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The Trench Coat: Military Staple to Style Icon

Posted on 20 August 2019

The Trench Coat:  Military Staple to Style Icon

In the thick of World War I, a water-proof coat made of rubberized cotton kept commissioned soldiers warm from the cold of war. It was then a khaki green garment known as the “Greatcoat” portrayed both distinction and class in the trenches. The coat later became a military icon, a staple associated with rugged yet well-dressed men even to this day. But, long before it’s debut in the trenches or the catwalk, the garment came to life at the hands of a Scottish chemist and the Brit who revolutionised the rubber industry.

The “Mack” it had been called when the idea first came to in 1823. Dreamt up by Charles Macintosh of Scotland and Thomas Hancock of Britain, the Mack was the culmination of a chemist and inventor and the founder of the British rubber industry. Together they created a garment which combined both rubber and cotton to produce a durable, waterproof coat. Originally designed for riding, fishing, shooting and missions, the Mack kept most of its design until 1853 when tailor from Mayfair in London named John Emary evolved the model. Emary’s design was produced under the same name as his company Aquascutum, Latin for water and shield. In 1856, 21-year-old Thomas Burberry of Hampshire used the product as a base to design his own more breathable fabric called “garbadine”, according to Vogue. In 1901, with the more versatile design of the three coats, Burberry’s model was commissioned by the British Military, according to Huffington Post. It would begin his fortune.


Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft in the 1971 crime hit.

Much like the safety razor, the British military’s commission of Burberry’s design as the “Greatcoat” brought much fame to it. The Australian Army even designed and issued its own model according to the Australian War Memorial. Greatcoats were not, however, a general issue given to each soldier. Rather they were an item popular among military officers, an expensive garment sought by those well to do, according to Vogue. Some rumour the Greatcoat restricted movement and therefore was not as useful to the average soldier. After WWI the coats were sought after by both civilians and foreign military.

Despite the rumour, the military brought a rugged appeal to the knee-length coat. In the 1940s Hollywood began romanticizing the idea and to this day the coat makes its mark on the big screen. Still retaining much of its class distinction, and now known as the “Trench Coat”, the garment maintains its association with high rolling characters like Harvey Spector in Suits on the big screen. It’s also become iconic among heroes and villains alike in films like of Bond and more recently Netflix’s remake of 1971 film Shaft.

Jessie T Usher, Samuel L Jackson and John Shaft original actor Richard Roundtree in Netflix film Shaft (2019).

Nowadays trench coats have been adjusted to fit modern life and people. Despite the connection to the affluent in films, the modern varieties are a little more accessible to the average income. From makes of suede, leather, cotton silk and Burberry’s garbadine, trench coats are available in a variety of colours and designs reaching the ankle or knee. While trench coats of all qualities can now be found, for most, Burberry maintains its industry position as the iconic leader of the lot.

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