Mummy, why does that man have epaulettes?

Vestiges — they’re all around us. What’s more, the more you have them on your mind, the more you see them. Nowhere is this true more than in men’s clothes, which is perhaps hardly surprising given the propensity of the less-fair sex to cling to the past (see anything from the last island of hair to the coveted re-release of those trainers you wore in college).

Consideration of parts vestigial in menswear begins and ends as everybody knows with epaulettes. Seasoned tailors, pattern-cutters with experience dating back to the middle of the last century, collectors of vintage militaria — none of them ever talks quite entirely confidently on what they’re actually there for, exactly, less so why they are the absolute number-one best way of achieving that what, and even less why they’re still there now.

Epaulettes are found most often on military coats such as trench coats and greatcoats, and those are also the places where other such relics are rife — fiddly and flappy vestiges like grenade loops, and semi-vestiges such as belt loops, the latter of which here have been made extinct because A) they look fiddly and flappy, and B) they look even more fiddly and flappy when they haven’t done their job properly and the belt goes missing and the wearer is left forever with a coat decorated at the waist with fiddly and flappy little loops.

Other vestiges that go unquestioned until questioned include the extra bands of stitching at the ends of sleeves on covert coats, the whole left-side column of buttons on anything DB, and nine out of ten straps and tabs on Goretex actionwear. Some are even added intentionally, just from sheer whimsy, such as the top button on a three-roll-two jacket.

It is a good exercise to look at a vestige and try to achieve whatever it is trying to achieve, but in a better way, whether more pleasing to the aesthetics of the day or overall of the coat at hand, or more functional — be that stronger or easier to access or longer-lasting. It’s where a lot of the fun of design comes in; it is also not unrelatedly how much of the evolution in clothing comes about. But you need sometimes to tread carefully. If you strip away the epaulettes from the greatcoat, is it still really a good greatcoat? Is the dispatch rider jacket still worthy of the name if you take away that unwieldy diagonal chest pocket?

These questions you bump up against time and again when trying to do something original in menswear. Original, that is, but not too original: original in a way that says something new but not so new no one has a clue what you are talking about. Tailoring is less amenable in this respect — the rules for dressing smart have been consensus for a long time — and the avenues of innovation are wider in technical outerwear. That’s why the sleeve and side-body on the engineer jacket are all one piece, why the top half of the hunting jacket is a cape in disguise, why the field jacket has those semi-loose pockets that flap about when you run for the bus, but why the SB jacket is played with a straight bat.

So the reason that man has epaulettes is most likely because a greatcoat without just looks sadly somehow without them. Out of balance, perhaps, in the context of a huge collar and huger expanse of cloth running unbroken from neck to cuff. It is surely not as if the man needs to hold the straps of his water bottle or a place to show his regimental insignia [delete as applicable]. Which means that maybe the epaulette isn’t such a vestige after all.