Menswear’s no stranger to military-influenced fashion, both with current trends – olive green, camouflage, and utility jackets – and more timeless pieces, like flight jackets, trench coats, and aviator sunglasses. So, considering these origins, the safari jacket’s return as a more urbane, gentlemanly staple appears like an inevitable, if not logical, progression.
If you’re unfamiliar with its history, the safari jacket’s origins also go back to the military: Specifically, the British Army’s Khaki Drill uniforms, appearing around the turn of the 20th century during the Boer War. Its design blended the practicality of military pieces with the need for something lightweight yet durable to handle the heat: Khaki cotton drill, with four pockets on the chest and waist, a large collar, a leather belted waist, and epaulets.
A couple of decades later, when safaris became popular amongst the European and American elite, the jacket got reworked: A shorter, more pointed collar, the epaulets were often dropped, and for the belt, a change to cotton let the user breathe. As with military uniforms, all those pockets came in handy, holding bullets, binoculars, knives, or a map.
History and mid-20th century pop culture made the jacket a status symbol, of sorts, one simultaneously of a life of leisure and of adventure. Photos of Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt show these key figures sporting this piece while on their respective African expeditions. Then, from the ‘40s, all the way through the ‘80s, leading actors, often in plots involving exotic, if not dangerous, adventures, wore its familiar silhouette: Gregory Peck in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Clark Gable in Mogambo, Roger Moore through multiple James Bond flicks, and Clint Eastwood in White Hunter Black Heart.
The fashion world adopted and reworked the strictly practical piece for the upscale, urban consumer over this time. Yves Saint Laurent had perhaps the greatest impact with his African-influenced collection, launched in 1968 after a design created for a Vogue essay during the prior year. At the time, this womenswear piece borrowed from what was considered a strictly men’s item, yet Laurent’s early designs have it slimmed down and belted – almost like a cropped trench coat.
The jacket has since been a staple of the venerated fashion house and has gone through multiple transformations over the years: thin and flared to relaxed and light to a boxy, utility-like shape. On the menswear end, Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren revived the jacket over the past few years: Structured and refined, with a touch of suede, for the former, and rugged yet light for the latter.
To try out this trend yourself, what should you keep in mind?
You’re not heading out into the bush, and you’re not packing your pockets full of bullets. As such, the modern jacket’s material is far lighter in feel than its practical predecessor’s. Specifically, as a transitional piece, safari jackets function much like a lightweight, military-leaning blazer with a few extra pockets. With this in mind, treat it as you would any spring or fall garment: Woven cotton or even linen for that essential degree of breathability.
On the other hand, leather and suede, as you can see from a few recent pieces, create a fusion: Length and practicality, with the mysteriousness of a traditional motorcycle jacket. In this instance, treat it as you would any other leather jacket: Ideal for late fall’s and early spring’s chilly, dreary days.
Modern silhouettes are less a retro revival and more a strong reworking and repurposing. Materials aside, the silhouette needs to look structured but still feel light. Too loose, and it essentially becomes a utility jacket. If the belt’s on too tight, it gives off ‘70s vibes so strong, you might as well pair them with bell-bottoms.
So, in thinking of it as a casual blazer for an urban environment or travel, start with a straight, structured shape, ideally with angular shoulders or epaulets for an accent. For the collar, keep it as minimal as possible: Pointed, or even a mandarin style. For wearing it, unbuttoned conveys the most casual character, while straight and buttoned emphasizes the jacket’s naturally straight shape. If you use the belt, don’t cinch it too much – otherwise, the garment then resembles a women’s style.
Because of its history, avoid wearing a safari jacket with anything military themed: No camouflage or olive green, stay away from combat boots, and even aviator shades seem forced.
Instead, view it through either an updated casual lens or as a stylishly practical travel jacket. As such, keep the rest of you look comfortable, but not too loose: slim-fit jeans or chinos, a tee or button-down shirt with some space, and sneakers or lace-up boots, all in simple, neutral colors. Because its shape makes it a statement, attention-grabbing garment, now’s not the time to try out a loud print or neon hue.