The eco-conscious King Charles has worn his Barbour for decades, and Queen Elizabeth wore hers for 25 years, even refusing a new one offered to her by the head of Barbour for her Jubilee celebrations. She was one of the two pre-eminent icons of Barbour at one time, along with Steve McQueen on his motorcycle. It would be hard to imagine a more quintessentially British garment than the venerable Barbour jacket – the famed olive-green, wax coated, all-weather wardrobe staple.

     Founded by Scotsman John Barbour in 1894 in Newcastle’s South Shields, the brand began strictly as utilitarian wear for the countryside, for hunting and fishing. There were pockets for storing gaming cartridges, the “thornproof” wax coating for scrambling through hostile brambly countryside, and some versions even have a capacious “game pocket” with enough space for an entire pheasant – a poacher’s delight.  Another style is cut short for easy horseback riding.

     Over time, the jackets develop a shabby patina, lending them a charmingly dishevelled character. In addition, there is traditionally a cachet attached to the well-worn Barbour: They emit an unmistakably musty odor, emanating from the wax coating.

     It therefore made perfect sense last week that U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak offered a personalized version of the iconic jacket to President Biden during his visit to the White House. As an offering, it’s a symbol of Britishness, and the jacket is customized, with the moniker “Mr. President” embroidered on the front: A personal gift, and also a symbolic one. The high-end, family-owned Barbour brand is based near the PM’s constituency in the Northeast of England. Mr. Sunak himself is a fan, and has been seen frequently sporting the brand.

     The Barbour has become increasingly popular in U.S. in recent years – an article in The Spectator by a U.S. writer describes “How the Barbour cracked America”.

     Traditionally the brand is synonymous with the British upper classes. A horsey, hunting, staple on a par with Land Rovers and Hunter wellington boots. It shares a similar cachet to Burberry or Harris Tweed – a signifier of class, history, heritage and quality.

       In 1972, Dame Margaret Barbour took over the family business and introduced new styles. Soon after, when the soon-to-be Princess Diana entered the public consciousness, the golden age of the Barbour followed. The young Lady Diana Spencer helped popularise the garment in the late 1970s and early 80s. In the 1990’s, the Barbour popular image faded a little with the fashionable set, but not with the traditional wearers. It then became fashionable again at, of all places, the Glastonbury Festival. It seemed in its element in muddy fields.

     In 2013 the willowy “It” girl, and Glastonbury fan, Alexa Chung collaborated with Barbour to create jackets with an Alexa-style twist, and the partnership is ongoing. Chung told Vogue last year: “I suppose we’re all hankering for a time before everything was performance, and my preoccupation with practical things worn with more frivolous things is on perfect display at a music festival.”

     The brand has recently launched its Wax for Life initiative, a service that will re-wax, mend or customise your existing Barbour. They are, after all, the jackets that last forever – the more beaten-up looking the better.

     There is a sense of longevity and quiet, understated luxury that goes hand in hand with Barbour’s status as a family-owned business that has been passed down through the generations. From countryside English girl to urban skate kid; from Queen Elizabeth to Steve McQueen; from the muddy, elite polo field to the muddy, egalitarian music festival field; from 19th Century hunting and fishing to 21st Century upcycling, the all-encompassing Barbour has had quite a journey.

     It is the perfect soft power gift, hinting gently at many different, hard-to-define qualities – history, consistency, functionalism, longevity, family, modernity, coolness, sustainability – and, hopefully, an eye on the future. Joe Biden should be pleased with his gift.

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