There is an old story of a baseball fan that had a ball signed by Joltin' Joe DiMaggio and Paul Simon. On one half, Paul Simon wrote "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?" To which the Yankee Clipper responded on the other side of the leather orb, "I haven't gone anywhere." If the same question was proposed to proponents of that staple of 1930s sportswear, the action back jacket, the answer might be similar to the great DiMaggio's.
Descriptions differ, but generally the action back was worn as outdoor active wear for events such as shooting and hunting. In theory, the side gussets under the shoulder provided greater freedom for raising the arms. Other features usually include a half belt under the side gussets at the back of the jacket. Some versions include a pleat at the center back, or a series of pleats along the length of the back of the jacket. At the front, large patch pockets are usually the norm.
Christian Barker being fitted for his own suit featuring the action back,
courtesy of Timothy Everest.
More recently, the action back has become almost entirely a stylish touch found on heavy tweed shooting jackets meant to be worn in the English countryside or the Scottish highlands. Interestingly, at some point it seems to have become the standard during the height of the British colonial empire and was almost out of place sans pith helmet.
Clark Gable in repose.
Clark Gable seems to have done much to associate the action back with the stylish cad or the pure-hearted gentleman rogue. He wore the action back to great effect in It Happened One Night, which in Gable's case may have simply been a safari of a different stripe. Several photographs of Gable form the 1930s suggest that the action back was a favorite in his personal wardrobe. Whatever the case may be, the action back seems to have been adopted during that period by the rakish gambling and horse racing set in America.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I happened upon a vintage action back jacket in a lovely, thick patterned wool made by the venerable Palm Beach company. Unfortunately, the jacket seemed to be cut in something close to a 42 extra long, My misfortune, however, was my brother's good luck, as the jacket fit him very well. The sleeves probably needed to be taken up, but that's a minor alteration. Its also a bit tight around the waist, but my brother has been losing a good deal of weight recently, so it isn't hard to imagine that the waist issue will have resolved itself in a few weeks time.
For those that care about such things, the details on this jacket are quite nice. There leather buttons are worn but charming, and the quarter-lined interior allows you to see the inner workings of the action back's details. There is also a flap over the front chest pocket that adds a little flourish to the more sedate front of the jacket.
All in all, a great purchase that will allow my brother to unleash his inner Douglas Fairbanks while on his own urban safari. And following in the sartorial footsteps of such eminently well-attired individuals as Mr. Gable and Mr. Barker? Truer steps have never been taken.