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What is a down jacket?

What is a down jacket?

In a nutshell

An extremely warm winter coat, designed for particularly cold environments. They’ve traditionally been worn by adventurers, explorers and anyone who spends a lot of time around snow, but have recently become more popular as everyday outerwear, as synthetic versions of down have improved.


In the 1930s, an American outdoorsman called Eddie Bauer almost died while on a fishing trip. After lugging his kit back-and-forth from an ice hole, he took off his heavy wool jacket. At which point, his sweat froze and he began to succumb to hypothermia. A friend found him and dragged him to their car to warm up, at which point he realised that if he wanted to fish in winter, he’d need a jacket that was toasty but still breathable.

His solution was to copy the birds. Beneath their protective outer feathers, many have a soft layer called down, which sits against their skin and traps heat in cold weather, but lets air circulate when it's warm. He used the material to stuff a jacket, and found it such an effective insulator that the coat could keep people warm at -50ºC for up to three hours. It soon became a favourite of mountaineers and adventurers and Bauer even kitted out US pilots in the Second World War.

Modern versions still have Bauer’s distinctive quilting pattern – to hold the down in place, pockets are stuffed then sewn shut, which stops all the feathers falling to the bottom – but tend to be less tightly packed, so that they’re wearable off Everest and away from the North Pole. Synthetic versions, which are stuffed with man-made fibres filled with heat-trapping air pockets, are also increasingly effective, more affordable and assuage any ethical concerns you might have about wearing feathers.

How to wear it well

Even though down jackets aren’t just for explorers anymore, they retain a lot of their outdoorsiness. Which means they’re more common in casual looks. “That they’re best for cold weather is obvious, but you also have to aware of proportion,” says Thread stylist Brooke Philips. “They’re bulky, because of all that stuffing, which can make your silhouette quite big. If you’d rather be seen as slimmer, then you’re probably better off with something like a peacoat. A down coat is a big, bulky, fluffy thing.”

Because they’re so practical, they tend to look better with other clothes that were originally created for their function, rather than their form. “Down coats aren’t the best with a suit, but they look great with things like jeans, cargo trousers or heavier chinos and boots,” says Brooke. “But again, consider your silhouette. To balance out your upper half, go for looser fits. A giant coat and spray-on jeans makes you look like you’re about to topple over.”