About a year ago, I sneered that there was nothing “authentically skinhead” about owning a genuine Crombie. With no small amount of inverted snobbery, I suggested there was no point in getting one unless you were an “MP, diplomat or KGB agent“. Well, that was before I had one. Since then, I have sussed an unbelievable bargain for a black Crombie Retro Coat in mint condition. Now I think real Crombies are the dog’s bollocks. Whereas I once scoffed at the 4-Skins’ sarcastic putdown, “I wear a cheap crombie, and that’s about all”, today I sing along with conviction.
Having reached crombie nirvana, so to speak, I shall celebrate with this little feature. Given that the Torygraph already printed a decent general history of the Crombie a few years ago, I will focus on the skinhead angle, while also incorporating my own experience with different variations of the coat.
First things first. In his famous fashion notebook found at the end of Nick Knight’s ‘Skinhead’ book of 1982, Jim Ferguson makes the following claim:
The ‘Crombie’ is usually considered the skinhead coat – but only in the broadest sense of the word ‘skinhead’ can this be accepted. Skinhead haircuts & Crombies missed each other by the better part of a year and ‘Crombie boys’ as they became known often had shoulder length hair. The first time I ever saw a skinhead haircut and a Crombie on the same person was in 1978 or 9.
Most available photographic evidence seems to support this. Crombie coats make a noticeable appearance from circa 1970 onward, when things gradually turn ‘suedehead’. Prior to that, you get sheepskins and macs. Even in pictures where both skinheads and ‘suedeheads’ are present, those who sport crombies are usually one or two steps ahead in the hair length department:
Ferguson’s account also matches the experience of original skinheads from ‘up north’, where crombies only caught on after the Sunday Times ‘Meet the Crombie Boys’ expose of March 1971. However, many originals from the Greater London area beg to differ – violently. The crombie, they insist, was a London skinhead coat long before the arrival of ‘suedehead’.
Given the dearth of photographic testimony, I must admit I suspected historical revisionism at first. I have since spoken with a good number of original skinheads both online and in real life. Too vivid and detailed are their crombie recollections from 1969-70 to be fabrications. Unless these people are all part of some great crombie conspiracy, I eventually decided, the crombie was a skinhead coat. As for Jim Ferguson… well, he lived in Leicester.
Some remember buying their first crombie as early as 1967 – these fellas had a mod background and later belonged, by their own admission, to the ‘soft’ end of skinhead. Others, notably members of younger and rather more hard-core mobs, remember switching from macs to crombies in 1969. This was the first generation of ‘skinheads’ in the proper sense – kids who had adopted the name given to them by others. In 1969, most had their coats made to measure, referring to them as ‘crombies’ without necessarily being aware it was the name of a cloth brand.
A ‘crombie’ was any gentleman’s topcoat that had the characteristics of a chesterfield overcoat: typically black or dark navy, single breasted, three quarter length and made of heavy fabric. ‘Crombies’ were usually fly-fronted, well waisted, and had a fairly long rear vent. More often than not, they had red lining and featured two flapped side pockets and a breast pocket. True to the chesterfield’s ever-changing nature, however, ‘crombies’ often incorporated elements of the covert coat, such as a velvet collar or a ticket pocket. The main character in Bronco Bullfrog (1969) sports a variation that boasts the latter detail, but not the former:
The reason most original skinheads don’t remember anyone owning a real Crombie back in the day is simple: J&J Crombie Ltd of Aberdeen did not produce any coats of its own until 1985. Rather, the company provided cloth for various coatmakers. Only one East London skinhead I spoke to recalls buying a crombie off the peg in early 1969. It was made of Crombie cloth by Dunn & Co, and it had ‘Dunn & Co’ and ‘Crombie’ labels sewn into the lining.
By late 1969, off the peg ‘crombies’ of varying quality became widely available in London. They were usually sold off the back of a van in places such as Brick Lane market and never made of Crombie cloth. Many of these sellers were Asian, and – as one original skinhead shamefacedly told me – kids often sent others to get a coat as they themselves didn’t want to be seen buying from a ‘paki’. In London in 1970, these ‘market crombies’ quickly became the most widespread skinhead coats, worn to the football ground just as much as they were during the week.
I’m lucky enough to own a navy ‘market crombie’ with red lining from that period, made in Britain by a company called Evron. It stands out for being particularly well waisted and boasting a somewhat flared bottom, which gives its shape a nice flow. Although some of the cheaper market crombies reputedly resembled horse blankets, mine is of decent quality, relatively heavy and warm, and made of 80% wool. I would say it’s the old school equivalent of today’s Warrior and Relco coats, although its dandyish cut is superior. At 39 inches back length, it’s a tad shorter than today’s Crombie ‘retro’ coat, but a good couple of inches longer than the likes of Warrior and Relco.
What, then, is the ‘correct’ crombie length? Well, just above the knee is what most top ranking original skinheads would argue, although a few inches shorter than that is also acceptable. Midway down your thigh is too short, and below knee length makes it an undertaker’s overcoat.
Right (second left), wrong (first right):
As you can see, not all suedeheads were style gods. Conversely, not all 1980s skins were scruffs dressed in ‘crombies’ from the Last Resort shop that looked like donkey jackets.
What’s available for the discerning skinhead today, then? Here’s my take on just a few models – by no means an exhaustive list.
‘Men’s wool & cashmere luxury blend slim fit crombie coat’ by De La Crème fashions
This Walthamstow based brand deserves a special mention for special shittiness. Because their coats are extremely low priced and look passable in pictures, many beginners fall for them. No need to discuss details here, just read some of their eBay reviews. Paper thin; scratchy like horse blankets; open threads; neither “wool” nor “cashmere”; moth holes upon arrival; and so on. A friend waited for his ‘luxury crombie coat’ for two weeks, then tried to contact the company via eBay, phone and email for another week – to no avail. Requests for a refund were ignored until eBay intervened. Only in reaction to negative feedback did ‘De La Crème’ bring themselves to reply, inventing a story about “technical problems with our eBay account”. Read the fake customer review on their website for laughs, otherwise avoid like the plague.
RRP: £54 (better flushed down the toilet to spare you some nerves)
Lambretta offers a fly-fronted crombie for cheap. With its short square cut, it looks like a close relative to the De La Crème coat. Not having tried it, I am in no position to pass judgement, though. I wouldn’t expect too much.
60% wool 40% polyester. Straight cut, suede collar. Two inside pockets, chest pocket, two flapped side pockets, one non-flapped ticket pocket. Available in black or navy with repeat logo lining in red and blue. Weight: ? RRP: £75
Warrior and Relco crombie coat
These two are pretty much the same, presumably produced in the same factory to the same specifications – but differently branded. The straight, boxy cut and short back length (37 inches for a size M) puts them squarely in the same camp as the notorious Last Resort ‘donkey jacket crombies’ from the early 1980s, on which they appear to be modelled. That being said, I won’t slam them. Made of 50% heavy wool, they are fairly good quality and, unlike most crombies, they will keep you warm in the winter. Good for knocking about in cold weather – or to wear to an Oi gig, where 1) nobody can tell one crombie from another, and 2) some pisshead is bound to vomit all over yours. I may own a real Crombie now, but I am not giving my Warrior away.
50% wool 50% ‘other fabric’. Straight cut, no velvet collar. Short centre vent. Inside pocket, chest pocket, two flapped side pockets, no ticket pocket. Available in black with red lining only. Weight: 1.57 kg. RRP: circa £100-140 depending on outlet. The Warrior coat tends to be cheaper.
I was eyeing up this coat for weeks. At 115 quid, this looked like a pretty good quality crombie. ‘Covert’ coat details not unlike the far more expensive Adam of London and Jump the Gun models, but, as I hoped, more suitable for the winter. Ending below the knee at 44 inches, it would need to be professionally shortened – a mere £30 job in most places.
Reacting to my first email inquiry, the Clapton based company assured me the coat was “of medium thickness” and would “probably be ok for the English winter”. The one person I spoke to who owns a Platinum Tailor crombie wasn’t so sure, though: “It’s a good quality coat – certainly better than the ‘crombie’ I owned in 1971. But I won’t be wearing it between November and April”. I still wanted to try it, but the company ignored my simple request for flat measurements. Once, twice, three times. A chance was missed – I gave up.
90% wool 10% cashmere. Waisted cut, velvet collar. Centre vent. Two inside pockets, chest pocket, two flapped side pockets, one ticket pocket. Available in black or navy with red lining. Weight: ? RRP: £115
1980s ‘skinhead crombies’
You can get lucky in FB groups such as ‘Skinhead Sell, Swap & Buy’. Some vintage 80s skinhead crombies are inferior to Warrior and Relco (Last Resort, Kensington Market, etc), others are pretty neat (e.g. 1980s Merc coats).
Adam of London and Jump the Gun overcoats
When I got my navy overcoat at Adam of London’s shop in Ladbroke Grove, Adam told me that Jump the Gun overcoats were “boxier” than his. London being the home of wheeler-dealers, this was not strictly true: in fact, Adam and JtG offer the exact same coat under different brand names.
The cut closely resembles Crombie’s ‘retro’ coat, although the Adam/JtG is one inch longer, just touching my knee. Given the ticket pocket and velvet collar, its details are more ‘covert’ than ‘chesterfield’ overall. This elegant, well waisted, quality crombie comes at a rather steep price. First point of criticism: it’s way too thin to be of any use during the cold months. Secondly, the shoulder pads are a tad too broad – I’m happy with my natural shoulder width and don’t need enhancement. That being said, I do recommend the coat for milder weather.
100% wool. Waisted cut, velvet collar. Long centre vent. Inside pocket, chest pocket, two flapped side pockets, one flapped ticket pocket. Available in black, navy, brown, charcoal or camel with red lining. Weight: 1.25 kg. RRP: £225.
Merc ‘Lord John’ overcoat
Legend has it that the ‘Lord John’ overcoat offered by Merc a few years ago was decent. The most recent model, however, was not fly-fronted and therefore not worth considering. Skinheads don’t wear crombies with exposed buttons – they just don’t.
Crombie cloth crombies
Browsing eBay for Crombie cloth coats by various coatmakers, you can get lucky. Keep in mind, though, that Crombie does not manufacture just one type of fabric. Behold the dark navy Centaur crombie I briefly owned last year, for example.
Looks nice, doesn’t it? So nice I turned a blind eye to the absence of a breast pocket and red lining. However, the scratchy feel of the fabric prompted me to return it. The difference between the Crombie wool used for the Centaur and the melton wool used for the Crombie ‘retro’ coat is like chalk and cheese.
Crombie melton wool retro coat
The king of overcoats. The bee’s knees. The real thing. Just the right length and cut, made of luxurious melton wool, fits like made to measure. You won’t be able to afford it, though – unless you, like me, are offered the bargain of the century. Don’t bother waiting for the sales either – Crombie reliably inform me this is part of their core collection and never goes on sale. You can get a somewhat cheaper pure wool ‘retro’ for £695 – no velvet collar or red lining there.
100% melton wool. Waisted cut, velvet collar. Long centre vent. Inside pocket, chest pocket, two flapped side pockets, no ticket pocket. Available in black or navy with red lining. Weight: 1.57 kg. RRP: £895
There’s a distinct gap in the market for a low or mid budget crombie that is waisted, of adequate length, and thick enough to get you through the winter. A case for Brutus maybe?
For the time being, Warrior is probably your best bet if you’re on a budget. The difference between a cheapo ‘crombie’ and a serious one, though, should be quite clear from the images below. On the left, the Warrior; on the right, the Crombie ‘retro’.
Oh yeah, I did find two images of crombie wearing original skinheads in the end…
Merry xmas to all Creases Like Knives readers!