Overcoats and topcoats have always of great interest to me, and unfortunately, in recent years, knowledge of these great pieces of outerwear has vanished and the number of available styles has been reduced. Therefore, I started a series to reveal the different overcoat & topcoat styles. With a rainy fall in full swing, this is the perfect season to not only pull yours out of the closet, but to explore it’s unique roots and variations.
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I would like to continue our Coat series with the iconic Trench Coat, which has come a long way from the battlefields of the 19th century. As far as coats go, the Trench Coat is about as iconic as they come, appreciated for their classic form and functionality by men of all tastes.
The History of the Trench Coat
As with many garments today, there are manifold theories about the exact origins of the trench coat, and while it is basically impossible to find out who is right, I will try to outline possible scenarios – you can then choose the theory that pleases you the most!
The Early Days – Macintosh & the Rubberized Raincoat
It seems to me, that the 18th century coachman’s coat – which was also the predecessor of the greatcoat– was likely the forefather of the trench coat. Unlike modern designer garments, each characteristic feature of the trench was born out of practicality.
Today, the trench coat is generally classified as a raincoat, which brings us to our starting point at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Back then, gas lighting was becoming increasingly popular, and Glasgow, Scotland, the gas was derived from coal. In 1818, the Scotsman James Syme realized that the by-product, coal-tar naphtha, was capable of dissolving rubber. As has occurred so many times in history, the inventor / discoverer passed on his information to a savvy businessman – in this case Charles Macintosh, who had successfully made a lot of money with dry bleach.
By 1823, Macintosh had found a way to make use of this adhesive rubber solution in garments. He applied it between two layers of cloth, which resulted in a waterproof raincoat that did not feel at all like rubber. Despite the fact that this raincoat had a most unpleasant odor, the Charles Macintosh & Co. was founded in 1824 Manchester, England, which was home to the cotton mills which provided the raw materials for the raincoats..
Although Macintosh was able to sell quite a few of these purely practical garments, the smell was not its only undesirable feature. With the charm of a potato sack, the coat also became sticky like honey in the heat and hard like a board in the cold. In addition, the fumes where toxic for the factory workers. By the late 1830s, the coat had fallen out of favor. Advances in production were made, and so by 1854 the company Hellewell advertised the five ounce reversible Paletot, which looked more fashionable and hence was popular with anybody who had to face the elements. Overall, the second incarnation of the raincoat was so popular that they were generally referred to as Macintosh. Today, the version with a ‘k’, Mackintosh, is more prevalent and the company is now Japanese-owned.
While the Manchester rainwear production was about to reach its peak, two chaps from southern England were working on their own interpretation of this very raincoat. One of them was John Emary, who had opened a tailor shop on Regent street in 1851 . He developed a special raincoat that he called Aquascutum (from the latin aqua = water & scutum = shield). Soon thereafter, Aquascutum was producing coats for British soldiers. Generally, these coats reached to the ankle and were mostly made up in a double breasted facon.
The raincoat was produced in larger numbers for the British military beginning in 1853 and used in the Crimean war, and it even made an appearance during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), the Boer Wars and the Russo-Japanese war (1904 – 1905). The oldest likely ‘trench’ coat in existence today is the Aquascutum on of Lt. General Gerald Goodlake, which is preserved at Newstead Abbey, England. He wore this coat during the Crimean war, in which he commanded a force of sharpshooters. On one guerrilla sortie behind the enemy lines, Goodlake and a sergeant were cut off by a large body of Russian troops. The two British soldiers fired, gun-clubbed their nearest attackers and ran into a nearby ravine. However, the ravine filled with enemy troops. To their surprise, the British found they were ignored because of the grey raincoats coats they wore – they had been mistaken for Russians. This camouflage enabled them to march along in the ranks of the enemy until they had an opportunity to escape and rejoin their own men. The grey coat worn by Goodlake, is displayed next to his general’s uniform. It was made of all wool cloth by a famous West of England mill and waterproofed to the extent then possible. As you can see in the photo, though it was an early predecessor of the trench coat, it does not bear many of it’s trademark features, which would develop later on.
In 1856, a 21-year-old draper’s apprentice, Thomas Burberry, opened an outerwear shop in Basingstoke. Since he had grown up in the country, he noticed that the linen garments of farm workers had certain properties that he wanted to transfer to overcoats and topcoats. This farmer’s clothing was lightweight and not constricting, warm in the winter, breathable in the summer, and shower resistant when damp, because the material shrank once it got moist. Although Aquascutum was the first to produce weatherproofed raincoats on a large scale, by the 1870’s Thomas Burberry had developed into a fierce competitor.
Unlike the rubberized version of Emary, Burberry followed a different approach. Instead of wool, he used tough fabric which was woven of a long staple Egyptian cotton yarn that was waterproofed before and after the weaving. He called it Gabardine – today also known as gaberdine – which was, in fact, an old term that had been outdated at the time. The advantages were that it was lightweight, odor free, hard wearing and waterproofed. In 1879, he registered the term Gabardine as a trademark, which would last for 40 years. World explorers like Amundsen and Shackleton would use Gabardine for their exhibitions and it was widely used during the Boer Wars.
Many Boer war veterans would also fight in the trenches of WWI, and the most famous one was Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who cut an iconic British figure with a mustache and a trench coat. His preferred model was the Tielocken model, which had been patented in 1912 as a coat with a strap and a buckle instead of buttons and buttonholes. Many officers aspired to follow him, and when he died on a sinking ship during the war, he supposedly wore his trench coat, helping to cement the coat’s by then-legendary status. As you can see from the advertisement, the trench coat was beginning to approach it’s traditional configuration.
Despite, Burberry’s prominent proponents, Aquascutum also had a loyal following that would send back raving letters from the front lines, which would go on to become part of the Aquascutum’s advertising campaigns. During WWI, trench coats were cut in different lengths; they were generally shorter and sometimes they would just reach above the knee. Moreover, they featured epaulettes and D-rings. Almost as popular as the sand, olive, and khaki colors were blue & gray gabardine with a checked lining. While some suspect that this was a designer’s invention of the 20th century, checked lined rainwear was in fact the the standard in the 1880s and 1890s. There was a period in the mid twentieth century in which trench coats were often lined in plain colors, but today the checked lining is just as distinctive as the outer shell.
Some may wonder why this coat remained so popular during the interwar years, and there are a few key reasons. Firstly, in Britain, the government had ordered thousands of trench coats and found itself with a hefty surplus at the end of the war. They were distributed among the public in the 1920’s. Secondly, officers were happy to make use of their uniforms in civilian life, especially since these garment were tough, hard-wearing and fabric remained a scarce commodity. Thirdly, Hollywood stars showcased the trench coat in films across the US, many of which are cultural treasures themselves; just think of Casablanca and Humphrey Bogart, or the Maltese Falcon.
Since the combat strategies of WWII were different and less trench-focused than WWI, shorter multi-functional field jackets (some even camouflaged) were now the garment of choice, and the trench coat lost its military significance. Of course, many have probably seen photographs of German officers from the time in black leather trench coats but these were worn to make an impression rather than for their practicality. Nevertheless, the trench coat remained popular with the public thereafter. Aquascutum blended newly-invented nylon with cotton to create water- and wind-resistant fabrics such as Aqua 5, long before Gore Tex & Windstopper became household names. In the following decades until today, the trench coat has been popular with countless designers for men and women alike. Today, Burberry Trench Coats are designer investment pieces rather than practical garments. Anyone who knows a thing or two about clothing might try to find a vintage quality Burberry or Aquascutum, because these were the durable classics that contained all the defining details.
What makes a Trench a Trench?
I can only repeat myself, but it is important to emphasize that the trench was not invented. Rather than being created on the whim of a designer, it evolved out of necessity and practicality.
1. Trench Coat Fabric
100% Cotton Gabardine
For traditionalists, there is just one choice of trench coat fabric: 100% cotton gabardine as invented by Thomas Burberry. Tightly woven of a worsted cotton, it is both lightweight and durable. As mentioned above, the yarn is waterproofed as well as the finished fabric, achieving remarkable water repellency properties during it’s heyday.
About 15 years ago, Mackintosh reintroduced the rubberized coat as a luxurious item in flashy colors. Since they were particularly successful with Japanese women, the company was sold to a Japanese firm. The prior owners started Hancock, which produced rubberized garments in Scotland.
Aquascutum’s original rubber coating invention is not suggested, because one would easily overheat. If you want ultimate stay-dry performance, fabrics like Gore Text or Event fabric would be better suited, however I think they just don’t look right on such a traditional garment.
There was a time when leather was used frequently for trenches, however, it reminds me more of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Moreover, it is usually heavier and you will not get as much use out of it. German WWII officers were infamous for their black leather trenches. Out of respect for the victims the Third Reich, black leather trench coats should never be worn.
Traditional colors include khaki, sand and stone as well as navy blue. Today, you can find them in black, yellow red or and every other color under the sun. Personally, I own three trench coats – the first is a vintage coat in black from Burberry, the second is a light khaki/sand color, and the third is a darker khaki, also from Burberry. It may seem obvious, but bear in mind the lighter the color the more easily it is stained. For that reason, I would never consider taking anything but a dark trench coat with me for travel purposes. Just like with any other garment, think about when and where you will wear it before you buy.
3. Raglan Sleeves
The raglan sleeve made it debut in the 19th century, and just like the Chesterfield coat, it owes it name to an aristocrat: FitzRoy Somerset 1st Baron Raglan. Just like with many other garments, there are two stories here. During Waterloo, Lord Raglan injured his right arm which had to be amputated. One story claims that he requested a coat designed so he could dress himself more easily. His tailor obliged and created a short coat with a simple diagonal sleeve seam setting that extended from the neck to the underarm, without a distinctive sleevehead.
The alternative story of the sleeve was told by Graeme Fidler, which claims that Lord Raglan wanted to help soldiers to keep warm and hence devised a garment made from a potato sack, which was slit at the neck and slashed diagonally across the corners to allow the arms to move freely. Why anyone would want to imitate the style of a potato-sack coat, I have no idea, but there you have it.
I can’t tell you which story is in fact true, but supposedly, the raglan sleeve allowed much more mobility and for that reason it was utilized in trench coats. In my personal experience, I haven’t noticed a real difference in mobility between the two cuts. One might feel the difference in a bespoke trench, but off the rack, raglan armholes are often huge and don’t really allow for more mobility. Overall, I think mobility is more a question of proper tailoring than simply the choice of style. Of the two vintage Burberry trenches I own, one has a regular sleeve and the other a raglan; I can feel no difference in the ease of movement.
However, I would agree that it is easier to put on a raglan-sleeved coat, which was the original reason Raglan wanted such a coat (according to one story).
Again, the traditionalist would choose the raglan sleeve, while I would council everyone else to take whatever fits best.
4. Double Breasted
In accordance with its military origin, a trench coat is traditionally double breasted and features 10 buttons on the front. Of course, there are all kinds of double breasted and single breasted versions available with multiple button & belt configurations, but the original coat has always been the 5×2 DB cut. Personally, I much prefer the look of this silhouette over any others.
The infamous shoulder tabs often seen on military uniforms also found their way on trench coat, but they were not added merely to indicate rank. Much rather, they were used to secure gas masks, gloves, or whistles.
6. Gun Patch / Storm Flap
The gun patch fulfilled two functions. It could serve as a gun flap for the recoil of the rifle, but more importantly, it prevented rain water flowing down the shoulders from entering the inside of the gun. Personally, I rarely use this feature but it can never hurt, I suppose.
7. Hook & Eye and Throat Latch
Just below the large collar, you will find a hook and eye that allows you to easily keep your collar closed up all the way. It is often secured with a strap and buckle system that is hidden underneath the collar – also known as a throat latch. I find it particularly useful to protect myself from cold winds in combination with a scarf.
8. Belt with D Rings
Originally, the belt with its D Rings was used to suspend items of equipment, such as grenades or even swords.
By time trench coat appeared, the sword was already merely decorative. Today, the belt enables you to create an attractive silhouette by defining the waistline. In theory, you could still use the D Rings, though the belt loops might rip off rather quickly.
9. Sleeve Straps
The sleeve straps on the cuffs can be tightened to keep out the elements. I rarely tighten these buckles because it is a pain to get out of the coat after the fact, but I can see why they are useful for a cold and rainy day.
10. Deep Yoke Back Saddle
The deep back yoke allowed the water roll onto the floor rather than down the back of the wearer. This feature is not seen on many other garments and as such, it is very unique to the trench.
11. Wedge Back
In order for soldiers to be able to move quickly, every trench coat had a vent. In order to keep you dry and warm, it was tailored with a wedge.
I can attest from personal experience, that wedged vents are great because they continue to block the wind and rain while allowing added movement. If you do not like the look of it, you can always button it up.
12. Through Strom Pockets
The storm pockets can be buttoned up from the outside to keep out the rain. In order to make them accessible, all proper trench coats have through pockets than can be reached from the inside and outside. I like this feature when traveling because I can wear the coat buttoned or unbuttoned and I have always access to my wallet, passport etc.
13. Leather Buckles
Leather buckles were available back then, and I like the look of them, though technically metal buckles would perform just as well, if not better in the long run. Since the buckles are handled often, leather is often worn in this location, especially on vintage garments.
14. Checked Lining
Traditionally, trench coats feature a checked lining. Burberry now offers 6 different checks in various sizes. The Equestrian Knight pattern is common, but the classic house check is probably the most widespread for trench coats and it features the tan, black, white and red tartan without any branding.
Aquascutum introduced their hallmark club check lining “Club 92″in 1967, which is now also known as the Aquascutum Club.
For the cooler days, a removable wool lining can be attached with buttons (for coats with this option), which makes it all the more versatile. My old non-Burberry “Made in England” coat has a lovat green liner which is made of wool with 5% camel hair and I can definitely recommend it.
15. Made in England
Obviously, the original coats were made in England, but as you probably know by now, quality is not limited to a certain country and you can find both crap and high quality just about anywhere. Burberry makes most of their coats in Turkey nowadays and Aquascutum in Italy. Both are fashion brands, as is Mackintosh. Hancock provides rubberized coats, but I am sure a tailor could make them for you.
Trench Coat Fit
Most trenches are not worn skin tight since they were generally worn over other garments, such as uniforms, suits, etc. Just like with any garment, you have to decide how you want to wear it.
If you want to wear a suit underneath of it, bring a suit when you try coats on, and wear it both with and without your suit coat. Also, decide whether you want a detachable liner or not, as it is not easy to add one in after the fact.
The sleeve should reach to the root of your thumb so your sleeves underneath are covered completely and your shirt cuff remain out of view when you move around. Anything longer than that will make you look like you haven’t yet made it to the alterations tailor.
In regard to length, there is no traditional length. Ads and pictures from back in the day range from above the knee to the mid-calf and sometimes even to the ankle. So choose what feels right to you. Though, an ankle-length coat might be overwhelming for a smaller frame while an above-the-knee coat will help elongate your legs. The opposite is true for taller men, who should avoid short coats which would only elongate the legs further. My Burberry trench coats reach just below the knee and my third coat is knee length. I probably prefer the below-the-knee versions, but that’s just personal taste.
As with most garments on the rack, keep in mind that you can make them smaller by one or two sizes, but generally not bigger. Never have extreme alterations done since it will distort proportions of belt tine, buttons, pockets etc. and you will look unintentionally awkward, despite all your efforts.
Where to Buy a Trench Coat?
Basically, you have three options.
1. Used coats. Old Burberry or Aquascutum coats are the real deal and should last you for years, as I can attest, but it may be tedious or expensive to find one in good condition. I happened to spot mine in a men’s vintage store in Germany, so it’s worth investigating what you like and keep an eye for it.
2. Off the Rack . Obviously it is the easiest and quickest route to buy a new trench coat at a store. Burberry still carries their original styles, but it will set you back about $1800 or 750£ for Aquascutum. As I mentioned in the used section, they do tend to last, so they might be a good piece to invest in and treat with care. In any case, there is a good resale market for Burberry trenches. However, smaller companies like Francis Campelli, also produce quality garments according to our British readers.
3. Bespoke. If your tailor can source the right kind of gaberdine and the wool liner as well as the pattern, custom is certainly an option that is hardly more expensive than the established brands.
When to Wear & When Not to Wear a Trench Coat?
Today, I would wear it for all kinds of daywear activities, except formal morning dress. It is appropriate with casual wear as well as business suits, and it is an ideal travel companion due to its moderate to light weight, water repellancy and versatility. Despite its manifold uses, please bear in mind that the trench coat is not appropriate for formal evening wear such as tuxedo or white tie.
In the following video, you will get a glimpse into Aquascutum and Burberry today you see how important the trench coat still is to them.
The trench coat remains a popular raincoat for men and women alike despite its unmistakably military origins. It is versatile, tough-wearing and dashing if worn right. Because of its weight and detachable liner it can be worn during the spring and fall but also during mild or rainy winters. It is an ideal travel jacket that combines multiple coats in one. Before you buy one, think about where and how you will wear it and what style would look best on you. If you have any further questions, in case you think I missed something or if you know a great source for trench coats, please let us know.