Come rain or shine: The trench coat

The enduring appeal of the trench coat lies not just in its aesthetics but in its functional history

Style 17 May 2018

Cotton trench coat, £2,570, RALPH LAUREN COLLECTION; leather ankle boots, £640, MAISON MARGIELA
Cotton trench coat, £1,894, FACETASM
Grey trench coat, £1,695, MAISON MARGIELA
Plastic trench coat, £995, BURBERRY
Cotton gabardine trench coat, £1,450, BURBERRY
Cotton trench coat, £1,070, Y/PROJECT

Dark shadows and a face briefly illuminated by matchlight, the bottle of whisky in the desk drawer, and, perhaps above all, a trench coat. If the tropes of film noir suggest that this stalwart of hard-boiled detective style is an American invention, think again. Sure, it looks best on Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart – even on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau – but the trench coat was actually the product of British battles.

Aquascutum devised the basis of the garment with the waterproof textile field coat it produced for soldiers serving in the Crimean War – the brand would later corner the Hollywood market with its Kingsway model. In 1879, Thomas Burberry invented gabardine and produced its version for British officers – and only officers – in the Boer War and later, up to their knees in mud, during World War One. Originally dubbed the ‘trench warm’ – for the detachable heavy sheepskin liner it then had – the trench coat, of course, took its name from the grim warrens in which said servicemen spent theirtime between terrifying assaults.

Indeed, many of the trench coat’s original, militaristic design details remain, even if they’re not quite as useful today: the epaulettes, the D-rings from which to hang your grenades or ammunition pouch, and the storm flaps – to allow rainwater to run off away from the body, but also to soften rifle recoil. Others however (the wrist straps, belt and throat latch) suggest why this coat has remained popular now for well over a century: when it comes to rain, few other garments will keep you drier while also being just as suitable to wear over a suit as over a sweatshirt and jeans. And as these images prove, when designers run wild with the trench coat theme, they come up with some inspired looks.