We love to go a wandering
It’s a classic: the warm caramel colour, the sharp tailoring and attention to detail, combined with the softness of the hairs. It is casual and smart. It conveys an aura of affluence and privilege.
For some of these reasons I question why I am so enamoured of my two vintage camel coats (yes two: embarrassing. In fact, it would have been 3 had not my very stylish daughter stolen one). Why do I, an avowed socialist, want to be seen swanning around in a coat that makes me look like a member of the royal family who has lost her way and somehow ended up in a small northern town? Beats me – except it’s precisely because I live in a northern town that the camel hair coat has become dearest companion and soul mate this freezing, snow covered winter. There is nothing like camel for keeping out the cold. It’s impenetrable: you can plod through a blizzard in it and you will still be toastie inside.
"Richard 1st not only had the heart of a lion, but the undergarment of a camel"
Strictly speaking, only one of my coats is classic camel: the other is a cashmere and wool blend, still stylish and much loved, but lacking the heft of the true, number 1 camel, which has a Jaeger label. It was actually Jaeger who introduced camel hair into Britain in 1904, and used it to produce a range of cold-defying garments. Earnest Shackleton wore Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System long johns, for example. But camel hair’s history goes back much further than the 20thcentury. References to the material appear in the Old Testament and in the 1300s, Richard 1st not only had the heart of a lion, but the undergarment of a camel, worn to prevent his armour from chafing during the Crusades.
Camel hair also has a Raj connection. Garments called polo coats were made out of the material, to serve as a robe worn by polo players in India among the British Cavalry. It was their “waiting robe” (known also as the “wait coat”), worn between chukkas (the seven minute polo bouts) to help the players stay warm. To be honest, this is no more mysterious to me than most sporting customs. Although: polo? What is that about?
Camel hair is traditionally gathered from the Bactarian Camel, the two humped variety, which is sadly now under threat as a species, with less than a thousand of them still roaming the Mongolian Steppes. The hair was collected during the moulting season, from late spring to early summer, before undergoing the lengthy process to turn it into cloth.
"polo playing colonialists, blood thirsty kings, all manner of toffs .."
I almost wish I had never begun the process of finding out more about camel hair. It has resulted in a guilty pleasure becoming even more guilt ridden. Aristocrats abound in the history of camel hair in clothing: polo playing colonialists, blood thirsty kings, all manner of toffs and royals, and aspirational others, have used it to keep their blue blooded bods warm. And now the camels themselves are fast disappearing from their original habitat. I would never think to buy a new camel coat (even if I could afford one) although I take comfort from the fact that the collection and sale of camel hair is sustaining people who live in difficult climates
I justify the pleasure to myself thus: finding garments of consummate quality in second hand shops feels serendipitous, the universe bringing me together with something beautiful for no reason whatever. To reject a gift of this kind on the grounds that I am accepting an item discarded from someone wealthier than I does not seem an option. I believe that I will wear the garment with more love and respect than the original owner, and that, perversely, I will look better in it. Nonsense, but it works for me and my dearly beloved camel coats.