The pea coat is one my favorite designs in the entire history of men’s wear. Like many garments we wear today, this distinctly masculine, iconic garment has its roots in the military. Characterized by its dark blue color, broad collar and lapels, six-button double-breasted closure and vertical “slash” pockets, the pea coat was originally worn by European sailors before making its way to the U.S. Navy.
Through the 1970s, the original Navy-issue pea coats were made with a densely woven, very durable, 30 ounce wool known as “Melton cloth” with a somewhat velvety nap. Nowadays, pea coats you find at the surplus or even from designer labels are made with a typically lighter weave or even a polyester blend, producing a decidedly coarser and less durable finish.
At a flea market in the late 1990s, I found the best pea coat I’ll ever have. The woman who sold it to me had a rack of them, all original Navy issue, all vintage. To my good fortune, the one in the best condition also happened to fit me very nicely. It was $80.
Aside from its remarkably good condition, its fantastic fit and its irresistible price, my vintage coat had something extra special: a history. Sewn into the coat’s lining was a label from the Clothing Supply Office of the U.S. Navy. The label indicated the coat’s size (38) along with the officer’s name and service number. My coat had originally belonged to a Naval officer named Charles Way, service number 492-98-21.
Back in 2013, after owning the coat for more than fifteen years, I finally did some research. After a little poking around, I learned that the Navy stopped issuing service numbers some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, making this coat at least as old as I am. I eventually found a website called The Navy Log and searched for Charles Way. I found him. Born on January 19, 1940, Seaman Charles C. Way, Jr. was from Enola, PA, and served in the U.S. Navy Reserves from June of 1958 to June of 1960. The pea coat was surely brand new when it was issued to Mr. Way back then.
In the years I owned the coat, I wore it a lot. For over two decades, it was my regular go-to when temperatures fell between 35 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Buttons had come off (all original and saved) and seams had blown out repeatedly. I had them all repaired, often more than once. The shell of the coat kept its great shape overall, while the lining really started to show its age with some fraying in a few corners. A less sentimental owner would have probably just had the coat re-lined. But here’s the thing: in addition to the irreplaceable sewn-in label from the Navy’s Clothing Supply Office, Mr. Way actually hand-wrote his name in the lining with some kind of marker: “Charley Way.” It might seem weird to some people, but the idea of getting rid of it struck me as disrespectful. So I always kept it, just how Charley Way left it.
Based on his years served, Mr. Way likely didn’t see any combat action. But I couldn’t help but wonder where this coat was worn. On a ship in exotic (but cold) locations? On what ship?
Several years ago, I did do a search and found a profile for Charles Way in Pennsylvania on LinkedIn. I sent him a message, introducing myself and briefly explaining the story of the pea coat, but I never got a response.
By late 2022, after 25 years in my wardrobe, the coat finally gave up. Seams kept coming undone, and the the shell was becoming visibly threadbare in certain areas, especially around those seams. Maintaining it was becoming more time-consuming and costly. I debated and debated, but I ultimately decided to let it go, donating it to the wonderful people at Housing Works here in NYC.
Shortly after I said goodbye to the ultimate pea coat, I found myself getting curious about Charlie Way again. I did some digging and found a short obituary in Penn Live / Patriot-News that began like this: “Charles C. Way, Jr., age 82, passed away at home on June 2, 2022. He was born January 19, 1940 in Enola, PA…” This was my guy. After all this time, I finally found him, and he died the same year I had parted with his pea coat. I would have loved to have been able to reach out to him and share photos of his coat with him, show him where he wrote his name on the lining and hear any stories he had about his time in the Navy.
I did learn this in the obituary:
Charlie joined the U.S. Navy reserves with his brother Jay Way in March 1957 in his junior year at Enola High School where he graduated in 1958. He served aboard the Destroyer USS Henley DD 762 and USS Stickell DD888.Legacy.com
Because of all this… because of how beautifully it was designed, because of how well it was made, because of how good it felt to wear it, because it kept me stylishly warm for 25 years, because of its history with a U.S. Navy seaman who originally owned it from 1958 to 1960, that vintage $80 pea coat will probably be the most valuable garment I will have ever owned.
Now to find a suitable replacement…
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Thanks for this George! I have an original issue pea as well and I just love the heavy wool and cord-lined pockets. The #1 winter garment to have. Cheers, RH
Ah, yes! Those beautiful corduroy-lined pockets! I’m so used to them that I took them for granted and neglected to mention them. Thanks, Rashid!
Great, fascinating story! Hope you can learn more about the coat’s Navy adventures it went through.
Great piece, George. Eager to hear the follow-up.
I remember a fantastic ode to the pea coat in the J Peterman catalog ca late 80s or early 90s.
George, a great garment and a great story..
I hope the correct Charles does reply I look forward to hearing any updates.
Lately, I am really looking for one.
Wish I owned an original. I am still looking for a perfect condition 1960s one in size 42 or 44 complete with label like yours.
Very best wishes.
This is a great story. Looking forward to a follow up
The coat looks great. I have a vintage pea coat but I notice the shoulders are a bit wide while the body fits well
Do others have this issue?
What is a proper fit for a vintage pea coat?
What a gorgeous coat and such a splendid history. I hope you find Charley Way and I hope I find a pea coat like yours.
Thanks to your article, I have purchased the pea coat of a Mr. Bogard.
I eagerly await its arrival! I am also scouring records to see if I can find Mr. Bogard’s history in the USN.
I had been hesitant on ordering a surplus coat as I had incorrectly assumed they’d be shaped like a tent, but seeing the fit of yours, my concerns were completely mitigated.
With the history of the coat, and the look, I imagine I will be far happier with it than had I spent $695 on a Billy Reid Coat, or $300 on a Sterlingwear.
For everyone’s info, I’m in Canada, and paid just shy of $100 delivered.
Brian, that is awesome. And I totally understand the allure of a Billy Reid coat… they’re stunning. But I’m thrilled I could help you make a choice you feel good about. Let me know when it arrives, how it fits and, most importantly, how it makes you feel.
I wore a Pea Coat in high school I bought from the Army/Navy Surplus store in Pasadena. It was my signature look at the boarding school I attended, and I remember paying $40 for it in 1972. I miss that coat.
All the pea coats on the racks of stores today are so wide, they make a shorter guy like me look squat(er). This one is keeps it thin, probably because of the era. I’ll have to keep an eye out for one of these.
i am facinated with the journey you had with “Charles Way” (coat). It fits you perfectly nice and really looks great. Will appreciate if you could share to me info on the manufacturer or supplier of “Charles Way” as i’d like to have one for myself for my 60th year.
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This article was a godsend. I was looking for Pea Coats everywhere on designer websites and seeing most of them in the 1000 dollar and up range, and they weren’t the style I wanted. After reading this I was able to get a 42XL Navy Pea Coat in fabulous condition for just over 100 dollars, and it is phenomenal. Made here in America, 100% wool and not some mix of fabrics like some designers were using and overcharging for, and best of all it fit just like I wanted. When I clicked on the picture of this coat and got to this article I was expecting to find a link to a super expensive Pea Coat, what I found was the best advice for buying a Pea Coat ever.
Thanks, Jordan! So glad you found a good one!
Hi George, great article and fantastic looking coat. Fits you perfect. I have a question, though: Say for some reason this coat was no longer in your possession, and you absolutely had to have another coat that was as similar to this one as possible, which pea coat would you buy of the ones that are available today?
I might look at Ralph Lauren or J. Peterman.
Thanks for the response, George. Love your content. Best of luck, Happy Holidays!
George! I’m here on this post “of a certain age” (shhh) thanks to your recent Instagram Morning Walk where you talked about pea coats, including, natch, this specific one. I am thrilled to the gills that you honored it the way you did, by not replacing the lining because Mr. Way had marked his name inside. And oh, the original label/tag! What a find. I chortled mightily, by the way, at your mention of J. Peterman, because I used to spend an inordinate amount of time in my early twenties-ish scouring that booklet/catalogue and flailing over the illustrations, and, of course, the briliant copy that amused the hell out of me as I was wedged in the blue denim beanbag chair in my super groovy bedroom.
Most of my wardrobe is ’60s and ’70s vintage, and some of the pieces have markings inside that indicate the identity of a past wearer, and I gasp with delight every time I come across that sort of thing, just like I do the ILGWU label found in the seams of a great deal of my stuff. I wonder what stories the clothing could tell me, about where it’s been, who wore it, and what that dame must’ve been like.
A friend of mine had a grandmother named Gertrude Spankus (!!!). She was a Texas socialite in the ’60s with a penchange for Neiman-Marcus (shocking). When Ms. Spankus left this world, my friend came across quite a few pieces of her wardrobe and asked if I wanted them since, and I paraphrase, “You’re the only person I know who would want to wear it and the only person it would fit.” I couldn’t pass up that sort of offer, could I? Of course not. Some of the stuff just isn’t wearable, but the pieces that are give me such enormous joy to wear, and I feel like tiny Gertrude Spankus is along for the ride, enjoying the hell out of strutting with me in New York City.
Sorry for the ramble, but … hey, consider this my Morning Walk.
Please please let us know when you fine a replacement! I’ve had a peacoat of mine that I beggwd my dad for in high school. He gave it to me as a gift. It’s well over 20 years old now and I’m also on the hunt for a replacement.
I love clothes with histories ❤️.