You’ve seen it in cartoons, in memes and in movies. Buster Keaton did it. Ringo Starr, too. Somewhere down the line of civilization, when a gentleman and a fair lady encountered a mud puddle before them, it became chivalrous for the gentleman to remove his coat and lay it down over said puddle, so that the woman wouldn’t get her shoes or her giant hoop skirt wet — though the coat surely would.
According to history, this all got started back in the late 16th century, when Sir Walter Raleigh, a dashing, adventurous sort, was a regular in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. In addition to being a soldier, explorer and great royal company, Raleigh popularized smoking in Europe. But most importantly, the story goes that one time, in an ostentatious display befitting his reputation, while escorting the queen outside, he laid his cloak upon a puddle of mud, over which her royal highness could safely traverse such a filthy hazard.
The thing is, this story is likely heavily embellished bullshit, as the account comes from History of the Worthies of England by Thomas Fuller, written decades after Raleigh was beheaded. No matter though — because through the centuries, Raleigh’s smooth move became the ultimate display of gallantry: soiling your own clothes for the fleeting comfort of a woman.
As for its modern application, Thomas Farley, a syndicated male etiquette columnist known as Mister Manners, tells me, “This isn’t something I’ve ever seen done except in pop culture and history books. And it’s taken on a different meaning in an era where women are rightly seen as equals who don’t need a man throwing a cloak down so they don’t get their precious feet wet.”
Still, he adds, “What I like about talking about this is, there truly are lessons about what it means to be a gentleman that we can all take from this episode from centuries ago.”
He explains that most gestures we consider “gentlemanly” — holding the door or elevator for someone, letting another person take the best seat at a table, etc. — involve putting others first. Whether you’re doing it for your significant other, your grandfather or your boss, these are the manners of a civilized person. “The me-first attitude is what being a gentleman is really the antidote to,” Farley tells me. “It’s about saying, ‘Your comfort and your enjoyment of this situation is more important than mine.’ However, this particular gesture is one of the few I can think of that involves damage to one’s personal effects.”
And so, laying down your coat in the mud is essentially an extreme and ridiculous version of the essence of being a gentleman — which is exactly what Raleigh’s legend, and all those tropes and memes about it are signaling. But if you were to be obnoxious about it and try it out for yourself (and your damstrel in puddly distress), what’s the best coat to do it with?
“I would use something water-repellent that isn’t too porous,” fashion blogger/podcaster Ethan M. Wong recommends, reasoning that these wouldn’t soak up anything. Polyester might work, too: “Perhaps those disco suits made of scratchy synthetics would be great to use for this — and easier to clean. A thick peacoat or overcoat (or even a tweed) might be okay just because the material is so thick.”
By that rationale, Wong says to avoid anything that would soak up water. So forget about a blazer made of hopsack or tropical wool, or other lightweight, breathable materials. Likewise, a puffer jacket is unwise, lest you want to turn it into a dirty, waterlogged sponge. “In any case, the answer is to avoid the mud as much as possible,” Wong says. “Or have a great relationship with your dry cleaner.”
Sadly, I don’t own a disco suit, but I do own a Patagonia rain jacket that’s more or less waterproof, which I was recently wearing while out with my fair lady (read: my wife) when we encountered a broad, shallow puddle at a crosswalk. Here it was! The moment of truth.
I can proudly say that I didn’t hesitate. I suavely took off my coat and placed it on the puddle. My wife was immediately confused. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You’re going to ruin your jacket!” Then confusion turned to horror. She didn’t like this idea — in fact, she refused to walk on it.
“You don’t find it flattering? Or gentlemanly or whatever?” I asked, as I stood up, my now dripping-wet jacket in my hands.
“I dunno. Maybe if we were dating it’d be cute, but not now,” she responded.
What can I say? Though my wife sometimes goes for schmaltzy stuff like this, she’s also very practical.
Anyway, having actually attempted Raleigh’s ultimate move, I’m happy to say it doesn’t feel as stupid as it looks. Honestly, it feels a bit romantic, which kind of aligns with something else Fuller told me. He polled his female friends about whether anyone’s ever done this for them. None have, and several told him they’d prefer to be carried over the puddle — with their permission, of course. “I do love this idea of literally sweeping a woman off her feet, provided she likes that idea,” Fuller says. “Nobody’s coat is ruined, and hopefully your back isn’t ruined. It’s a much more practical and romantic gesture.”
So there you go. Next time a puddle’s in your way, the most romantic, gentlemanly thing to do isn’t to create a safe passage over it with your own attire. Much better to take matters into your own hands, carrying yourself and your companion over it.
Or, you know, you could just walk around it.