Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Brief History of Trench Coats

From Macintosh to Burberry:  adventures, private eyes, military officers, and the fashionable trench coat.

The trench coat, in its present configuration, has been around for a just over a century now and they continue to be both fashionable and functional.  A trench coat is a medium weight single or double-breasted belted coat that is knee length or slightly longer.  They can be made of gabardine or of closely woven cotton and even leather.  Trench coats can also have a removable liner to make them lighter for milder weather.  Generally they function as a lightweight greatcoat and have the added benefit of being rain proof as well as a windbreaker for brisker weather.  They usually come in a variety of colors, although lighter colors are predominating, such as cream or fawn.

 Trench coats evolved from a need for a much lighter weight greatcoat that was also weatherproof.  The military in particular embraced the concept, although early on it was a private purchase item.  The civilian coat was militarized into the form we know now with epaulets and equipment d rings just before the First World War.  In fact, the term trench coat was coined in the First World War by troops, as it wasn’t military nomenclature to describe the handy coat.  By this time many European powers and the U.S. adopted the trench coat I the form we know.

The beginning of trench coat saga begins with Aquascutum in the 1850s, claiming to have come up with the clothing item, although their coat wasn’t quite the trench coat we have come to know.  It wasn’t until the invention of gabardine a hundred years ago by Burberry, that the coats became the lightweight accessory we now know and love.  Previously, there were coats treated with rubber and other waterproofing along with having a tight weave fabric.  The new gabardine coats pretty much replaced the oilcloth dusters and rubberized raincoats of the 19th century.

Although the British military had made the trench coat an acceptable military item as early as 1901, it was still private purchase.  When World War One began, trench coats were in high demand.  Even America caught trench coat mania and stocks disappeared as fast as they could be made and shipped.  Arising out of the horrors of the trenches, the trench coat became an acceptable item for everyday civilian wear, even to this day.  Dealers in outdoor and adventure equipment such as Harrods and Abercrombie and Fitch (founded 1892) carried trench coats along with other adventure gear.


Wearing a trench coat meant that you might have military experience or was prepared for every eventuality from foul weather to foul deeds.  The pulp writers picked up on trench coat mania and ground out endless stories of trench coast clad private eyes and adventurers.   

Even Tintin, the Hergé comic book hero, often wears a trench coat.  Film also celebrated the trench coat and it’s no nonsense image, by having both heroes and villains wearing them along with snap-brim fedoras.  Trench coats could also mean menace and not only with P.I.s but spies as well.  An aura of mystery and danger surrounded the trench coat.  Consider that the popular cartoon character Carmen Sandiego sports a trench coat and matching fedora as a modern illustration of danger in a trench coat and intrigue.

For you H. P. Lovecraft fans, Burberry gabardine clothing was worn by polar explorers including Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, and Ernest Shackleton, who led a 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica.  George Mallory wore a gabardine jacket on his attempt on Mount Everest in 1924.  I can only imagine that Miskatonic Antarctic Expedition would be using the same garb in their trek to the Mountains of Madness.  
Image and patch by Propnomicon

Updates:  see the post on fedora hats, 2 July 2012

See post about slouch hats, 28 April 2014,

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