The History of The Trench Coat: A New Sewing Project

trench coat history

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.

trench coat history

Characteristics:

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.

trench coat history

Origins:

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.

trench coat history

Back Home:

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!

trench coat history

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107 Responses to The History of The Trench Coat: A New Sewing Project

  1. Cheryl says:

    Yes! To a pattern!!

  2. Kim says:

    I made a Trench Coat when I was 19 years old (I am now 58) I remember thinking it was a lot of work, but the end result was awesome. My mother thought I was crazy and was sure I would never finish it but I did!

  3. Heather L says:

    I used to have a store bought trench coat and I Loved it! It went MIA a while ago and there are times, that I’d love to have one again, but I can’t afford buying it. I’d LOVE to be able to make my own!

  4. Carol Browne says:

    Nice read on the history. This would be an awesome project to follow.

  5. Amanda Bjorklund says:

    Yes please! I would love to try making a trench coat. I am quite petite, 5’3″ and 105 lbs. And thank you for all of the great posts you do, they are much appreciated.

  6. Cynthia says:

    I would love the pattern as well. Looking forward to it

  7. Steadman's Girl says:

    I would love a trench coat pattern, too! Mine would need to be, ahem, generously sized. 🙂 It was great to learn the history of the style and why we associate it with the things we do!

  8. ANN HOPPE says:

    I would love to have one and make it

  9. Rachel Embree says:

    I would absolutely love to see the pattern. Thank you for the history lesson!

  10. Zoey says:

    I would also love a pattern for a trench coat. I live in Oregon and it rains and rains and rains. Well you get the picture, it would be nice to have a coat that I could wear in the rain. I love all of your patterns and tutorials, you’re amazing.

  11. Linda says:

    Perhaps a Trench Coat pattern with a hood??!

  12. Vanda Kelly says:

    Count me in for a trench coat tutorial!

  13. louise King says:

    I would love a pattern! I’ve wanted a red trench coat for a couple years now and just haven’t had time to make a pattern for one!! PLEASE let me know when you have one ready! Thanks!!

  14. Waco Bayless says:

    I would LOVE to have a pattern! I used to own a trenchcoat years ago but the design was longer than what I cared for and I’ve since given it away.

  15. Mary C says:

    Yes. Please do a pattern. Thank you for your generous posts.

  16. Sylvia says:

    Great article on the trench coat. I would like to make one and a sew along sounds like fun. Thanks so much for all you do.

  17. Kimberly says:

    Mayra, you are amazing! I majored in history at uni, and love these researched articles you write, I find them fascinating and adore that you take the time to give us all a history lesson in addition to great projects. I knew a bit about the history of the iconic trench coat (use in wartime) but did not know it was a Burberry product. So interesting!

    I had a gorgeous black London Fog trench coat that was so classic in design that I was able to wear it for many years. It had some dressmaker details, so combined fashion and the classic style into something truly lovely and timeless, and I got a million compliments whenever I wore it (although a friend of mine told me once that I looked like a high-fashion hit man [woman?] in it because I usually wore it with black kid gloves and knee high black leather boots!). Sadly, I “grew out” of it, so donated it to the homeless last winter.

    Would love a pattern and sew along for a trench coat, along with fabric suggestions! I know how incredibly time-consuming and labor intensive making a pattern and especially the videos are, so it’s a good thing you’ve come up with the idea mid-August so there’s time before winter sets in!

    Thank you for all you do!

  18. Sabina says:

    I have always wanted to make a trench coat. I am looking forward to see a pattern to make one. A real challenge. 🙂

  19. Tracyjmg says:

    Fascinating! Yes please I would love to do a sew-a-long. Being in the southern hemisphere this would give me time to get it done before next winter 🙂 PS I love your site and have done several of your projects, I am currently getting on with the workout wardrobe. Thanks again

  20. Danie says:

    Great article! I have been thinki g about making a spring/fall coat over the last fee years. If you go ahead with the pattern, a sew along would be great!

    Danie

  21. Ooh, yes please to your pattern offer!!

  22. HIMoum says:

    Count me in! A trench with a zip out warm lining would be so useful and versatile.

  23. Donna Young says:

    I would love to have a trench coat again, I am on the chunky side though and patterns are very hard to come by for even everyday items, Love this blog site. Thanks for all you do.

  24. judystolz says:

    Never even thought of trying something like this, but it would be awesome! Loved the history – something I don’t research like I should. Thank you so much for the idea.

  25. Annie says:

    Love the history! Thank you..

  26. AKCrafter says:

    Thanks for the interesting history! 🙂 Making a trench coat of my own would be a fun project. Your designs are always well-though out…I am sure whatever you come up with would be a great coat.

  27. Windows2003 says:

    I would like to have the pattern for making a trench coat.

  28. Maria says:

    Thank you for this article. I love trench coats and would love to see a pattern and join a sew a long. I can never seem to find a trench coat that I really like so making my own would solve that!!

  29. Mary Brock says:

    Very interested

  30. Karen says:

    Thank you for the history Mayra. I have always wanted to make a Trench coat and would appreciate a pattern with options and a sew a long.

  31. Helene says:

    I would love to make one in a bright color too! I am in the final stages of doing alterations on a gaberdine overcoat from the 90’s. I’m making it smaller, shortening cuffed sleeves, all with the assistance of a tailor in a 5 session class.

  32. Gertrud says:

    yes please,
    I want to make my own trench coat.

  33. Sheri A. VandeRiet says:

    Would love a pattern for a trench coat! I like the look although it is hard for me to pull off somehow.

  34. Minacjs says:

    Interesting reading, would love the challenge of making a basic one with the option to enhance . Thank you, I love your patterns

  35. Anne R says:

    What an interesting article! I have always loved the look of a trench coat but never thought much about its origins. Am definitely going to share your article with others!

    It would be great if you would invest the time to design a traditional trench coat pattern for us. Please don’t forget about plus size women when you do. Lots of us love to sew and lots of us sew out of necessity to get the looks we want in our clothing. I am a size 22/24 in ready to wear and am definitely interested in purchasing this pattern if it becomes available. There are lots of plus size women out there and lots of us wear even larger sizes.

    Thanks!

  36. Evans S says:

    I have always wanted to make one. Mine would be in red or purple or a print pattern.

  37. Helen Dart says:

    Your history on the Trench coat was an interesting read. Thank you Mayra. I would love to make one as I have grown out of my old one though it had served me well for many years.

  38. Linda says:

    Interesting article. I never considered making a trench coat before. I would love to see a pattern with a sew along.

  39. Lauri says:

    Thank you so much for the great history. A trench coat pattern would be awesome!!! I agree with the post by patnjerry11, the second post. Options for both single and double breasted would be great. Options for a short trench, like the khaki one pictured, or for a full length coat, and all of the traditional features as optional would be a huge plus! I don’t know about today, but in the 1990s they were still worn in the military when wearing the dress uniform (the uniform worn for ceremonies) on wet, or cold and wet, days. I loved having the trench coat on wet days that weren’t too cold, but I loved having the interior buttons and SUPER WARM lining on wet days that were really freezing cold. To be able to stay mostly warm and dry after hours in the wet freezing cold was amazing. I know it would be a lot of work, but an optional button-in lining would be awesome! The only thing is that I would have absolutely no idea on exterior or interior materials. This would be an awesome pattern to have, allowing you to go as traditional as you want or as trendy as you want with both styling and fabrics. Thank you soooo much for considering a trench coat pattern!😊

  40. J says:

    I would definitely be interested in a Trench coat pattern with your much appreciated blow-by-blow (or stitch by stitch?) instructions and pictures.

What do you think?