The safari jacket has stalked big cats and the catwalk, losing none of its appeal or sense of purpose on the way, says Sarah Fitzpatrick
There are wardrobe staples and sartorial icons. The safari jacket sits above all: a garment colossus that is hugely evocative, ultimately practical and still the stuff of high fashion. In all likelihood it is what Henry Morton Stanley was wearing to utter his immortal words to Dr Livingstone. It was certainly appropriate garb for Victorian adventurers, much used alongside snarling beasts and rifles to illustrate the dust jackets on tales of derring-do. And no lesser person than the hero of the siege of Mafeking (now Mafikeng), Lieutenant-General Lord Baden-Powell, chose a distinctly safari-meets-military uniform for his boy scouts before it found its way into our own wardrobes via high-street chains.
The safari jacket style may now be ubiquitous but its origins mean it retains an aura of excitement. It is synonymous with Africa: the mystique of the big game hunter striding forth with rifle in hand so brilliantly portrayed by Clark Gable in Mogambo. The trailer describes this 1953 Technicolor extravaganza as an “unforgettable adventure in untamed Africa”, and the wardrobe department knew what was expected of them. They went to Huntsman of Savile Row for the safari clothing. Gable and Grace Kelly enjoy a passionate and dialogue-free clinch in front of a waterfall, twinning wonderfully in their safari jackets. Even Ava Gardner is occasionally released from the usual off-the-shoulder numbers to roll up her sleeves in safari style.
The safari jacket is the only thing to wear
Whether you are staring into the distance, seducing a siren, lighting a cigarette or facing down a lion there is, apparently, only one thing to wear. The safari jacket first graced the catwalk in Yves Saint Laurent’s 1967 runway show. It’s an example of his translation of male dress codes into feminine style as well as the greater freedoms of the 1960s. The jacket was inspired by the uniforms of the German Afrika Korps, and by 1969 there was a ready-to-wear version. It was an instant success and has become a classic. Anyone with any style, from Bryan Ferry to HM King Charles III, has rocked the look, many wearing it more in languor than anger. Ernest Hemingway, photographed with a selection of game, was a rugged devotee. Roger Moore made the safari jacket his own, suavely playing both James Bond and the Saint, following Stewart Granger’s lead with a taste for an artfully tied neckerchief. (Read our article ‘Was James Bond a Scot?’)
In Out of Africa safari wear holds its own against an ensemble wardrobe of early-19th-century evening dress as well as the frisson between Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Quite some achievement. Despite its undeniable romance, one can not escape the practicality of a safari jacket and its military antecedence. Military uniforms were changing in the late 19th century, driven by a necessity that is illustrated when one compares the striking red livery worn by the defenders of Rorke’s Drift. These colours were quickly relegated from the battlefield to ceremonial duties only, replaced with the discreet khaki cotton twill tunics of the Boer War. These bear the hallmarks we recognise as ‘safari’ today. They include epaulettes to display rank, practical pleated button-down pockets on the chest and a drab colour. Luckily for British troops they had appropriate uniforms on hand. The first Canadians to reach South Africa had to scramble for appropriate dress and were initially issued with hastily dyed canvas that is said to have proved stiff and not colour-fast.
The origins of ‘khaki’
The British Army’s preparedness came from its earlier colonial experience, particularly ill-fated engagements in Afghanistan where British forces made easy pickings for Afghan snipers who blended rather better with the terrain. Though dress was not the only factor in the horror of the 1842 retreat from Kabul, lessons on camouflage seem to have been learned. The respected Corps of Guides, raised in 1846 as part of the British Army’s Frontier Force in India, was the first unit to adopt ‘khaki’. Its one troop of cavalry and two infantry battalions acted as guides, gathered intelligence and won a formidable reputation in battle. Fox Brothers & Co of Somerset was a long-term supplier of scarlet serge to the British Army and was instrumental in 1900 in introducing khaki dye.
It is alleged the colour was approved by the Prince of Wales and the War Office. Fox Brothers went on to produce 8,000 miles of khaki cloth for clothing the troops during World War II. The word ‘khaki’ is derived from khak, the Persian for dust, and it appears it is to India rather than Africa that we should look for the genesis of the safari jacket. Novelist Harnihal Singh Sidhu, author of Burning Bright, which is based on the adventures of hunter and naturalist Jim Corbett, writes: “The sporting life was an integral part of British rule in India. And khaki uniforms began to morph into hunting garb.” Braid, sashes and swords were gone, the collar opened, pockets added and a looser, more casual silhouette emerged.
Even in denim, you’d recognise a safari jacket
As distance from military use has increased, there have been further adaptations. Epaulettes are optional but capacious, secure pockets remain constant; integral bullet loops for hunting order but not necessarily for casual wear. What is striking is how recognisable the whole remains. Even in denim you’d recognise a safari jacket. Singh Sidhu continues: “In the British Empire, shikar was a more commonly used word than safari. There are no 19th-century references to safaris. In Arabic safar means ‘journey’. Slave traders took the word into Swahili as ‘safari’ and it was used in the writings of authors such as Jules Verne. The Americans never really liked to follow the British line: the term ‘safari’ gained popularity after Teddy Roosevelt’s hunting trip to Africa. For America, the word meant an African hunting expedition. Indians talk about a shikar.”
Wherever the jacket came from, hunting and journeys remain a fascination for many. Graham Hingeston from HHK Safaris maintains that the classic safari jacket has been superseded: “When it comes to safari jackets we properly envisage the old-style worn by Hemingway and [Robert] Ruark. It has the two front pockets, cartridge holders, rings for a belt and so on. The reality is those types of jackets are no longer used.” Hingeston favours something warm: “probably a fleece-type lining inside, fairly lightweight but not synthetic. These tend to be noisy and rip easy on the thorn scrub. Needs to be cotton and fairly hardy. Not too long, standard length to end on your hips… each area would be different and affected by time of year – spring to summer hot and wet, autumn to winter cold and dry.”
Never out of fashion
Westley Richards’ safari jackets remain bestsellers for hunting clients to use in the field as well as less testing environments. Its version launched in spring 2023 has 2% elastane to give the cotton a bit of give. Its retail development manager, Lauren DesLauriers, believes that with “room in the shoulders and an action back… we have the shape nailed now… adapted to be worn in and out of the field”. Changes from season to season are in the fabric rather than form, introducing different blends, Italian fabrics combining cotton and linen “our fabric choices reflect feedback” from clients. “They get better with age; when they are broken in they have so much character,” she stresses.
This could be a great part of the jacket’s charm. It’s a garment that you adventure in. Over time it becomes a faithful friend. The choice of material and purpose is endless. Purdey offers a waterproof option. House of Bruar range is more fashion-forward. At Huntsman you can have one made in almost anything. From sporting outfitters to the high street the message seems clear: this look is not going out of fashion. Reflecting on the requirements for hunting game in Africa, Hingeston concedes: “In certain conditions, the correct jacket is essential.” Bearing in mind the pockets, thorn resistance, comfort and colour, and considering the range that is available today, it still seems to me that whether your safari is a serious sporting adventure or you are simply making a journey down the road, what you probably want is a kind of safari jacket.
Click here to read The Field’s guide to the best safari destinations in Africa.