The Ultimate Guide To Men’s Shearling Jackets
One of the best winter investments in menswear, the shearling jacket packs crazy warmth with timeless style to create a statement piece of outerwear.
Mankind has been wearing shearling jackets since the dawn of time, or at least that part when we realised that certain mammals were as useful to wear as they were to eat. Needless to say, that was a while ago, but the functionality of the shearling jacket has not wavered in the many millennia that have passed since, still proving to be the warmest layer separating man from winter.
Even when compared to modern down-filled coats, the shearling jacket is in a central heating league all of its own. But its longevity is not based on utility alone. In fact, it’s the shearling jacket’s style that has stood the much less forgiving tests of ‘fashion time’. Many a jacket has risen to supposed greatness only to be quickly designated a place in the ignominious landfill of fashion history, but not the shearling jacket.
In its most popular incarnation as winterproof flight jacket, it has remained a perennial menswear favourite. Here we take a look at its origins, its details, what to look for in a great one, and find out which brands are making the best shearling jackets today.
What is shearling?
Shearling is typically the pelt of a lamb that has been shorn to a short uniform length. Sheepskin comes from older animals and shouldn’t be confused with shearling, since it’s much tougher, rougher, and not as soft to the touch. The biggest suppliers of shearling are Iceland and Spain, with the best-quality hides coming from the latter.
Spain produces five different types of shearling: Merino, Enterfino, Rasado, Corto and Toscana. It’s important to understand the differences between them: Merino shearling typically comes from older sheep but is nevertheless considered a thick and soft wool; Enterfino is even thicker than merino and its wool is generally stiffer and heavier; Rasado comes from some of the youngest lambs and as such is the most supple, softest and lightest of all the five varieties; both Corto and Toscana also come from young lambs but what distinguishes them from Rasado is the fur length, with Corto being especially short and Toscana being particularly long.
High-quality shearling jackets will typically be constructed from the latter three, but especially Corto and Toscana, since Rasado is often too light to function as a bona-fide cold-weather bomber jacket yet is an exceptional option for lightweight shearling blousons.
Merino provides the best value for money and functionality and is the pelt you’ll most often see being used by fashion brands. Another reason why the prices of shearling jackets are so high is that one jacket is made up of maybe three or four different pelts. A skilled craftsman needs to be able to match the best pelts so as to make it seem like they all came from the same animal.
What to consider when buying a shearling jacket
Seeing as a shearling jacket is a serious investment, before parting with your hard-earned cash it’s wise to consider the following:
The most common and popular style of shearling coat is of course the flight jacket. Heritage leather specialists such as The Real McCoy’s, Cromford Leather Company and Chapal are where you’ll find the most accurate and faithful replicas of the B-3 bomber, but more recently fashion brands have opted for less bulky styles.
Shearling blousons in the shape of traditional truckers are a more modern silhouette but you’ll also occasionally find an outstanding long coat, duster or trench cut in shearling, which will typically come from one of the bigger luxury maisons.
The other consideration is size, and by that we don’t just mean a jacket that fits. Shearling jackets are bulky by their very nature – and consider you normally need to size up in order to be able to wear anything thicker than a T-shirt beneath them – so if you are short and stocky, it’s not advisable to go for a chunky bomber jacket with a collar that envelops your entire head. You will, in no uncertain terms, look ridiculous.
Similarly, if you are tall with skinny legs, a flight jacket is going to make you look like a Magnum ice cream. Getting the proportions right are important.
The best shearling jacket brands for men in 2023
Some of the jackets are not fully shearling, but rather calfskin blousons or single-breasted coats with a part-shearling lining. They do however make an exquisite tan shearling cape as well as a denim-style jacket and hoodie with the shearling fur element on the exterior (which kind of defeats the point, but fashion is fashion).
Founded in 1993, Buzz Rickson’s is known as the ‘military wing’ of Toyo Enterprise Ltd. Named after Steve McQueen’s character in The War Lover (1961), Buzz is renowned for its faithful reproductions of vintage militaria, quickly becoming one of Japan’s premier heritage manufacturers.
The brand’s shearling designs take the form of iconic flight jacket silhouettes with 1/2-inch shearling collars. Cut in Japan from the finest vegetable-tanned goatskin, finer details include 100% wool cuffs and waistband, as well as mil spec urea buttons and Talon nickel finished zips.
If you’re looking for a military jacket with a real sense of authenticity, this is it.
Parisian heritage brand Chapal and the originator of some of the earliest flight jackets represents some of the highest quality shearling outerwear in the whole luxury market. Since 1832, it has been producing exquisite leather jackets, and this season is no different.
Its 1965 jacket is styled on the very same shearling coat that Alain Delon wore in Once A Thief and that Steve McQueen would often don off screen. But it’s Chapal’s B3 bomber which takes all the plaudits, cut in a stunning Colorado sheepskin.
British Sheepskin Company
As you might expect from a brand called the British Sheepskin Company, it’s from Britain and makes sheepskin products, foremost among them being its flight jackets. Crafted from American sheepskin, these jackets are more rugged than shearling versions, a difference that is clearly represented in the price.
No, it’s not a fashion brand, but it does make incredibly good value flight jackets if you’re on a budget.
Traditionalists will love Eastman leather. Founded in the UK in 1984, Eastman specialises in faithful replicas of historical flight jackets – so if you hanker after that retro B-3 jacket look, you’re in for a treat.
Made entirely in Britain by skilled craftsmen, Eastman does a fine line of stunning RAF replicas (our favourite is the Leslie Irvin issue with Devon fleece) as well as some excellent USAAF styles.
Cromford Leather Company
While Cromford Leather Company will swing under most people’s radars, leather connoisseurs will be well aware of the gems this small company produces. With a ready-to-wear collection as well as made-to-measure and fully bespoke, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better quality anywhere else.
Its shearling-lined flight jacket – called the Douglas – should be in an art gallery for one thing. All the marks of greatness are there: thick stitching, RiRi zips and unique hides. Do yourself a favour and check them out.
The Real McCoy’s
If you’re a fan of Americana and classic workwear- and military-inspired silhouettes then you will have almost certainly come across The Real McCoy’s, a Japanese outfit that is surely one of the best purveyors of vintage classics operating right now.
Specialising in faithfully reproducing iconic menswear silhouettes form the 30s onwards, The Real McCoy’s shearling iterations are absolute gems, not least the Type B-6 bomber. Made in Japan to an incredibly high standard, the B-6 features a subtle contemporary aesthetic, doing away with most of the buckles and straps of the original.
With its single throat latch and slashed front pockets, it’s made from quarter-inch-length sheepskin and utilises a special lacquer coating which replicates the same look and feel as an original jacket in the company’s archive from 1943.
Cult Swedish clothing brand Acne Studios was founded in 1996, and has since garnered a cult following for its avant-garde designs. But long-time followers of Acne will know that it has a penchant for leather and shearling jackets, with each winter collection containing one or two stunning designs.
Leaning on a minimalist aesthetic, this season’s offerings include a black shearling aviator cut from super-soft lambskin and featuring a large bias collar, as well as overshirts and blousons with shearling trimmings.
The Spanish house under the creative direction of Jonathan Anderson is perhaps best known for its more avant-garde pieces, but those in the know will recognise it as one of the finest purveyors of men’s shearling jackets among all of the luxury fashion maisons operating today.
This season features a number of stunning examples of shearling brilliance, including a beautifully contemporary aviator jacket in both black and tan colourways, as well as in inside-out shearling zip-through and a show-stopping single-breasted shearling coat, all of which are perfect for the shearling fan who wants a more modern aesthetic than the classic flight jackets afford.
If you’re looking for an investment piece of outerwear, then Brunello Cucinelli should definitely be heading up your target list. Based in the hamlet of Solomeo in Italy, Cucinelli prides himself on using the finest natural fibres available, so of course shearling always plays a part in his fall/winter collections.
Cucinelli’s aesthetic is smart contemporary, applying a sporty accent to elevated casualwear, hence why he has created a shearling bomber jacket this season featuring a polished nappa exterior and beautifully rich and warm interior. But the real highlight is a tan shearling parka with a matte, velvety finish on the exterior.
For a super-contemporary version of the shearling jacket, look no further than the Dark Lord himself, Rick Owens. The master of pared-back contemporary Gothicism has this season created a beautifully minimalist black shearling jacket with an asymmetric bias crafted from very soft lambskin, as well as an oversized hooded windbreaker in reverse shearling.
They couldn’t be further from the original flight jackets, but they’re incredible all the same.
Given its storied biker heritage, British brand Belstaff produces modern lightweight versions of the shearling bomber, using its heritage and expertise of leather working to excellent effect.
Its minimalist Tundra jacket is one of our favourites and amazing value at under £1,500/$1,750. With a soft stand collar and four front pockets, it references elements of Belstaff’s cafe racer leather jackets, which is never a bad thing, and as one of the more ‘affordable’ jackets on this list, it’s an absolute no-brainer investment.
How to care for a shearling jacket
Sheepskin is generally quite tough and rugged but shearling – the hides coming from the lamb – is relatively delicate. Care needs to be taken not to rip the hide, but what about when it gets dirty? The first port of call is a good dry cleaner who has experience cleaning shearling (always ask – if your questions receive a blank face, find a better dry cleaner). However, there are a few things you can do to remove light dirt and stains before going down that route.
Regular maintenance is always a good idea. For the fur interior that means an occasional brushing down with a dry cloth. Don’t use a brush because the pile is so dense that the teeth of the brush will likely snag on the fibres. Dampen the cloth to remove more stubborn stains. For the exterior, your best tool to remove small stains is a suede stone or cleaning brush, which will allow you to scour off dirty patches or scuff marks.
Airing the jacket naturally is very important to remove odours. Don’t hang it in plastic bags because they can cause discolouration and don’t allow air to circulate. Never try to speed-dry it with extraneous air as that will ruin the hide.
Similarly, don’t ever think about washing it. You can use a lambskin sealer or leather protector designed specifically for soft hides but always test it on an inconspicuous part of the jacket first.
The history of the shearling jacket
Show us a timeless piece of men’s outerwear and we’ll show you a long and storied military history. From war comes necessity, and that is exactly what drove the creation of what we think of as today’s shearling jacket. The A1 silhouette was the original flight jacket, first worn by USAAF pilots in 1927 before the A2 usurped it some 14 years later, with the main difference being a zip closure rather than the button closure of the A1.
The A2 was the blueprint for most of today’s bombers, but back then it was constructed from horsehide or goathide. In the late 30s, wartime aviation technology has advanced so much that new aircraft called ‘bombers’ could operate at much higher altitudes, which necessitated a respectively warmer jacket for pilots to wear. That was the B3, literally the first ‘bomber’ jacket, composed of a tanned sheepskin exterior and crazy warm sheep fur interior.
The iconic style worn by RAF bomber pilots in the Second World War was actually designed by an American aviator and stunt man, one Leslie Irvin, who also invented the parachute ‘rip-cord’ system. Irvin’s model was recognisable for its huge shearling collar and the curly shearling, which came from the Devon breed of sheep. These shearling bombers were literal lifesavers as pilots were operating in poorly insulated cabins at sub-zero temperatures.
However, after the war, demand fell away for them. Heated flight suits came onto the scene, and combined with ever smaller cockpits, the bulky shearling bomber had flown its final sortie.
That didn’t stop subcultures turning to the shearling jacket in the decades that followed though, with the skinheads of the 60s swapping their nylon MA-1 bombers for the shearling coat when the coldest days of winter rolled in. Marlon Brando reinstated the jacket’s masculine credentials in On The Waterfront (1954), backed up by James Dean wearing a fine example in Giant two years later.
In more recent cinematic appearances, the shearling coat has earned itself something of a bad reputation (although still a very stylish one), after being spotted on the backs of antiheroes such as Steve Buscemi in Fargo and Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Good guys can wear them too though: lest we forget Sly Stallone in Rocky IV, with a quite epic shearling bomber.