NEW YORK – You know it when you see it, but even fashion insiders can’t definitively describe the safari jacket. To some, it’s the pockets that make something a safari jacket, to others it’s the epaulettes. Still others will say it’s the color or the belt.

They will all tell you, though, that it’s a must-have item this spring.

The safari jacket is one of those classic fashion pieces – much like a trenchcoat or little black dress – that never goes out of fashion but does enjoy peaks in popularity.

Dates to late 1800s

As a garment, the safari jacket likely dates back to the late 1800s, says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. That’s when the British military was in India and had to adapt their uniform to the climate, as well as when big game hunters started visiting Africa.

It also was the age of Teddy Roosevelt’s naturalist movement, notes Steele.

However, it wasn’t a “fashion” item, especially one for women, until the 1960s when Yves Saint Laurent touted it in between his Mondrian-inspired mod looks and his Chinese-style brocades.

“It shed its colonial things and has become an adventurers’ look,” says Steele. It’s similar to a fishing vest or a modern photographers’ vest. But calling it a “safari” jacket conjures up images of “upper-class people traveling to exotic places and doing what rich people do,” Steele says.

Shade of khaki

Charlotte Bourke, of luxury safari operator Cheli & Peacock, says that she personally dislikes some of the modern styles that can be overly technical with air vents and netted breathable material. “All that geeky stuff just isn’t necessary,” she says.

For those really going on safari, what matters most is achieving that perfect shade of khaki – one that doesn’t get too light in the sun to attract the attention of the animals – as well as using a natural-fiber cotton that is functional in a variety of weather conditions, says Tee Faircloth, owner of safari specialist F.M. Allen, which arranges vacations and also sells gear and vintage collectables.

The days might be hot in Africa, he says, but the mornings are dewy and you can catch quite a breeze in an open-air Range Rover cruising at 50 miles per hour.

More than half of his customers are indeed heading to a safari, Faircloth says, but the jackets make just as much sense for those living in a warm-weather urban jungle such as Miami.

With its utilitarian pockets and durable fabric, it was a no-brainer to be the centerpiece of early collections of Banana Republic in the late 1970s-early ’80s, when the brand was more of an outdoor outfitter.

“It’s like all iconic designs, everything from years gone by. You reinterpret it going forward,” says Simon Kneen, creative director and executive vice president of design for Banana Republic’s more sophisticated, businesslike look of today. “To go forward with the safari jacket, it’s about the silhouette – it’s getting shorter, it has short sleeves, there are feminine details that could be gathers and tucks instead of pleats and top-stitching.”

Tommy Hilfiger further adapted the look, offering safari-inspired dresses.

“It works for women because it sometimes takes a rugged look to make a woman look very feminine,” Hilfiger says. “A woman can look feminine wearing such a contrast.”

The modern safari style for a woman is cut slim to the body with higher armholes and has an inherent outdoorsy sexiness, the designer says.

“Wearing something safari-esque doesn’t make you look ‘done up,’ and I think that’s the worst thing when someone is trying too hard,” Hilfiger says.

Kneen suggests women wear it with either a billowy, sheer blouse underneath or with short shorts or a miniskirt.

Different interpretations

Other designer interpretations of the safari look this season include Proenza Schouler’s double-breasted, sleeveless dress; Nicole Miller’s mandarin-collar jacket; and Tracy Reese’s puff-sleeve top.

Meanwhile, Old Navy has a safari shirtdress and a pencil skirt with patch pockets on the hips, Talbots has a “city safari jacket” with a little sheen in the fabric; and Martin and Osa has a flap-pocket, button-front camp dress.

And that’s just for the ladies. Kneen owns his own manly versions, probably 10 or so in his closet – and likely more to come considering his new post. His favorites include a Gucci safari peacoat and one with a motorcycle vibe from Belstaff.

Hilfiger has in his archives an original and authentic jacket from the British military. He’d wear it if he goes on safari, something that is on his to-do list.


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