How far is it from battlefield to catwalk? Not very far when you look at the trench coat, a classic that in the century since it trod through the mud of Flanders remains, in essence, unchanged on the catwalks of Burberry, Hermès and Bottega Veneta today, but for a few tweaks here and there. Originally designed as a military garment, the architecture of the coat remains the same, but how much protection these catwalk versions would afford in a storm is debatable. One can only imagine what Lord Kitchener, who helped popularise the trench coat in the Great War, would make of the silk scarf versions on the Burberry catwalk today or any of its other recent incarnations.
Burberry produced it one season in silk-chiffon and succeeded in making it waterproof, nevertheless the trench coat has become somewhat divorced from its original function. Initially called the Tielocken, it is one of clothing’s perma-trends: a tough weatherproof utilitarian garment invented at the time of the Boer War, before being upgraded for the trenches of Northern France. This waterproof has become an enduring item, adapted and updated with the generations to emerge the icon that it is today.
Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s creative director from 2001 to 2018, summed up its qualities a few years ago, “The trench is a very modern way of dressing as it goes over everything in whatever weather.” It’s more than a coat he said, “it’s a piece of engineering. There are so many aspects to it: it’s functional yet it is fashionable, and the details, from the belt and buckles to the stole flaps and D-rings, are all so carefully designed. It is clothing with real integrity and purpose.”
His successor Riccardo Tisci has found the coat similarly enticing having featured 20 trenches in his debut collection and many more since. He recalled in a recent interview how in France a Chanel bag may be given by parents to reward good behaviour at school, whereas in England it is the Burberry trench.
It is something I discovered here,” he says, “Adele told me the first thing she bought when her first single came out was a Burberry trench.
Between them, Bailey and Tisci have elevated the trench coat to a fashion statement reproducing it in silk, chiffon, satin, tweed bouclé and more. We see it today in checks on the catwalk of Prada, in suede at Hermès, leather at Bottega Veneta where new designer of the year, Daniel Lee, presented three relaxed versions for spring, and in nude pink by Alexa Chung for Barbour. Classic brands like Aquascutum, Daks and Mackintosh produce new versions each season, because the trench is a superb trans-seasonal coat that pretty much works all year round. It solves so many sartorial problems being uniform-smart without being too formal; classy because of its heritage but also democratic.
As Bailey once said: “I’ve always been intrigued by mixing historical sartorial design with harder-edged modernity, by the play between aristocratic and street style.” Elizabeth Murray, a fashion curator at the Victoria & Albert museum believes part of the trench coat’s success is down to its versatility: “Designers can reinterpret the trench coat season after season, its utilitarian design making it both timeless and unmistakably modern,” she says. The V&A collection has a number of different examples of trench coats, including a classic beige gabardine coat from c. 1972, a lilac lace Burberry design by Christopher Bailey for S/S 2014 and a black trench coat by Swedish company Filippa K, made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles. “These examples highlight the versatility of the trench coat, and the range of ways designers reinterpret and adapt the design.”
Aquascutum’s heritage like that of Burberry is very tightly stitched to that of the trench coat, as both brands have laid claim to designing the original. In the early 1850s, the Regent Street tailor and entrepreneur John Emary patented a waterproof wool which he called “Watershield”. Its Latin translation Aquascutum was the name by which the company became known. They made coats using this material which that worn by soldiers in the Crimean War.
Meanwhile in 1860, a draper in Basingstoke called Thomas Burberry developed a closely woven cotton gabardine that proved durable and weather-proof without using any waterproofing. Officers started wearing these weather-proof coats in the Boer War. By 1914 the military-style epaulettes and D-rings for the attachment of military equipment had been added and many soldiers serving in the trenches were issued with it; that’s how the coat earned its name. Whether it was first designed by Aquascutum or Burberry is difficult to confirm, however, the coat proved very popular amongst the ranks suffering the horrors of trench warfare.
The design received its first celebrity endorsement from Captain Sir John Alcock who was the first airman to fly across the Atlantic: “Although in continual mist, rain or sleet, and the altitude varying from 200 to 11,000 feet causing great variations of temperature, I kept as dry, warm and comfortable as possible under such conditions,” he wrote to Burberry.
The coat was subsequently adopted by Hollywood stars in film noir movies becoming a uniform for Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (dressed in Aquascutum trench-coat) and many of the Raymond Chandler films. Lauren Bacall simmered in beige trench in Key Largo (Aquascutum) as did Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Burberry). Sofia Loren, Robert Mitchum, Sir Michael Caine all wore Aquascutum trench-coats on screen. Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Meryl Streep in Kramer Vs Kramer are amongst those who wore Burberry ones. Lauren Hutton wore a trench coat in the 1980s film American Gigolo and glamorously reprised that look on the catwalk with Gigi Hadid to close the Bottega Veneta show in 2017.
However, it is unconfirmed who designed the original for the movie – perhaps Giorgio Armani who designed much of the film’s wardrobe. The Queen also looks unfailingly smart in a trench-coat whether unveiling a plaque on a rainy day or out hacking on horseback in Windsor Great Park. While it remains popular in the corporate world and is the coat of choice for gumshoes and movie stars, its modern-day following amongst the fashion-savvy is the result of clever marketing by Burberry, whose campaigns shot by Mario Testino injected some much-needed zest and energy into the garment.
Models like Kate Moss, Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Cara Delevigne, and young actors like Eddie Redmayne made the trench-coat sexy amongst the young generation.
Burberry and Aquascutum still have their classics, such as the updated Heritage collection re-introduced by Burberry in 2014 which neighbourhood names like Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea defining different styles of single and double-breasted styles.
While Aquascutum has a cropped double-breasted style called the Trafalgar and the fly-front Newman design. Fashion icon, wardrobe statement, the trench coat is one of the smartest fashion investments anyone can make.