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Duffel is the Modest Home of a Famous Coat
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Duffel is the Modest Home of a Famous Coat

The Duffel Coat is famous, but very few people link the origins of the coat to a small town in Flanders.

You perhaps have to be British to get excited by the motorway exit between Brussels and Antwerp signed Duffel. For almost a quarter of a century, from about 1950 to 1975, British children trotted off to school wearing a dark blue duffel coat. Some might even have carried their gym kit in a duffel bag

The British love affair with the duffel coat goes back to the end of the 19th century when it was worn on Royal Navy battleships. Its popularity peaked in World War Two, when seamen on Atlantic convoys survived the fierce cold wrapped up in a Duffel coat, three pairs of woolen socks and a balaclava.

Field Marshall Montgomery chose to wear one. It was also the favourite garment of Paddington Bear. But it became unfashionable during the 1970s, when it acquired a stuffy image and it finally lost its wartime respectability in 1981 when Michael Foot, the leader of the Labour Party, was mocked for appearing at an Armistice Day ceremony wearing a duffel coat.

Back in 2004, I visited the Duffel archives to research the history of the duffel coat. It took some searching to find anything of interest, but I finally found a document describing the mediaeval cloth industry in Duffel. While other Flemish towns produced fine cloth for the aristocracy, Duffel specialised in a cheap variety of rough cloth worn by the poor.

The records show that Duffel cloth was sold as far off as London and Riga. It even ended up in America as one of the cheap objects, along with glass beads and nails, that the Dutch gave to the native Indians in exchange for that apparently worthless island called Manhattan.

Duffel cloth ended up in America as one of the cheap objects the Dutch gave to the native Indians in exchange for Manhattan

The word duffel, meaning a coarse woolen cloth, entered the English language in the 18th century. The town name also nestles in the Dutch word zich warm induffelen, meaning to wrap up warmly. In American English, the concept of a duffel bag is well established, but few people would recognise a duffel coat.

The French also recognise the duffel coat, which is, according to Le Petit Robert, ‘un manteaux trois-quarts avec capuchin, en gros tissue de laine’. The word is traced back to 1945, when it presumably entered France along with the invading British forces.

You might have expected Duffel to make something of its famous coat. A museum perhaps, or simply a sign, Welcome to Duffel, home of the duffle coat. But this modest Flemish town is more interested in putting up a statue to Cornelius Kilianus Dufflaeus, the Flemish scholar and philologist who compiled the first dictionary of the Dutch language.

Maybe they are right to be modest, as it is hard to establish any link between Duffel and the coat. The local cloth industry had died out by the time the Duffel coat was being manufactured in England.

The town archivist often gets calls from all over the world. People want to know about the location of the duffel coat factory in Duffel. But it never existed, he has to explain.

The only monument is a statue of a duffel coat that stands in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout on the Hondiuslaan. It was commissioned by local entrepreneur Frans Vermeulen in 2007 and stood for several years outside his company office. Finally the municipality agreed to find a prominent location for the duffel coat. Maybe they will get round to opening a museum one day.

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