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A Brief History of the Trench Coat
From the First World War to "Fashions of Tomorrow," the trench is a definitive classic

Photo: Yannis Vlamos / InDigital | GoRunway

The future is here and it’s sleek. Last week, Dior Homme creative director Kris Van Assche remounted his fall/winter 2013 collection in Beijing. It was the first Dior show outside of Paris. That it took place in the nominally Communist country and not New York or London speaks to the ascendant cultural and economic power of China. A tribute to the pared down minimalism of the sci-fi noir Gattaca, the collection comprised severe, form-fitting suits in black, grey, and navy. The absence of collars on some jackets spoke to a Chinese (or maybe Indian) influence. They could be Mao or Nehru. I don’t know what to make of the mysterious motif of a triangle within a circle drawn in crimson red. Yet more proof for conspiracy theorists convinced the pyramid-loving Illuminati secretly run the world.

Van Assche described the collection as “fashions for tomorrow.” It’s a testament to the classic’s remarkable staying power that the show included a trench coat. The double-breasted coat, in dark navy blue and with a belt as thick as a seatbelt, continued the traditional style with a gun flap and shoulder epaulettes. All that was missing were the sleeve straps.

Just as the t-shirt owes its popularity to the Second World War, the trench coat traces back to the First. The British military wanted a replacement for the heavy greatcoats soldiers wore doing the 19th century. Thomas Burberry, the inventor of the waterproof gabardine fabric that made it possible, submitted his design for a modern rain jacket to the War Office in 1901. The company Aquascutum has a rival claim to have invented the trench in the 1850’s. Either way it was the British military’s adoption of the lightweight but durable garment during the WWI that spread it around the world. It’s that war that gave the coat it’s name. Even today the trench coat’s epaulettes, originally used to secure gas masks or whistles, betray its military origins.

From khaki to ‘camo’, the armed forces have influenced fashion more than we realize. Just consider the name for the colour ‘navy’. Wars do for men’s fashion what couture shows do for women’s–they invent new fabrics, modernize designs, and push fashion forward.

At the end of the war, the British government was left with a surplus of trench coats, which it distributed to the civilian population. Hollywood took up the cause next, dressing both cops and gangsters in trench coats throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s. The most famous cinematic trench-wearer was Humphrey Bogart, who wore one as detective Sam Spade as well as Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Bogart’s look in the final foggy scene of that film is so iconic the company Burberry thought they could use his likeness in a timeline illustrating the trench’s legacy. Bogart Corp., the company run by the actor’s descendants, thought differently and last year took Burberry to court.

The trench coat continued to be a Hollywood favourite during the ensuing decades, with wearers as disparate as Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Gene Kelly wore one in Singin’ in the Rain but not during the film’s famous title song. For that he wore a dark tweed suit. Perhaps the billowing fabric of a trench would’ve inhibited his athletic dancing?

I’ve wanted a trench coat for a very long time, but I held back. For years I considered it too grown up for a messy, twenty-something young man. I associated trench coats with the adult world of Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa–their love triangle problems maybe didn’t add up to “a hill of beans in this crazy world” but they were light years away from my little life of Value Village, MSN Messenger, and Starbucks. But the other day, when I was shopping on Queen Street, a man passed me wearing a slim-fitting navy trench. The afternoon was grey and raining lightly and I thought how it was the perfect day to wear such a jacket.

As if in a movie, the next store I went into had a similar coat so I tried it on. The European proprietor stopped me from buckling the belt. You tie it, of course, or you knot it around the back. When I looked into the shop mirror I saw a sophisticated, romantic young hero, the type who goes for walks on grey, lightly raining afternoons. I didn’t have room in my budget for a navy trench coat this month, but I bought it anyway.

It’s remarkable how little the classic trench coat has changed over the years. Even the labels that specialize in them, like Burberry, have examples that range in detail but have more similarities than differences. On a modern trench like the one from Dior Homme, it’s simpler to list its handful of innovations (the lapels are much smaller than the traditional trench) than the many ways it’s a continuation. The trench coat is a good exception for people who think fashion is an exhausting treadmill of untested trends–style is equally about recognizing the power of a classic. Trench coats have weathered the storm and are as immune to changing fashions as they are to pouring rain.  


Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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