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13 November 2022

Burberry baloner from 1970s

The trench coat is another in a series of clothing items that were initially devoid of fashion aspirations but became well-known over the years as a timeless statement piece in every wardrobe. The coat, also known as the "rain coat", worn throughout the colder months, is noted for making the wearer appear formal, serious, and polished. But how could a garment that assumes such comprehension be an element of military uniforms in the 19th century, protecting the wearer from inclement weather in muddy trenches?

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Trench coats on British military officers (World War I)

The history of the raincoat begins roughly 100 years before World War I, a conflict during which the raincoat attained great popularity. Then, in 1823, the so-called gummed cotton fabric was utilized for military gear that was weatherproof. Such jackets were named "Macks" after the inventor Charles Macintosh, who created a coat with material that retains sweat and tends to melt in the sun, two major drawbacks of such material. Despite this, during the first part of the 19th century, British military officers wore Mackintosh coats for improper outdoor events. The fact that they needed protective clothing made it evident that this was a garment whose utility was without a doubt. Still, it was also necessary to address the limitations of the fabric and develop a more durable version of the coat.

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British military officers, 1944

The military market encouraged tailors to continue developing more resilient yet breathable waterproof fabrics, but they were also hindered by the fabric's flaws. A more waterproof material for the trench coat was produced and trademarked thirty years by John Emary, the so-called "gentleman's textile salesman," who also gave his company the name Aquascutum (from the Latin aqua = water and scutum = shield). Even then, the coat can be seen outside of military contexts (wealthy men wore it), and it quickly became necessary for a man who desired to be well-dressed in inclement weather. It is important to emphasize that the appearance of raincoats evolved from their practicality and function, either to help the wearer in challenging work in a trench setting or to shield from the weather (in a military or civilian context). Consequently, the first trench coats were naturally khaki green for military camouflage.


However, fashion theorists debate on whose initiative the military piece was first produced. Thomas Burberry, the most famous exemplar of this type of outerwear, is also credited with the invention of raincoats. Burberry, a textile dealer, established a business in Hampshire, a county in southeast England, in 1856 when he was twenty years old. The lanolin that Hampshire shepherds wore on their clothing to make it waterproof inspired the young Burberry. Soon after, he created the breathable, weather-resistant cloth known as "gabardine." Gabardine fabric is a densely woven, durable woollen twill that was first patented in 1888 as waterproof. It differentiated because it was the first waterproof fabric that was soft, easy to wear, and more durable. Burberry began making gabardine trench coats, which, like Aquascutum's, became well-liked among the wealthy, athletes, aviators, explorers, and adventurers, as well as in military circles. For instance, Sir Ernet Shackleton, a famous explorer, is one of the more well-known examples. In 1907, he travelled to Antarctica with his crew, who donned Burberry gabardine coats and slept in tents made of the same material. Such an endeavour verifies the raincoat's usefulness and durability.

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Burberry and Aquascutum newspaper advertisements during the early 20th century

It is important to note that every component of the raincoat served a specific purpose depending on where and how it was worn. The clearest example is how it protected the soldiers in the trenches. In particular, the raincoat is double-breasted and has a silhouette length that matches the officer's uniform. The coat is belted at the waist and reaches to the knees (short enough not to drag in the mud but wide enough to allow easy movement). Additionally, it contains a strap with D-rings for fastening extras, such as binoculars, map boxes, swords, or guns. A little cloak that passed over the shoulders at the rear was an adaptation of the military's existing waterproof cloaks. The deep, roomy pockets were great for holding maps and other supplies. The raglan sleeves' cuffs were strengthened, providing better weather protection. To defend against inclement weather and poison gas, first widely utilized in April 1915, the collar was secured around the neck (gas masks could be tucked into the collar to make it more airtight). In case of emergency, the warm lining of the coat may be removed and utilized as bedding. As with other military uniform items, the epaulettes on the shoulders showed the wearer's rank. In short, the raincoat was a very useful outwear. But in comparison, it is also worn by members of the upper classes. During the years of the First World War, its price was relatively high.

Parts of a trench coat
via Gentlemans Gazette
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The material gabardine, patented by Thomas Burberry in 1888

The raincoat remained part of the civilian clothing of the upper classes in the period between the two world wars (many officers wore it after returning from the war) until the Second World War put raincoats back into military action (Aquascutum this time was a great collaborator of the British military personnel). But, at the same time, what happened that put the trench coats in the place of today's fame–the golden age of Hollywood. A key element of his continued success in the following decades (and still today) was the appearance of the raincoat as a costume in various films, where completely different characters wore it. We should remember hardened detectives, gangsters, prosperous businessmen, and fatal women. For example, in 1941, Humphrey Bogart wears it in the movie "The Maltese Falcon" (he wears an Aquascutum raincoat in the movie) or a year later when he says goodbye to Ingrid Bergman on the foggy asphalt in the movie "Casablanca". Bogart returned to the movie screen wearing a raincoat in 1946 when he used a raincoat as his trademark as a private detective in the movie "The Big Sleep". Twenty years later, it was also worn by Alain Delon in the crime thriller "Le Samouraï", and then by Harrison Ford in the film "Blade Runner", or Keanu Reeves in the sci-fi "Matrix"... Let's also remember Audrey Hepburn. In the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's", she wears a shorter version of the raincoat and proves the ubiquity and universality of the former military piece.


Burberry raincoats from the 1970s (Lord Lichfield and Lady Carina Fitzalan)

Humprey Bogart in the movie "Casablanca", 1942
Alain Delon in the film "Le Samouraï", 1967
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Meryl Streep, 1979

The raincoat started to gain romanticization in the second half of the 20th century. It was no longer just worn by soldiers and older, wealthier men; it was now a staple of everyone's wardrobe. The Hollywoodization, utility, and appearance that the media image developed about this clothing led Burberry and Aquascutum to undoubtedly create an essential piece of the chilly months. One of the most beloved and enduring pieces of apparel ever made, the trench coat has endured for decades. No matter how fascinating and essential the coat’s present and future may be, its history and significance for its original purpose should never be forgotten. The trench coat combines individuality, style, and function, with a history that makes it even more incredible.

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