Style Defined: The Trench Coat

A history of the trench coat from World War I to Hollywood’s silver screen.

Military-inspired and ultra-classic, the trench coat is one piece of outerwear that will never go out of style. Its defining characteristics are simple and driven by necessity – protective gabardine fabric, a standard khaki color, a full-length, belted, double-breasted cut with wide lapels – and each characteristic has a very logical history.

While we can definitely link the rise of the trench coat back to WWI, it would never have come to be without the invention of gabardine fabric, outside of the military at the hands of Burberry’s very own Thomas Burberry.

trench coat history

Recognizing a need in the late 1800s for a waterproof/resistant fabric that was less stinky and sweaty than the currently available rubberized cotton, Burberry created a new fabric in which the individual threads were rubberized, rather than the entire cloth. Thus, gabardine, a waterproof yet breathable cotton fabric, was born. The remaining characteristics, however, came directly from the demands of military use.

The introduction of the khaki color was one of the first moves towards camouflage. Prior to WWI, most battles were fought close range, and bright uniforms were essential in identifying one’s comrades. As military technology developed, those bright colors turned into a liability as it only made soldiers easier targets. Instead, armies started trying to blend into their backgrounds, and khaki was the first choice.

The final development that sparked the trench coat was the introduction of trench warfare. British soldiers and officers who had traditionally worn heavy serge (wool) topcoats. These kinds of coats were already heavy when worn dry, and became dangerous hazards in the trenches, where they would get wet, caked with mud, and seriously hinder movement and mobility.

Gabardine was introduced as an alternative, and while the trench coat never became standard issue, it became a highly desirable piece of optional outerwear in the British Army. From that point on, the garment was picked up by armies across the world, and eventually the general public.

Over time not much has changed – the double-breasted closure and wide lapels were there from the start, along with the belt to hold things together. The epaulets were added during WWI to allow soldiers to display rank, and D-rings found their place supposedly to hang grenades from, although that claim has never been wholly substantiated.

trench coat history

In the public sphere, actors like Humphrey Bogart made the trench coat and fedora look the standard for a Hollywood film-noir protagonist. Later it became the uniform de rigueur for private eyes and gumshoes, who used a baggy cut and a popped collar to stay discreet and clandestine.

These days, designers recognize the slimming cut of a more tailored trench coat as a classier raingear alternative to a more casual parka or poncho, matching just as well with a suit and tie as a jumper and jeans, and are offering it in a variety of colors and custom finishings. As long as you avoid a brand that fits like a sack (yep, they’re out there), it’s hard to go wrong.

Thanks for reading.

Stylishly Yours,

Adam Lehman
He Spoke Style

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  • Nick

    Hey Brian and Adam, nice article I’m currently in the market to find myself a good rainproof jacket. Do you have any recommendations towards other coats than a trenchcoat for rainy weather? And do you have recommendations towards brands for a quality durable trenchcoat other than the Burberry one?

    • http://WideEyesTightWallets.com/ A. Lehman

      I’m also a big fan of a Mackintosh (or a Mac), or a lightweight parka or poncho for a more casual look. Brand-wise, all the big names should have something along the right lines (J.Crew, Club Monaco, etc). If you’re looking more affordable, I’ve heard good things about the Mac from The Gap (although I’d have to double-check if it’s currently available). Good luck!

  • http://www.shirts50.com/ shirts 50 – your fitted shirts

    Iconic and classic, but I prefer Mackintosh’s 100% waterproof handcraft