The long, water-repellent coat known as a trench coat was adapted from military use and became enormously popular during and after World War I (1914–18). Stylish and functional, the trench coat, traditionally made of a rugged fabric called gabardine, remained a staple of outerwear throughout the twentieth century and was adopted by some of the most revered figures in history and popular entertainment.
The cloth from which trench coats are made dates from the 1870s, when British clothier Thomas Burberry (1835–1926) developed a unique wool material that was chemically processed to repel rain. Burberry succeeded in creating a fabric that was untearable, virtually crease-proof, and resistant to the elements, while remaining porous and well-ventilated enough to be comfortable and cool for the wearer. Burberry called his innovative fabric gabardine, and it transformed modern rainwear. Jackets made of the fabric were first used in the Boer War fought in South Africa between the British and Dutch settlers in 1899, and it was called a Burberry.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 created a need for a bad-weather garment to protect the soldiers fighting in the trenches, long pits dug into the ground for defense. Burberry designed a coat made of fine twill gabardine that repelled water while allowing the wearer freedom of movement. Dubbed the trench coat or storm coat, it quickly became the official coat of the Allied fighting man, someone who fought Germany and its allies during World War I. It is estimated that half a million Burberry trench coats were worn by combat officers between 1914 and 1918. Aquascutum Limited, another prestigious firm in London, England, also turned out trench coats for the British military. At the war's end, the trench coat was introduced for civilian use, becoming the world's most famous and enduring weatherproof style.
The classic World War I-era trench coat was double-breasted, with four buttons, reinforced shoulder or gun flaps, straps at its sleeves, a buckled all-around belt (with distinctive brass "D" rings designed to hold one's water bottle, hand grenades, or sword), slotted pockets, and an adaptable collar. It was typically lined with wool. While these features have altered somewhat over the years, the trench coat has never gone out of fashion, remaining a popular all-purpose coat with both men and women. Among its wearers are a number of famous political leaders, actors, and literary figures, including politicians Winston Churchill (1874–1965) and Ronald Reagan (1911–), actors Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) and Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003), writer George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), and General Norman Schwarzkopf (1934–). Fictional characters who have become identified with the trench coat include Holly Golightly, the heroine of the novel and film Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), and Peter Sellers' bumbling Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther comedy film series (1964–82).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Keers, Paul. A Gentleman's Wardrobe: Classic Clothes and the Modern Man. New York: Harmony Books, 1987.
Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.