barbour style waxed cotton jacket

Waxed Cotton Is Only So Protective

by Melvin Backman

It didn't matter that Trayvon died in chinos.

Melvin Backman
Melvin Backman is a writer from South Carolina who lives in Brooklyn. He tweets from @melvinbackman and he websites from melvinbackman.com.

It’s not that cute. The collar’s uneven. It looks dusty. But I pined for my Barbour Beaufort for a long time.

I don’t remember where I was when I found out Trayvon Martin had been shot, but I remember scrolling through timelines furiously as I and others tried to find out what happened. When we had made sense of it, we were left haunted by the image of his hoodie. A sweatshirt became dangerous, and we raised our hoods high to reclaim it. Still, something in me looked for tougher armor. What wouldn’t a bullet pierce? What garments weren’t footnotes to tragedy?

Not all things taught are true, but every so often a black boy in the South will learn, wrongly, that white life is superior. I grew up outside of Charleston, SC, and it’s the kind of place (though far from the only place) where, over time, a child can observe and absorb that all the nice things—houses on Rainbow Row, seersucker suits—have to do with white people and all the bad things—North Charleston’s criminal reputation, unmarketable geechie accents—have to do with black people.

The first Barbours I noticed were at the University of North Carolina. I was in college, attending a football game, and to my left were two white classmates wearing them. They were dull and wrinkled. Then, the jackets seemed to start popping up everywhere on the backs of young men and women I was convinced were my betters.

NASCAR jackets are way more fun than Barbours, and they speak to me on a much deeper level, but I rejected them anyway; it must be that something unfamiliar and out-of-reach can bring pleasure and yearning if hung just right. As it had been in Charleston it became in Chapel Hill.

Deep down I hoped that sufficient outerwear would prove protective. I thought it would be a shield, invisibility cloak, and decoder ring all in one; that it would allow me something like, as Margo Jefferson writes in her memoir Negroland, “How you feel when your rights in America are self-evident, not to be argued, justified, or brooded on every day.” White people would see me and know that I knew their customs, that I was worthy of protection from their predations. It didn’t matter Trayvon died in chinos.

I thought that after draping myself in my Barbour White people would recognize me as one of the good ones, showering me in the secrets of unearned privilege and apologize profusely for all that nastiness from before they knew I knew the deal. But that didn’t happen. tweet

During my remaining time in college, I would enviously eye Barbour jackets on campus, read about their distinctive features in online forums and gingerly slip my arms into their sleeves in department stores. On these occasions I was always on alert for the sales clerk, afraid that they might come over and disabuse me of my aspirations, ripping the jacket from me and sending me on my black-ass way.

Certain aesthetics and norms get frozen in time because white people, especially wealthy ones, stand atop so many hierarchies. And when you’re pursuing your God-given right as American to stand atop the world, you ape whoever has reached a place higher than you. You want what they have, want to be where they are, want to escape where what they’re not.

In 1945, the U.S. drops two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II. Twenty years later, the picture book Take Ivy documents Ivy League fashions for a Japanese audience. About 20 years after that, around the time that Beauforts started showing up in Barbour catalogs, Tokyo-based Kashiyama Co. purchases J. Press, a preppy staple featured in the book that was founded to serve Yale students in New Haven, Connecticut. The New York Times notes that it’s far more popular in Japan than in the U.S. because of a fascination with, “American preppy style,” with 145 Japanese outlets to the States’ three. About 20 years after that, having grown tired of played-out Burberry trenches, Barbour, the Land Rover of outerwear, becomes one of the few external brands carried in the store

Whiteness, especially in collusion with wealth, has the power to render ugly, outdated things classic. My copy of Take Ivy, a 2010 translation, describes J. Press as similar to Brooks Brothers, “centered around Ivy traditional and orthodox articles.” In an essay for Complex on Take Ivy’s fandom, Emily Lever notes that a revival of graduation-year sweaters featured therein betrayed a, “kind of nostalgia so toxic,” among her fellow Ivy League students, especially those (“Asian, or Jewish, or gay, or didn’t go to prep school, or, you know, they’re female”) featured so infrequently among the book’s almost exclusively white male subjects who are used to visually establish that orthodoxy.

It is with great triumph one day that I seize a perfectly weathered Barbour spotted at a J. Press sample sale, thinking myself in possession of a great bargain. It is with great confusion that its highly orthodox owner, a white man in a suit, approaches me after having tried on other items, wondering why I am holding his jacket. It is with great embarrassment that I return it to him and slink to the street.

A sweatshirt became dangerous, and we raised our hoods high to reclaim it. Still, something in me looked for tougher armor. What wouldn’t a bullet pierce? What garments weren’t footnotes to tragedy? tweet

I told my mother that when I moved to New York and got a job that she should celebrate by dropping $400 on a Beaufort to keep me warm in the winter. I moved to New York and got a job and decided to spare her the expense (and indulge in a flex), buying one myself.

I found my Beaufort on sale, online, in England, for enough of a discount to make international shipping feel reasonable. The big-ticket articles rarely go on sale and the company doesn’t let its carrying shops ship overseas in order to protect its cachet. A weak pound and a proxy buyer gave me access to my dream.

It arrived on a blustery winter day, and in a rush of excitement I left my thick coat in the office to take my new purchase for a spin. It turned out to be rubbish against the cold. The accessories that might make it hardier—a liner or a hood or an extra coat of thorn-proof dressing—are sold separately. Further, the Beaufort’s sleeves are famously short; shopping guides that feature it suggest readers set aside a little extra money to have the sleeves lengthened. The wind cut icily across my exposed brown wrists.

I thought that after draping myself in my Barbour White people would recognize me as one of the good ones, showering me in the secrets of unearned privilege and apologize profusely for all that nastiness from before they knew I knew the deal. But that didn’t happen.

There was the time, just a few weeks into Beaufort ownership, when I was furniture shopping. The jacket had gotten me a few compliments at work, sure, but this was the true test of its power. I entered the store, and, putting aside my self-preservational habit of pushing brusquely into stores before the workers could give me a  suspicious “Is there anything you’re looking for today?” through narrowed eyes or, alternatively, ignore me entirely, paused to greet the white man manning the cash register. He gave me a quick hello without looking up from his computer.

Saturday Night Live had a sketch once where Eddie Murphy turns white for a day. After applying a little white-face, he discovers all the benefits of life on the other side of the color line. Free papers at the newsstand. Free martinis on the city bus. Free money at the bank. All thanks to a little makeup and a business suit. I’ve had no such moments. At best I feel the benefit of the doubt—maybe—but true certainty never comes. I have the knowledge that I’m a nigga in a nice coat, and nothing more.

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Published by Melvin Backman
Melvin Backman is a writer from South Carolina who lives in Brooklyn. He tweets from @melvinbackman and he websites from melvinbackman.com. View all posts by Melvin Backman

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