The Classy Rise of the Trench Coat
World War I brought with it a broad array of societal changes, including men’s fashion
The trench coat wasn’t exactly invented for use during the war that gave it its name, a war spent mired in muddy, bloody trenches across Europe. But it was during the First World War that this now iconic garment took the shape that we recognize today, a form that remains startlingly current despite being more than 100 years old.
The trench coat is, in some ways, emblematic of the unique moment in history that World War I occupies, when everything – from rigidly held social structures to military organization to fashion – was in upheaval; it is both a product of this time as well as a symbol of it. “It’s the result of the scientific innovation, technology, mass production… The story of the trench coat is a very modern story,” says Dr. Jane Tynan, lecturer in design history at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London and author of British Army Uniform and the First World War: Men in Khaki.
Even so, the story of the trench coat starts roughly 100 years before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. As early as 1823, rubberized cotton was being used in weatherproof outerwear for both civilian and military use. These “macks”, named for their inventor Charles Macintosh, were great at keeping rain out, but equally – and unfortunately – great at keeping sweat in. They also had a distinctive and unpleasant smell of their own, and a propensity to melt in the sun. Nevertheless, Mackintosh’s outerwear, including rubberized riding jackets, were used by British military officers and soldiers throughout the 19th century.
Inspired by the market the macks created – and the fabric’s initial shortcomings – clothiers continued to develop better, more breathable waterproofed textiles. In 1853, Mayfair gentlemen’s clothier John Emary developed and patented a more appealing (read: less stinky) water-repellant fabric, later renaming his company “Aquascutum” – from the Latin, “aqua” meaning “water” and “scutum” meaning “shield” – to reflect its focus on designing wet weather gear for the gentry. His “Wrappers” were soon necessities for the well-dressed man who wanted to remain well-dressed in inclement weather.
Thomas Burberry, a 21-year-old draper from Basingstoke, Hampshire, founded his eponymous menswear business in 1856; in 1879, inspired by the lanolin-coated waterproof smocks worn by Hampshire shepherds, he invented “gabardine”, a breathable yet weatherproofed twill made by coating individual strands of cotton or wool fiber rather than the whole fabric. Burberry’s gabardine outerwear, like Aquascutum’s, proved popular with upper class, sporty types, and with aviators, explorers and adventurers: When Sir Ernest Shackleton went to Antarctica in 1907, he and his crew wore Burberry’s gabardine coats and sheltered in tents made from the same material.
“Lightweight waterproof fabric is] a technological development, like the Gore-Tex of that period, making a material that would be fit for purpose,” explains Peter Doyle, military historian and author of The First World War in 100 Objects (the trench coat is number 26). With the fabric, the factories, and the primary players – Burberry, Aquascutum, and, to some degree, Mackintosh – in place, it was only a matter of time before the trench coat took shape. And what drove the design was changes in how the British military outfit itself, and to a large degree, how war was now being waged.
Warfare through the 1860s was Napoleonic, typically conducted in large fields where two armies faced off and fired or hacked at one another until one fell. In these scenarios, brightly colored uniforms helped commanders identify their infantry troops even through the smoke of battle. But with the technological advancements in long-range arms in place even by the Crimean War in the 1850s, this kind of warfare had become deeply impractical, not to mention deadly; bright, garish uniforms simply made soldiers easier targets.
Military tactics needed to adapt to this new reality and so too did uniforms. The color khaki, which came to dominate British military uniforms, was the result of lessons learned in India; the word “khaki” means “dust” in Hindi. The first experiments at dyeing uniforms to blend in with the landscape began in 1840; during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, several British regiments dyed their uniforms drab colors.
By the 1890s, khaki and camouflage had spread to the rest of the British military; in the Boer War in 1899, the utility of khaki uniforms had proven itself by allowing soldiers dealing with guerilla warfare to blend more easily with their surroundings. The British military was in some ways slow to change – bizarrely, mustaches for officers were compulsory until 1916 – but by World War I, there was an increasing recognition that uniforms needed to disappear into the landscape, allow for fluid, unencumbered movement, be adaptable to the fighting terrain, and be easily produced in mass quantities.
The terrain that British military outfitters were designing for even early in the war was, essentially, a disgusting hole in the ground. Trenches were networks of narrow, deep ditches, open to the elements; they smelled, of both the unwashed living bodies crammed in there and the dead ones buried close by. They were muddy and filthy, and often flooded with either rain or, when the latrines overflowed, something worse. They were infested with rats, many grown to enormous size, and lice that fed off the close-quartered soldiers. Life in the trench, where soldiers would typically spend several days at a stretch, was periods of intense boredom without even sleep to assuage it, punctuated by moments of extreme and frantic action that required the ability to move quickly.
It was to deal with these conditions that the trench coat was designed. “This was really the modernizing of military dress. It was becoming utilitarian, functional, camouflaged … it’s a very modern approach to warfare,” says Tynan.
In past wars, British officers and soldiers alike wore greatcoats, long overcoats of serge, a thick woolen material, that were heavy even when dry; they were warm, but unwieldy. But in the trenches, these were a liability: Too long, they were often caked with mud, making them even heavier, and, even without the soldiers’ standard equipment, were difficult to maneuver in. Soldiers in the trenches needed something that was shorter, lighter, more flexible, warm but ventilated, and still weatherproof. The trench coat, as it soon came to be known as, fit the bill perfectly.
But let’s be clear: Regular rank and file soldiers, who were issued their (now khaki) uniforms, did not wear trench coats. They had to make do with the old greatcoats, sometimes cutting the bottoms off to allow greater ease of movement. Soldiers’ clothing was a source of discomfort for them – coarse material, ill-fitting cuts, poorly made, and teeming with lice.
Uniforms for those with higher ranks, however, were a very different story. While their dress was dictated by War Office mandates, officers were tasked with the actual outfitting themselves. Up until 1914, officers in the regular army were even asked to buy the clothes themselves, often at considerable cost, rather than simply being given the money to spend as they saw fit: In 1894, one tailor estimated that a British officer’s dress could cost anywhere from £40 to £200. From the start of the war in 1914, British officers were provided a £50 allowance to outfit themselves, a nod to the fact that dressing like a proper British military officer didn’t come cheaply.
Having officers outfit themselves also helped reinforce the social hierarchy of the military. Soldiers tended to be drawn from the British working classes, while the officers were almost exclusively plucked from upper, gentlemanly class, the “Downton Abbey” swanks. Dress was (and still is, of course) an important marker of social distinction, so allowing officers to buy their own active service kit from their preferred tailors and outfitters set them apart, fortifying their social supremacy. It also meant that though there were parameters for what an officer had to wear, they could, as Doyle says, “cut a dash”: “The latitude for creating their own style was enormous.
The officers called on firms like Burberry, Aquascutum and a handful of others who marketed themselves as military outfitters; notably, these also tended to be the firms that made active, sporting wear for the very same aristocratic gentleman (Aquascutum, for example, enjoyed no less a patron than the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII; he wore their overcoats and issued them their first royal warrant in 1897). This marriage of sporting wear and military gear was longstanding. Burberry, for example, designed the field uniform for the standing British army in 1902 and noted in promotional materials that it was based on one of their sportswear suits; Aquascutum was selling overcoats and hunting gear to aristocratic gentlemen and outfitting British officers with weatherproofed wool coats as far back as the Crimean War in 1853. Burberry and Aquascutum both created designs informed by their own lines of well-made, nicely tailored clothing for wealthy people who liked to fish, shoot, ride, and golf. This also tailored nicely with the image the British military wanted to convey: War was hell, but it was also a sporty, masculine, outdoorsy pursuit, a pleasure and a duty.
Both Burberry and Aquascutum take credit for the trench coat, and it’s unclear who really was the first; both companies had strong ties to the British military establishment and both already had weatherproof outerwear similar to the trench coat. Burberry may have a stronger claim: Khaki-colored Burberry “weatherproofs”, Mackintosh-style raincoats in Burberry gabardine, were part of officers’ kit during the Boer War and in 1912, Burberry patented a knee-length, weatherproofed coat very like the trench coat called a “Tielocken”, which featured a belt at the waist and broad lapels. But in truth, no one really knows.
“Burberry and Aquascutum were very clever in adapting to military requirements,” says Tynan, especially as “what you’re talking about is a sport coat being adapted for military use.” The adaptation appears to have largely taken place within the first two years of war: Regardless of who really was the first, British officers had certainly adopted them by 1916, as this drawing of soldiers loading a cannon while being supervised by a trench coat-wearing officer attests. The first instance of the term “trench coat” in print also came in 1916, in a tailoring trade journal accompanied by three patterns for making the increasingly popular weatherproof coats. By this time, the coats’ form had coalesced into essentially the same thing sold by luxury “heritage” brands and cheap and cheerful retailers today. So what made a coat a “trench coat”?
Firstly, it was a coat worn by officers in trenches. A blindingly obvious statement, sure, but it deserves some unpacking – because each part of the trench coat had a function specific to where and how it was used and who used it. Trench coats were double-breasted and tailored to the waist, in keeping with the style of officers’ uniform. At the belted waist, it flared into a kind of knee-length skirt; this was short enough that it wouldn’t trail in the mud and wide enough to allow ease of movement, but still covered a significant portion of the body. The belt, reminiscent of the Sam Browne belt, would have come with D-rings to hook on accessories, such as binoculars, map cases, a sword, or a pistol.
At the back, a small cape crosses the shoulders – an innovation taken from existing military-issue waterproof capes – encouraging water to slough off; at the front, there is a gun or storm flap at the shoulder, allowing for ventilation. The pockets are large and deep, useful for maps and other necessities. The straps at the cuffs of the raglan sleeves tighten, offering greater protection from the weather. The collar buttons at the neck, and this was for both protection from bad weather and poison gas, which was first used on a large scale in April 1915; gas masks could be tucked into the collar to make them more airtight. Many of the coats also came with a warm, removable liner, some of which could be used as emergency bedding if the need arose. At the shoulders, straps bore epaulettes that indicated the rank of the wearer.
In short, as Tynan notes, “The trench coat was a very, very useful garment.”
But there was a tragic unintended consequence of officers’ distinctive dress, including the trench coat: It made them easier targets for snipers, especially as they lead the charge over the top of the trench. By Christmas 1914, officers were dying at a higher rate than soldiers (by the end of the war, 17 percent of the officer class were killed, as compared to 12 percent of the ranks) and this precipitated a major shift in the make-up of the British Army. The mass pre-war recruitment drives had already relaxed requirements for officers; the new citizen army was headed by civilian gentleman. But now, necessity demanded that the army relax traditions further and take officers from the soldiering ranks and the middle class. For the rest of the war, more than half of the officers would come from non-traditional sources. These newly created officers were often referred to by the uncomfortable epithet “temporary gentleman”, a term that reinforced both the fact that officers were supposed to be gentlemen and that these new officers were not.
To bridge that gap, the newly made officers hoped that clothes would indeed make the man. “Quite a lot of men who had no money, no standing, no basis for working and living in that social arena were suddenly walking down the street with insignia on their shoulder,” says Doyle. “If they could cut a dash with all these affectations with their uniforms, the very thing that would have gotten them picked off the front line by snipers, that was very aspirational.” Doyle explains that one of the other elements that pushed the trench coat to the fore was the commercial competition built up to outfit this new and growing civilian army. “Up and down London, Oxford Street, Bond Street, there would be military outfitters who would be offering the solution to all the problems of the British military soldier – ‘Right, we can outfit you in a week.’ … Officers would say, ‘I’ve got some money, I don’t know what to do, I’ll buy all that’. There came this incredible competition to supply the best possible kit.”
Interestingly, adverts from the time show that even as the actual make-up of the officer class was changing, its ideal member was still an active, vaguely aristocratic gentleman. This gentleman officer, comfortable on the battlefield in his tailored outfit, remained the dominant image for much of the war – newspaper illustrations even imagined scenes of officers at leisure at the front, relaxing with pipes and gramophones and tea – although this leisure class lifestyle was as far removed from the bloody reality of the trenches as the grand English country house was from the Western Front.
For the temporary gentleman, this ideal image would have been entrancing. And very much a part of this image was, by the middle of the war at least, the trench coat. It embodied the panache and style of the ideal officer, while at the same being actually useful, rendering it a perfectly aspirational garment for the middle class. New officers happily and frequently shelled out the £3 or £4 for a good quality trench coat (for example, this Burberry model); a sizeable sum when you consider that the average rank-and-file soldier made just one shilling a day, and there were 20 shillings to a pound. (Doyle pointed out that given the very real possibility of dying, maybe even while wearing the trench coat, newly made officers didn’t often balk at spending a lot of money on things.) And, of course, if one couldn’t afford a good quality trench coat there were dozens of retailers who were willing to outfit a new officer more or less on the cheap, lending to the increasing ubiquity of the trench coat. (This isn’t to say, however, that the cheaper coats carried the same social currency and in that way, it’s no different than now: As Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, puts it, “I wouldn’t underestimate people’s ability to read the differences between a Burberry trench and an H&M trench.”)
Ubiquity is one measure of success and by that measure alone, the trench coat was a winner. By August 1917, the New York Times was reporting that even in America, the British import was “in demand” among “recently-commissioned officers”, and that a version of the coat was expected to be a part of soldiers’ regular kit at the front.
But it wasn’t only Allied officers who were adopting the coat in droves – even in the midst of the war, civilians of both sexes also bought the coats. On one level, civilians wearing a military coat was an act of patriotism, or perhaps more accurately, a way of showing solidarity with the war effort. As World War I ground on, savvy marketers began plastering the word “trench” on virtually anything, from cook stoves to jewelry. Doyle said that people at the time were desperate to connect with their loved ones at the front, sometimes by sending them well-meaning but often impractical gifts, but also by adopting and using these “trench” items themselves. “If it’s labeled ‘trench’ you get the sense that they’re being bought patriotically. There’s a slight hint of exploitation by the [manufacturers], but then they’re supplying what the market wanted and I think the trench coat fit into all that,” he says. “Certainly people were realizing that to make it worthwhile, you needed to have this magical word on it, ‘trench’.” For women in particular, there was a sense that too-flashy dress was somehow unpatriotic. “How are you going to create a new look? By falling into line with your soldier boys,” says Doyle.
On another level, however, the war also had a kind of glamour that often eclipsed its stark, stinking reality. As the advertisements for trench coats at the time reinforced, the officer was the face of this glamour: “If you look at adverts, it’s very dashing … it’s very much giving a sense that if you’re wearing one of these, you’re at the height of fashion,” explains Doyle, adding that during the war, the most fashionable person in the U.K. was the trench coat-clad “gad about town” officer. And on a pragmatic level, Tynan pointed out, what made the coats so popular with officers – its practical functionality married to a flattering cut – was also what resonated with civilians.
After the war, battle wounds scabbed over and hardened into scars – but the popularity of the trench coat remained. In part, it was buoyed by former officers’ tendency to keep the coats: “The officers realized they were no longer men of status and had to go back to being clerks or whatever, their temporary gentleman status was revoked… probably the echo into the 1920s was a remembrance of this kind of status by wearing this coat,” theorized Doyle.
At the same time, the glamour attached to the coat during the war was transmuted into a different kind of romantic image, in which the dashing officer is replaced by the equally alluring world-weary returning officer. “The war-worn look was most attractive, not the fresh faced recruit with his spanking new uniform, but the guy who comes back. He’s got his hat at a jaunty angle... the idea was that he had been transformed, he looked like the picture of experience,” Tynan says. “I think that would certainly have given [the trench coat] a caché, an officer returning with that sort of war-worn look and the trench coat is certainly part of that image.”
The trench coat remained part of the public consciousness in the period between the wars, until the Second World War again put trench coats into military action (Aquascutum was the big outfitter of Allied military personnel this time). At the same time, the trench coat got another boost – this time from the golden age of Hollywood. “A key element to its continued success has to do with its appearance as costume in various films,” says Valerie Steele. And specifically, who was wearing them in those films: Hard-bitten detectives, gangsters, men of the world, and femme fatales. For example, in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart wore an Aquascutum Kingsway trench as Sam Spade tangling with the duplicitous Brigid O’Shaugnessy; when he said goodbye to Ingrid Bergman on that foggy tarmac in Casablanca in 1942, he wore the trench; and again in 1946 as private eye Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.
“It’s not a question of power coming from an authority like the state. They’re private detectives or spies, they rely on themselves and their wits,” said Steele, noting that the trench coat reinforced that image. “[The trench coat] does have a sense of kind of world-weariness, like it’s seen all kinds of things. If you were asked ‘trench coat: naïve or knowing?’ You’d go ‘knowing’ of course.” (Which makes Peter Sellers wearing the trench coat as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther series all the funnier.)
Even as it became the preferred outerwear of lone wolves, it continued to be an essential part of the wardrobe of the social elite – a fascinating dynamic that meant that the trench coat was equally appropriate on the shoulders of Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, as on Rick Deckard, hard-bitten bounty hunter of Ridley Scott’s 1982 future noir Blade Runner. “It’s nostalgic… it’s a fashion classic. It’s like blue jeans, it’s just one of the items that has become part of our vocabulary of clothing because it’s a very functional item that is also stylish,” says Tynan. “It just works.”
It’s also endlessly updatable. “Because it’s so iconic, it means that avant garde designers can play with elements of it,” says Steele. Even Burberry, which consciously recentered its brand around its trench coat history in the middle of the last decade, understands this – the company now offers dozens of variations on the trench, in bright colors and prints, with python skin sleeves, in lace, suede, and satin.
But as the trench coat has become a fashion staple, on every fashion blogger’s must-have list, its World War I origins are almost forgotten. Case in point: Doyle said that in the 1990s, he passed the Burberry flagship windows on London’s major fashion thoroughfare, Regent Street. There, in huge lettering, were the words “Trench Fever”. In the modern context, “trench fever” was about selling luxury trench coats. But in the original context, the context out of which the coats were born, “trench fever” was a disease transmitted by lice in the close, fetid quarters of the trenches.
“I thought it astounding,” said Doyle. “The millions of people who walked down the street, would they have made that connection with the trenches? I doubt that.”