The evolution of the trench coat

Jenessa Williams

A style synonymous with autumn, the trench coat is a garment born out of a desire for outerwear that could cope in the great outdoors. The story begins in rural Surrey…

19th-century trench coats

Thomas Burberry photograph
Image public domain

Born in Brockham Green, young draper’s apprentice Thomas Burberry (above) was a promising talent. Opening his first clothing shop in Basingstoke in 1856, his enthusiasm for outfitting the then-small town with everyday wear laid the foundations for a rapidly expanding business—by 1871, he had 70s employees, and by 1881, he was in charge of 200, running a full-scale manufacturing wholesaler. 

"The British war office desired a new uniform coat that would see the military through the fast-approaching war effort"

A middle class was emerging, and Burberry’s experimental mind grew fixated on the challenge of designing more ambitious clothing, built to withstand the outdoorsy leisure activities of fishing and hunting that had surged in popularity. 

In 1879, Thomas Burberry produced the first samples of gabardine, a type of Egyptian Cotton fortified with rubber in such a manner that it could resist water. The invention made him a household name and secured a commission with the British war office, who desired a new uniform coat that would see the military through the fast-approaching war effort.

 

20th-century trench coats

trench coat

Named for a life in the bunkers, Burberry’s trench coats were a feat of practical engineering. With a deep yoke, button-down storm flaps and sizeable pockets, they kept out water while offering comfortable ventilation, a significant improvement on the heavy military coats of the time. Removable linings could double as a pillow or bedding, while deep pockets allowed for the discreet transportation of essential papers.

Initially only available to officers, they became synonymous with an air of rank and superiority, setting the tone of professionalism that still exists today. As the war effort went on, more working-class soldiers were promoted to keep up with demand, and the gifting of a trench coat upon appointment was considered something of the highest honour. Having witnessed his company becoming one of the largest in the world, Thomas Burberry passed peacefully in his home in 1926, at the age of 90.

trench coats in breakfast at tiffany's

Though the war was over, early Hollywood furthered the notion of the trench coat as something to be worn by those with a penchant for plucky heroism. Sported by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, their practical use crossed over into civilian fashion, with the shape sculpting features of D-ring closure, epaulettes and waist belt proving popular for men and women alike.  

Having also claimed a stake alongside Burberry in the earliest beginnings of the trench coat, London brand Aquascutum also benefitted from this fashion interest, outfitting mods and young radical intellectuals alike. Inherently British, the trench featured in a great many high profile fashion campaigns, and like many trends, experienced something of an 80s facelift—exaggerated shoulders and even tighter pulled waist belts, not to mention the more controversial "flasher" connotation...

 

21st-century trench coats

modern day trench coats

As the Millennium approached, trench coats continued to thrive amongst many subcultures. Heavy metal and "cybergoth" fans, (perhaps inspired by the sci-fi boom of 1999 franchise The Matrix) adopted long black oiled overcoats very similar in style to the trench, albeit with a slightly more streamlined silhouette. 

Equally, the Parisian "cool girl" blogger style has reignited interest in the most classic of Burberry styles, the beige-brown long-line Garbadine with iconic checked lining. Instrumental to the rise of the "capsule wardrobe", such trenchcoats were seen to be a modern essential for the working woman. Experimentations with colour and fabrics brought the trench and the more visibly-plastic raincoat closer together, with brands like Acne, A.P.C and Loewe all offering their own take on the look.

a modern trench coat with sporty stripe

As fashion grows ever more innovative, Thomas Burberry’s design curiosity lives on in the search for ethically-produced activewear fabrics. Taiwanese company BenQ launched its Xpore technology earlier this year, which uses chemical solvent-free processing to create materials that they claim will have limitless uses across performance clothing and medical care. Waterproofed, biodegradable calico is also proving popular for events and visual merchandising, supporting the industry’s bid for sustainability.

Having come far in only 200 years, there is truly no knowing where outer garment technology might go next. For those lucky enough to own a Burberry trench, know that you are holding a vital part of fashion history—a garment created with practicality just as fervently in mind as a sense of style. How many other designers can truly claim such a stake?  

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