Duly Entrenched: The Legacy of the Trench Coat

Product shot of a trench coat
Image credit: McArthurGlen Designer Outlets / CC BY-SA 2.0

The term ‘trench coat’ has with changing circumstances over many decades had its rougher edges worn off to the point where it no longer recalls the horrors of the wartime trenches for which it was named. Instead, it simply and sanitarily refers to a style of coat in the same way that, say, ‘bomber’ or ‘aviator’ does to a kind of jacket and sunglasses respectively. Time has all but stripped away the wartime associations of these terms and instead turned them primarily into markers of type. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the average shopper who might be enticed by a trench coat in a high street window or a product gallery online no longer has any cause to think of the grizzly circumstances that gave the garment its name.

But while the trench coat may have gotten its title on the Western Front in the early twentieth century, its roots stretch back nearly a century prior to the First World War.

The story of the trench coat, along with all modern weather gear, begins in the early 1820s with the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh (not to be confused with fellow Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the architect and painter whose similar name feels like the makings of a historical game of broken telephone, not unlike Levi Strauss and Lévi-Strauss). Mackintosh pioneered a method of sandwiching rubber between two layers of cotton, resulting in a rubberised cloth that proved effective in rendering all kinds of weather-resistant gear.

There were some downsides, however. While early Mac coats kept water from coming in, they also prevented heat and sweat from going out, which made them rather uncomfortable to wear. They were also known to have an unpleasant odour and were even said to melt on occasion when exposed to the heat of sun. Clearly, there was some room for improvement.

A man named John Emery certainly thought so. The former owner of a gentlemen’s clothier on Regent’s Street in London, Emery was the first to patent waterproof wool in 1853. He used it to produce raingear under the name ‘Aquascutum’, which is Latin for ‘water shield’. 

The next and final figure of note in the early days of the trench coat arrived on the scene not long after that. Thomas Burberry — another Brit, though that should hardly come as a surprise given the local climate — was a 21-year old draper from Basingstoke in Hampshire when he founded the business that still goes by his name in 1856. It wasn’t until twenty-some years later in 1879, however, that he invented gabardine, a twill material that was both breathable and waterproof. Burberry achieved this effect by coating individual fibres (rather than just the whole fabric) in lanolin, the greasy substance found naturally in sheep’s wool. 

Image credit: German Federal Archives / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Mackintosh, Emery, and Burberry would all supply British troops in their time, but at the turn of the twentieth century, a novel kind of warfare meant that soldiers were in need of a new kind of kit. Technological advances in the mid to late 1800s meant that the brightly coloured uniforms of the Napoleonic wars were no longer viable. In battles that were fought primarily on open fields at relatively close range, it was useful to be able to tell friend and foe apart, but the advent of long-range arms meant that eye-catching garb only served to put a target on one’s back.

Trench warfare in WWI only brought further challenges. Cramped, wet, and muddy conditions meant that the thick woollen greatcoats that British soldiers had worn in former conflicts had become a serious liability. They would get soaked in water and caked in mud, in addition to being too long and heavy to accommodate swift movement in close quarters. The appalling conditions in the trenches meant that soldiers were in desperate need of a different kind of outerwear.

It’s here that the trench coat — a term first used in 1916, just two years after the outbreak of the Great War — came into its own. Every part of the garment served a function. The fabric, as discussed, was by this time lighter, breathable, and waterproof. The tan colouring made for better camouflage. A small cape crossed the back of the shoulders for water to run off of and a flap at the shoulder did the same, while also accommodating both the butt of a rifle and some holes for ventilation. A set of raglan sleeves had belted cuffs that could be tightened up in bad weather while the coat’s collar could be buttoned for the same purpose. The collars also helped protect wearers from poisonous gas, since a mask could be tucked underneath to keep it more airtight. The belt at the waist carried D-rings on which a water bottle, munitions, and other supplies could be hooked, while deep pockets offered further coverage and extra storage space for maps and other necessities. Some jackets even came with a detachable liner, which offered additional warmth and could be used in a pinch as bedding (it also lent the coat its alternate title of ‘trenchwarm’). Finally, epaulettes — perhaps the garment’s most obviously marshal feature — secured rank insignia while also supporting anything else carried on a strap.

It’s a mark of just how well-designed the garment is that it survives largely unchanged more than a century on. But, despite its obvious use to anyone stuck in the trenches, trench coats were exclusively worn by officers.

This was down to a longstanding tradition that had working-class men making up the rank and file in the military, while the officer class all hailed from high society. The latter group were tasked with outfitting themselves and so they turned to the same tailors and clothiers who provided their apparel during peacetime, often at the same considerable cost.

It’s in this context that outfitters like Aquascutum and Burberry came to supply military trench coats. Both companies already boasted impressive pedigrees: Aquascutum had outfitted no less a patron than the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and had dressed officers as far back as the Crimean War. Burberry, meanwhile, supplied the explorers Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton and had been serving up trench-coat style weatherproofs to the British army since the turn of the century during the Boer War in South Africa. 

Understandably, given both the expense and utility of these garments, many officers were keen to hang onto them after the war, which was how trench coats first entered civilian wardrobes. From here they would gain newfound fame on the silver screen, where they proved an essential component of the cool personae of a slew of world-weary characters. Think of the effect these coats added to all of those noir films — Humphrey Bogart’s being the most famous — or to the Jean-Pierre Melville oeuvre (and, indeed, to Melville himself). Plus there is Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanies, Michael Caine in Get Carter, Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, or Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. The trench coat’s cinematic shorthand became so well established that Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers were even able to satirise it by putting the clueless Clouseau in one throughout the Pink Panther series.

In contemporary times, trench coats continue to feature prominently in womenswear, but there has been a definite drop off in popularity in the male equivalent. With suits and hats no longer being in regular rotation for most men, the trench coat no doubt suffers from seeming both too dressy and insufficiently protective in their absence (It might seem harder to pull off while wearing jeans and sneakers, for example, or to successfully keep the rain at bay without having a Bogie-style fedora on your head). But, for fans of this impressive garment, there’s little to fear. The design of the trench coat has proven resilient enough to endure more than a century of wear; there’s no reason to think it can’t weather a few more to come.

Frank Sinatra wearing a suit and holding a trench coat
Grab your coat, don’t forget your hat: Frank Sinatra, trench coat in hand, in 1957
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain