A cold autumn rain is falling as I write this. It’s the kind of dark grey September morning that's never stopped reminding me of sad little marches to elementary school, the last long shadows of summer having given way to the harsh fluorescence of an overheated classroom. I took what solace I could from puddle-jumping in a stout pair of rubber boots and a vinyl raincoat, clammy yet cozy, wonderfully impervious. Like most boys, as I grew older I eschewed these very sensible items, along with the maternal diligence they implied, walking cool in wet clothes and squishy shoes.
Raincoats have historically been rather joyless, utilitarian garments, rendered in shapeless taupe to keep one dry on a commute, almost disposable in their anonymity. The famous exception is of course the classic British trench, but after several generations as a cultural and countercultural icon, its once dégagé military chic now seems both over-engineered and overbearing. Well into my adulthood, I had little interest in raincoats of any kind, preferring to rely on an umbrella and a brisk pace to keep me (relatively) dry between lobbies and subway stations.
That changed a half-dozen years ago, while trawling eBay, when I happened on the sort of discovery that makes high-end bottom-feeding all worth it: a full-length, raglan-sleeved, belted riding mac, made in the 1980s by Mackintosh for Polo Ralph Lauren in a rich mustard yellow. The classic details were all there: fly front, slanted flap pockets, deep box-pleated center vent, wool tattersall half-lining, rubber gussets at the sleeves, hooked stand-and-fall collar with a detachable storm tab, straps to buckle around the legs while in the saddle (as one does), and -- critically -- ventilation grommets under the arms.
You need those grommets because the material itself -- a heavy rubberized cotton first patented by Charles Mackintosh in 1823 -- breathes about as well as a dry cleaning bag. In temperatures north of 70 degrees a riding mac is literally a sauna, condensing moisture along its taped and glued seams. Surely this was the reason for Mackintosh’s decline and fall from interwar public prominence, supplanted by Burberry, Aquascutum, and any number of more supple and lighter weight raincoats.
In the sartorial strike zone between 40 and 70 degrees, however, Mackintosh cloth is uniquely sensuous stuff. It doesn’t drape so much as it sculpts the shoulders, tucking into crisp folds under the cinched belt before flaring out into a wide skirt that’ll keep your trousers dry even without an umbrella. As you move, it rustles like a gently luffing sail. It smells profoundly good -- an atavistic aroma of rubber, canvas, and glue that conjures reliable old camping gear.
And reliable it is. Where most cloth raincoats are at most water-resistant, subject to saturation in a heavy downpour, a mac is entirely waterproof -- an artifact of a slower, more bucolic world in which getting caught in the rain might actually take a while, and so much the better. Like any piece of good outdoor equipment, a riding mac makes you want to be outdoors; you don’t wear one to avoid the rain so much as revel in it. Add a pair of wellies and I guarantee you’ll be splashing through some puddles.
Although rustic in origin and romantic in appeal, the riding mac is well-suited for metropolitan business wear. For all its aforementioned interior features, the exterior silhouette is clean, almost minimal: the flair of the trench with none of the fuss. While more conservative dressers may shy from the signature yellow color for fear of evoking Dick Tracy, the lizard-brains of even the least sartorially-inclined onlookers will be tickled with the sudden realization that this, finally, is what raincoats are supposed to look like.