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This Coat Never Goes Out of Style but Really We Mean Never

The trench coat has gone from the battlefield to the runway and everywhere in between.

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You could say the trench coat is having a moment. Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Marni, and Michael Kors are among the designers to revive the look this spring with fresh colors, lengths, and fits.

But that would suggest it went out of style at some point. In fact, the trench coat has been a fashion trend, if you can call it that, for the greater part of the 20th century. Its function, of course, is to protect you from the rain, but its functionality and style have made the trench coat a mainstay over the past 100 years.

Now regarded as a classic, the trench coat emerged out of World War I into the movies — and, eventually, our staple wardrobes. But the trench coat was actually invented decades before soldiers wore them in the trenches.

First, let’s consider its fabric. Khaki was originally invented for military use in India and was later widely adopted by British troops. Before then, military uniforms were brightly colored to distinguish sides, Amber Butchart, fashion historian at the London College of Fashion, told the BBC.

In British Army Uniform and the First World War: Men in Khaki, Jane Tynan writes that there are two stories about how khaki was invented. Both involve battledress that was soaked in water and rubbed in mud or boiled with a plant to create an earthier color.

A modern Burberry trench coat, worn at Men’s Fashion Week.
Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

“Khaki became the solution to the dangers of visibility on the battlefield,” Tynan writes. “In Britain, when the army became concerned with visibility, they looked to the Indian experience.”

Around the same time, British clothing manufacturers Thomas Burberry and Aquascutum had been developing the precursor to the trench coat. (Before these two manufacturers, the rubberized coat called the Mackintosh was already in existence.)

Burberry developed a water-repellent cloth called gabardine in 1879, according to a BBC article. Compared to waterproof fabrics that had previously been used, like those waxed or rubberized, gabardine was lightweight and breathable. The company’s famous Tielocken coat was made of this new fabric.

Aquascutum, a London manufacturer, used a patented waterproof wool for its early-version trench coats. In fact, the name Aquascutum stems from Latin for “water” and “shield.”

Both coats have ties to pre-World War I wars, but these types of coats, by a different name, were first seen in the late 19th century for sporting pursuits in the English countryside, Tynan, leader of fashion critical studies at Central Saint Martins, writes in an article for The Conversation.

However, it’s when World War I broke out that the trench coat took on its modern form.

Soldiers’ traditional overcoats — made of heavy and long wool — proved to be the wrong garment for their conditions. Trench warfare, a type of combat in which soldiers dig deep trenches in the ground to attack and defend, became a defining characteristic of World War I. To fight in this kind of combat, soldiers needed lighter, shorter, and waterproof outerwear.

British soldiers in WWI.
Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

“As the name suggests, [the] re-invention [of] the trench coat is attributed to its use in the First World War,” Tynan tells Racked. “This practical garment was adapted for British officers enduring the muddy conditions of the trenches… The light fabric gave soldiers mobility, while water-repellent material protected them from wet weather: Large pockets kept maps dry, and cleverly placed flaps offered ventilation.”

The trench coat is one of the most utilitarian garments of our day, says Mary Ann Ferro, assistant professor of fashion design at Fashion Institute of Technology.

Classic trench coats, designed for military officers, had to first and foremost be functional. “There’s nothing on it that’s just for looks,” Ferro said. “Even the extra flap on the back is a rain shield. It protects again wind and rain.”

With the raglan sleeve, which extends fully to the collar rather than starting at the shoulder, the trench coat could fit a wider range of men. Epaulets helped keep straps in place, pockets were designed so rain wouldn’t get in, and removable linings worked in various climates. There was even an extra piece of fabric at the front of the coat to protect officers shooting a rifle, Ferro says.

But not all soldiers wore them. Trench coats were an optional item of military kit for officers, not part of regulation garment, Tynan says. At the time, a range of civilian outfitters were supplying mass-produced garments to officers. “This was how various firms, including Burberry and Aquascutum, began to sell versions of the trench coat from 1917,” she writes.

According to Tynan, the trench coat rose to popularity among civilians thanks to British advertisements during WWI. “Advertising for these coats was sophisticated and emphasized the English countryside — it was appealing to the officer but also the civilian seeking a practical coat for wet weather,” Tynan tells Racked. The trench coat was unisex even back then: Advertisements from this time period show both men and women wearing the coats.

It became popular as a design because the lightweight, waterproof fabric meant consumers had a better option than rubber coats, so it was practical and versatile. Also, before it was worn by British officers in the war, it was first associated with upper class leisure. “This gave it symbolic power,” Tynan says.

The trench coat remained in style through World War II, when trench coats were again used to outfit soldiers. Aquascutum was a big outfitter of the Allies during this time. Meanwhile, the trench coat started to make an appearance on the silver screen.

In Hollywood, the trench coat became the outfit of leading actors who played the part of detectives, gangsters, and femme fatales. The garment epitomized mystique, seriousness, and sex appeal.

Wearing a trench, Humphrey Bogart played detective Sam Spade in film noir The Maltese Falcon in 1941 — Bogart’s depiction of a private detective would have a lasting impression on other characters in the genre. Peter Sellers wore one as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther in ‘63, and so did Gene Hackman as a private investigator in The Conversation in ‘74.

Humphrey Bogart in an undated photo.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Bogart would go on to wear a trench coat in Casablanca in 1942 and as private eye Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep in 1946. Later, in the late ’50s, stylish Sophia Loren wore a double-breasted khaki trench, buttoned and belted, in The Key, a British war film set in 1941.

By then, khaki had been adopted as casual wear following its popularity during World War II, and trench coats were becoming a part of everyday wardrobes.

Audrey Hepburn wears one during a rainstorm — when Holly Golightly realizes she loves Paul — in the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and Catherine Deneuve wears one in the musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in ‘64. Plus, there’s Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer in ’79. The list goes on.

But the detective theme, trench coat and all, took on new roles outside of the movies. Inspector Gadget, an ’80s cartoon about a detective who gets help from his niece and a dog to solve cases, famously wears a trench coat. Even the Olsen twins ran with the idea in their mystery series, The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley, in which the twins wore matching trench coats and solved mysteries.

Now more than 100 years old, the trench coat has shown up on more definitive wardrobe must-have lists for men and women than you can imagine. Entire books have been written about it.

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard wear trenches in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Photo:  Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

To Ferro, it’s no mystery why. “If you look at classic outerwear — the pea coat, the trench coat, the bomber jacket — they all come from the military,” she says. “That is something that draws people to it. It’s glamorous; it’s really sexy.”

And now they are worn as much as women than men — with a few changes. “In ladies’ wear, we would make them longer, flare them out, put a little pleat in them, make slimmer silhouettes,” Ferro says.

Through the years, Burberry has remained a leading designer of the trench coat, with ad campaigns featuring Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. It’s safe to say that its collections have largely revolved around this piece — even its beauty campaigns have featured the trench coat. Aquascutum is also now a luxury manufacturer of menswear and womenswear, calling itself the creator of the first waterproof textile and the home of the trench coat. Other producers of the traditional trench coat include London Fog.

Ferro says the trench coat will never go out of style, though it’ll likely be reinvented. This spring, its reinvention just happens to come in high fashion with colorful textiles.

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