A brief history of the trench coat Photo courtesy of Burberry

A brief history of the trench coat

From humble beginnings to superstar pedigree a short history of the world's most iconic raincoat.


London Editor

Conveying power, class and authority, yet always discreetly elegant, the all-seasons trench coat is one of the most timeless and iconic garments of wardrobe ammunition in the fashion canon. Practical, versatile and utilitarian, it is combinable with both anything and nothing at all.

As the name suggests, its design was conceived for combat in the late 1800s, replacing the cumbersome greatcoats of the Boer War and heavy, stiff rubberised and waxed fabrics previously deployed for rainwear with Thomas Burberry's groundbreaking waterproof and windproof gabardine material into the formative 'Tielocken' design, as it was then called.

Illustration-of-the-Burberry-Tielocken-which-was-patented-in-1912-copyllustration of the Burberry Tielocken, patented in 1912, courtesy of Burberry 

Thus the inception of one of fashion's most iconic items took root in Hampshire, cemented on the battlefields of The Somme. The conspicuous, primary coloured uniforms hitherto worn for war were usurped by cool, calm khaki and so, having been trialled in the Boer War, the trench coat was commissioned zealously by officers entering WWI. Their ranks were displayed across the epaulettes, the gun flap buttoned across the chest offered additional protection to the vital organs, while from the D-Rings of the belts swung map cases and military tools ensuring the men were always battle ready.

The rain beating down on the European battlefields ran cleanly off the men's coats courtesy of the storm shield affixed to the upper back and the back pleat expanded when running or on horseback. Light and comfortable, while offering protection from the elements, officers continued to wear their trench coats after returning from war, and so its popularity pervaded civilian life.

Celebrities wearing Burberry

Alexa Chung, Angelina Jolie and Karlie Kloss wearing Burberry trench coats

It became immersed in popular culture via the stars of cinema and their leading ladies – wise-cracking detectives and underworld figures modelled the coat for blockbuster adventures while sirens of the silver screen from Marlene Dietrich to Meryl Streep showed they were more than a match for the officers the garment was originally conceived for in upturned collars and cinched-in waists.

This year, a century after British officers commissioned the garment for the European battlefields, the trench coat is everywhere, but not as you know it.. Its signatures remain the same, but with some whimsical manifestations: covered in digital prints here, patchwork embellishments there; men's come in pastel pinks or emblazoned by giant polka dots – the colours and prints so vivid that – in what is perhaps a truculent wink at the garment's camouflaged origins – the style is almost hidden underneath the dazzling array of colours and prints.

Burberry Prorsum Menswear Spring Summer 2015 Show FinaleBurberry Prorsum Menswear Spring Summer 2015 Show Finale

Valentino practically crafted a menswear collection from it, exhibiting everything from faithful renditions to deconstructed styles and khaki hues emblazoned with butterflies and woodland creatures. You'll even find the launch of the ultra-elegant Trench eyewear collection featuring leather-wrapped temple tips and nose pads echoing the coat's hook-and-eye fastening in stone, black and honey shades from the brand that started it all: Burberry.

Burberry Heritage Trench Coat Parade Red

Burberry Heritage Trench Coat Parade Red new for Fall Winter 2015

Whether it's due to the current vogue for stealth luxe, the First World War centenary or the meteoric success of the British heritage brand where it all began, the trench coat seems more relevant, current and authoritative than ever today.