Trench coats – smart, classic and oh-so chic – are an ubiquitous part of modern style. Look to your Instagram feed and catch them on influencers, celebrities and your friends alike; root through vintage shops and find them in abundance, complete with design details from every decade; see them gracing the catwalks season after season, reinvented and reinvigorated for the current mood.
After an evolution lasting 200 years, they’ve become a quintessential part of British style heritage. But where did the cold-weather classic originate from? And how did it become the wardrobe staple of choice for fashion’s elite?
A very British origin story
The origins of the trench date back almost two centuries. In 1823 Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh (of Mackintosh raincoat fame) formulated a revolutionary rubberised cotton, which he began to use to create practical coats. Though completely waterproof, there was one vital design flaw in the material: it wasn’t breathable, meaning those who wore it would sweat unbearably. The material certainly needed more work, but its development led to the two rival claims to the trench coat as we know it today.
The first of these came from John Emary, a luxury menswear designer, who in 1853 developed and patented an equally water-repellent fabric. Thankfully, this one was much lighter and more breathable, and was made into weather-proof coats for officers serving in the Crimean War between 1853 to 1856. Emary soon renamed his company Aquascutum – meaning ‘water shield’ in Latin – to reflect the popularity of his creation.
Not long later, in 1879, came designer Thomas Burberry’s patent for ‘gabardine’, a waterproof, breathable twill fabric which he used for the coat worn by famed explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton during his 1907 Antarctica exploration. Later, in 1912 Burberry created the Tierlocken coat, a style largely considered the precursor of the trench coat as we now recognise it.
All in the name
These weatherproof coats – both from Burberry and Aquascutum – soon became commonplace for upper class British officers during the Boeing War, and later WWI and WWII. This was in large part due to their practicality, as they replaced the officers’ thick woollen coats, which became far too heavy in the rain to be a practical solution.
These newly developed, lighter coats were perfect for the trenches – hence their eventual moniker – and the classic style that we see today was developed to meet officers’ war-time needs. The classic beige colour offered camouflage; shoulder straps allowed the attachment of epaulettes signifying rank; a D-ring on the belt could hold maps, keys and other field gear; storm flaps offered extra protection against fierce weather conditions; and generous, button-fastened pockets provided ample storage for an officer’s belongings.
Soon, the image of these respectable, heroic officers in their expensive Burberry or Aquascutum trenches began to filter into the public consciousness in Britain, and the coat became a symbol of status. Less affluent British civilians purchased cheaper copies, keen to emulate the images of these well-to-do officers on the front line and show their patriotic support.
A symbol of glamour
As WWII came to an end, the trench gained global popularity. This was in large part thanks to Hollywood’s biggest stars, many of whom donned the style in their most iconic movies.
From Katherine Hepburn’s straight cut, square shouldered trench in 1943’s Keeper Of The Flame to Audrey Hepburn’s classic Burberry design in 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the trench came to be seen as the pinnacle of glamour and poise for women. For men, the coat was worn by the most slick, polished male stars of the day. In 1942’s Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart delivers his iconic line ‘Here’s looking at you, kid?’ while sporting a sophisticated trench and trilby combination.
A modern transformation
The latter half of the 20th century saw the continued evolution of the trench coat. While always maintaining the style’s classic, androgynous and chic appeal, each decade saw the trench reimagined and reinvented with the times.
In the ‘60s, the intellectuals of New York, Paris and London paired theirs with black roll necks and slacks. In the ‘70s, Jane Birkin added a relaxed sexiness by pairing a cropped version with knee high boots, and Meryl Streep’s Burberry designed number helped her win an Oscar for 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer.
By the ‘80s, high camp, glamour and power ruled the runways, and the trench coat was updated with exaggerated shoulders and lapels. David Bowie wore his with oversized suits, while Grace Jones favoured Azzedine Alaïa’s all-leather designs. In the ‘90s, the trench was Princess Diana’s coat of choice. And throughout the noughties, Burberry’s iconic designs were re-popularised by fashion ‘it girls’ like Chloe Sevigny, Alexa Chung and Emma Watson.
Nowadays, the trench is more versatile than ever before. Classic camels and beiges sit side by side with muted blacks or adventurous patterns. Belted styles are as popular as more oversized, androgynous fits, and waterproof cotton is as regularly used as high-shine leather. Certainly, the trench has been deconstructed and reconstructed endlessly over the last 200 years but one thing remains true: it will always be in style.