As dressers throughout the northern hemisphere eye their Harris tweeds and heavy flannels impatiently, we’ve already entered the long season for one of the most unique, interesting, and underappreciated cool weather fabrics that should be -- and isn’t -- in every man’s wardrobe: loden. It’s not necessarily what you’re thinking. My own favorite loden garment is a buttery soft, unlined zephyr-weight topcoat in a warm dove gray, lighter than most raincoats and almost as good in an early autumn drizzle. But I like the classic, heavy, iconically evergreen Mitteleuropäisch stuff too.
Traditionally, loden is made from the coarse, oily, virgin wool of Austrian mountain sheep, carded and loosely woven into a twill that’s shrunk, fulled, and sheared to provide a dense, felted texture similar to melton. The slightly hairy nap of the drawn, lanolin-rich fibers makes for a warm, resilient, relatively lightweight, and virtually waterproof cloth that’s been a staple of alpine outdoor clothing for centuries. The eponymous hunter green color which generally characterizes the cloth may have originally been obtained by boiling the wool with pine needles,* but modern loden is anything but prickly. Indeed, as virgin wool is now commonly blended with alpaca, mohair, camelhair, and even cashmere to yield a more supple cloth, “loden” today describes a process as much as a product.
Germanic loden has often been likened to Scottish tweed -- an ancient cloth steeped in the traditions of the people who weave and wear it, and closely identified with the rugged land they inhabit. Indeed, along with lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, loden garments are an essential element of Tracht -- the traditional alpine dress which, rather like Scottish tartan and tweed, only fully emerged as an officially codified national costume in the late 19th century after enthusiastic appropriation by lowlanders. As Scottish tweed became the recreational attire of choice in the early 20th century, so too did Tracht popularize a rustic pastiche style called Landhausmode -- literally, country house fashion -- certain elements of which (again like tweed) found their way into mid-century middle-class wardrobes by way of fashionable young undergraduates: Teutonic trads, if you please.
Despite its modest origins as a hunter’s and farmer’s garment, the most sartorially significant example of Landhausmode is the classic Austrian loden overcoat. While a common sight in Europe and South America, with its sweeping silhouette, deep inverted center pleat, stand-and-fall collar, and vaguely villainous set-in shoulders, the loden overcoat has always been a bit imperious for American tastes, and has had only relatively minor fashion moments, most recently in the 1980s. The many virtues of the cloth itself, however, have made loden sportcoats, duffels, and other jackets perennial offerings from traditional tog floggers.
I’m not sure why we don’t see them more often. The classic, richly mottled green color is flattering and easy to wear, and the comfortably rugged texture of the fabric is easy to pair with casual flannels, chinos, or denim. Fitted with horn, bone, or rough antler buttons, the loden sportcoat is the alpine equivalent of the maritime navy blazer, and less pretentious in modest company. Such a carnivorous garment might be a bit exotic for the boardroom, but so much the better: loden is essentially an outdoors cloth, and wearing it should make you want to be there.
* Another apocryphal menswear origin story too good to debunk.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]