Why you should care
Because sometimes fashion forwardness starts with looking back.
That being: These things were loved with an intense earnestness. Really and truly.
Without any postmodern snark or smirk, people decked themselves out in crushed velvet or leather maxi coats very specifically because they thought they looked great. Regal, even. And for a brief moment in time, they did. Coats that ended at the knee or went all the way to the ankle. Belted and buckled, with wide lapels sometimes trimmed with fur, sometimes not.
The apparently not-so-enduring appeal of the maxi was that it made the body line much more dramatic.
Susan Bryan, costume designer
So while fashion journals routinely identify the wearing of maxi coats by men as a weird sartorial blip limited to the decade of the coat’s birth, a blip that came from nowhere and disappeared back to the same place, those in the know, know much better. Which is to say that in the case of the maxi coat on men, it does not appear on anyone who was not a hippie (and they would wear anything except a suit) before the existence of Gordon Parks’ 1971 take on urban cool, Shaft.
That black leather coat slicked around the spread thighs of a .38-toting Black “private dick,” or detective. You see, that cat Shaft was a bad mother … well, you get the drift. Like the undershirt industry changes caused by Clark Gable going without one in It Happened One Night, or Faye Dunaway bringing back berets because of Bonnie and Clyde, Richard Roundtree, the titular John Shaft, changed how the world thought about long coats on men.
In short order, John Shaft, a “sex machine to all the chicks,” as his Oscar-winning theme song reminded us, partially gave birth to blaxploitation flicks, and every star from Ron O’Neal in Super Fly to Max Julien in The Mack and even the notable Yaphet Kotto in the even more notable Across 110th Street sported one. In the ’70s throwback Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell, non-Black and probably too young to have worn a maxi coat originally, donned one.
“The apparently not-so-enduring appeal of the maxi,” says costume designer Susan Bryan, “was that it made the body line much more dramatic, something I’m sure was helped by the films. But they were heavy, a drag to clean and they didn’t wear well in places with hot summers.”
But one place they wore exceptionally well, despite modern variations on the original theme? Our memories.