I've always wanted to do a project to sew my own trench coat. I've loved trench coats since I was a teen and with autumn just around the corner, I think it would be a fun project the would result in a practical garment for the cool, wet weather that is on the way. (Actually, I live in Singapore and it is never cool here but I'm planning to Japan in the fall and it's likely going to be trench-coat-wearing weather then.)
As I often do before a project, I wanted to research the trench coat history so I could better understand how and why they were made. Below is what I learned. If you're interested in a pattern and project to sew your own trench coat, please let me know in the comments at the end of the article. If a lot of readers are interested, I'll get started on the pattern.
Trench Coat History
The iconic standard dress of detectives, spies, central park flashers, explorers and human-race-saving action heroes. Inspector Clouseau, Neo and Trinity, Sir Ernest Shackleton and the weirdo on the park bench all have one thing in common…the trench coat.
This staple of Western fashion culture is a favorite of men and women, young and old. A practical, waterproof item that can be pulled on over anything, whether it be sexy lingerie, a concealed magnum or Katana or a superhero leotard and stockings. The trench coat is here to stay, forever being revived and revitalized on runways and in the movies. Let’s take a closer look at the origins and characteristics of the humble (or is it not-so-humble?) trench coat.
Typically seen with ten large (plastic or wooden) buttons, the double breasted trench coat is traditionally worn in camouflage military colors like Khaki, tan, beige and black but over the years it’s been manufactured and featured on runways in just about every color and print known to man.
The shoulder straps of the trench coat were added during WWI so that soldiers could attach their rank insignia and epaulets. D rings were also added so that map cases, swords, and other equipment could be attached. Coats also included huge pockets for storing gear and ventilation flaps for expelling dodgy wartime odors. The name ‘trench-coat’ was originated during the war, by front line soldiers who saw the officers wearing the coats on a daily basis in the trenches.
Trench coats were designed to be short enough not to trail in the mud and flaring out wide enough from the waist to allow freedom of movement. Small cape crosses at the back allow water to slough off efficiently. The original coats came with a removable liner that could double as a blanket when needed. Collar buttons at the neck would allow gas masks to be tucked under the collar so that they would be more airtight.
Trench coats usually have raglan sleeves, extending from the cuff all the way to the collar, so the seam runs from collarbone to underarm, but designs do vary. They also have cuff straps, to be fastened when spying with binoculars, so that water won’t run down the arm. They are meant to protect from wind and rain, not so much snow and cold. They are usually made from a thinner material than an overcoat or warmcoat, but their loose fit means that extra layers can be worn underneath. They were sized large so that British Officers could easily wear their warm coats underneath.
Thomas Burberry came up with the idea for the trench coat after inventing a waterproof fabric named gabardine in 1879, the trench coat was designed by him as an Army officer’s raincoat or windbreaker, he delivered the plans to the United Kingdom War Office in 1901 and they accepted.
However, the UK based company, Aquascutum (inventors of a waterproof fabric by the same name), also lays claim to the invention, much earlier: in 1851, for officers serving in the Crimean War. Even before this, a similar rubberized cotton coat (a Mackintosh) was worn, the idea for the ventilation flaps originated from the terrible mixture of rubber smell and sweat which was a side effect of wearing the Mack.
So (after Burberry’s submission in 1901), the trench coat, as we recognize it, became available for British Officers and Warrant Officers 1st Class to order at will. The fact that the trench coat wasn’t available for anyone of lower rank went a long way to building up the reputation of the coat in perpetuity. To this day it’s considered a gentlemanly or ladylike staple for businessmen and people of class.
Officers grew attached to their coats and continued to wear them at home after the war, that’s how the trench-coat took to the streets. Another factor in their popularity was the fact that Burberry and Aquascutum while being the standard military outfitters, were also leading gentlemen’s wear and sportswear manufacturers.
A practical item for cold weather, waterproof with great big pockets, easy to pull over a suit or ballroom gown. Back at home, the belt would often be tied in a loose knot, instead of fastening the buckle in the more formal way done by military men.
When WWII began, the trench coat was still the best option for officers in the field during cold weather. Other countries followed suit but soon the coat became shorter and eventually, the shorter field jacket took over from the trench because it allowed officers to be a little more mobile. Nevertheless, back home on the streets, the fashion stuck and the trench coat had found a place in society.
It became quite obvious in the 1990’s that the real wartime origin of the trench coat had been forgotten…Burberry advertising campaigns on Regent Street read in huge letters ‘Trench Fever!’, only veterans of war remembered that trench fever was, in fact, a nasty disease that had been spread by lice in the trenches during the war.
Wartime, as well as mafia and detective films, made the trench coat something truly iconic, we’re all familiar with the ensemble of a trench coat, fedora, and cigar made famous by so many Hollywood movies. Over time, designers began downsizing the coats and making them out of warmer fabric, so the warm coat and the trench coat pretty much serve the same purpose these days.
Nowadays the trench coat makes its appearance on cue every winter in some format or another and most of us are able to say that we either plan to own one or we already do!