuart, one of the last stores to retail this garment, instead gave it the more butch name of a “Bear Cat” coat, likely in evocation of open sports cars from the early 20th century like the Stutz Bearcat, which required the winter driver to wear warm, heavy coats like this one.
Mine is actually in llama, alpaca’s somewhat coarser cousin. The coat is still warm and relatively soft. I cast a broad net (to capture both animals) in my searches and found it vintage, by a long-defunct British manufacturer for an also-defunct American university shop, as back in the day coats like these, and raccoon coats, were all the rage to wear on a cold game day. One of the labels calls the material “Llamacuna,” an old attempt to persuade potential buyers that the cloth had something of the softness of vicuna even if it lacked it in content. I’ve seen similar attempts on old labels touting “Alpacuna” (100% alpaca) and the like, recalling how mid-range department stores used to sell scarves made of synthetic “cashmink” or “cashmaire” before junky Chinese-made cashmere flooded the market at prices and quality similar to acrylic. Despite all that, alpaca or llama pile have their own advantages and qualities, quite distinct from those of vicuna, which in any case is valued more for its rarity and novelty value than for any actual superiority over cashmere.
I haven’t had to use my coat very often: the last time was on a sortie between massive snowstorms a few years ago to restock supplies (more alcohol, steaks and Cat Power albums). I can’t get rid of it, though – nothing gets through it, and as the late style writer John Morgan noted of his own teddy bear coat, it feels like a security blanket, oversized in a metaphorical bear hug, almost (please don’t try this at home) bulletproof. Like our other personal security blankets, we may not need this often, but treasure it when we do.
Where to find your own? Paul Stuart hasn’t carried their version for the last several winters. I suspect it was made by Invertere, a once-famous British coatmaking firm which went through several quasi-Hindu cycles of corporate death and rebirth in recent decades. Whatever its current incarnation, it doesn’t seem to exist in the form it used to. The Savile Row designer Richard James features an alpaca teddy bear coat in his winter collections every year without fail. I’m not sure who makes it, but it’s a gorgeous garment. Otherwise, there are few alternatives new. I’m not aware that any cloth merchants would sell the right material to have one made bespoke, although I’ve never looked into it. Ben Silver and a few other shops are selling a cloth coat lined in alpaca pile for a more subtle look, but I prefer the original in all its outrageous glory.
It takes front to wear. People will think you’re wearing fur or call it your pimp coat. From personal experience, I can promise they’ll be secretly jealous and will confess as much given half a chance. The style is flattering on almost any man, a reason to go vintage. For even though you walk through the lobby of a fading former palace hotel recognizing a track from the High Llamas’ Hawaii into the cold and damp, you will fear no winter.