From English middle-class uniform to yob totem: Jim White considers why waxed cotton jackets keep making the news
Like a cold snap for sales of tinned soup, the rain galloning down in the last week has been one long advertisement for the country's favourite item of outdoor wear: the Barbour. Every night the news has been full of pictures of farmers in Somers et surveying acres of drowned crops while keeping themselves dry under acres of waxed cotton.

In pubs in Cumbria, publicans face the flood in their cellars armed only with a mop, a bucket and a Barbour. Indeed, if the Dutch really wanted to keep their defences secure against the advancing flood-water they should shove rolled-up Barbours along thebottom of their dams. It might be more expensive than sandbags, but nothing keeps a dyke dry like a Barbour.

In Italy, however, it emerged this week that they have a different use for the everyday attire of country folk. Before Sunday's match between the local team and Milan in Genoa, a mass brawl outside the stadium culminated in a young Genoese fan being stabbed to death. The knife was wielded by a member of Milan's most notorious firm of football hooligans. The killer was wearing, as all the lads in his mob do, a Barbour.

Football hoolies across the Continent have always looked to England for their lead. The violence may have reduced in our own game (at least among the fans), but yob culture remains one of our principal invisible exports. In Spain, the "ultras" drape themselves in Union Jacks to prove how hard they are, in Germany and Scandinavia they chant insults in English, learnt from studying television coverage of the English game. And in Italy they wear English clothing: Burberry scarves, tweed jackets, Lonsdale s weat-shirts. But the item which is most prized is the Barbour.

Never has anything suffered so much in the translation. Except for a short flurry in Newcastle in 1986, when jackets liberated from local shops found favour among Geordie lads, Barbours have never been remotely associated with English football. In the stands at Old Trafford, Anfield and Highbury, they prefer Armani, Versace and Benetton.

Indeed, if you want to see Barbours at a sports event, then tomorrow is the day. The first Five Nations game of the season at Twickenham is the national day of the Barbour. The glorious new stands at the home of rugby will be lined with 65,000 waxed jackets. Some will be fakes bought at M&S; some, worn by those who don't really understand, will be blue; some, sported by the more unconventional, will be of antipodean origin and have vast shoulder-pads and flamboyant tails flapping around the ankles. But most will be Barbours.

Just as in Milan, in England, the Barbour identifies its wearer precisely. It is essentially a tool, a hard-wearing, all-purpose out-door coat that farmers and fishermen can rely on in periods of intemperate weather. But like the old green Land-Rover parked in Soho without a splash of mud on its panelling, it has become symbolic. Its fashion-free practicality provides an ersatz link to the countryside, the place which is fondly believed to be the natural habitat of the English middle-classes.

I have to admit I once bought a Barbour. It was at an agricultural show, and the salesman gave me a thorough grilling, to check I was worthy of the item, to see if he should offer me membership of the club.

"What do you want this for?" he asked. "Fishing, walking, shooting?"

"Er, walking," I said.

"Fells, fields, where?"

"Well, just walking around."

"I see," he said snootily, guiding me and my credit card towards an item called the Borderer, the know-nothing's basic Barbour. For £108, it came complete with an owner's manual which had dozens of pictures of Barbour wearers taking on the elements.

"You'll need this," said the salesman handing over a spare pot of wax. "You'll find that, with rigorous wear, the jacket will require waxing annually."

Four years on, I'm afraid I haven't opened the tin.