The story of the trench coat begins in 1823 with Scottish chemist, Charles Macintosh. He took a by product of tar and created a paste that would repel water. He sandwiched the paste between two pieces of wool. In the same year, he was grated a patent on the waterproof fabric. It was later claimed that he had copied the method from a Scottish surgeon, James Syme.
Either way, the technology had some beginners pains. The first issue being that when stitched, the waterproofing was compromised and the wearer would get wet. The second issue being its would become stiff in the winter and sticky and smelly in the summer. The smell was so strong that it regularly had to be perfumed. Due to these issues, tailors would not use it, so Charles began making his own rain coats.
Jump forward to 1839, Macintosh partnered with Thomas Hancock, to use vulcanized rubber, which solved all the issue with the first iteration. The Mac was born.
In 1853, John Emery invented a new version of waterproof wool and combined it with his experience as a Regent Street tailor. He founded his brand Aquascutum as clothing for town and country, but it quickly took on a military bent when the officers in the Crimean War began buying his hard-wearing overcoats.
Come 1879, Thomas Burberry threw his hat in the rain coat ring with the discovery of gabardine, a waterproof cotton twill that was far more breathable than any of the wool/rubber/tar iterations that came before it.
Twenty years later, Burberry’s waterproof coat was unofficially adopted by much of the British Officer class. The coat at the time was call The Tielocken, because the tie around the waist would lock you in. This the the precursor to the Trench coat, with its waist belt, double-breasted front and knee length.
The Trench Coat as we know if was born in 1912 and took its name from the trenches in WWI. From the Tielocken, epaulettes were added to display officer rank and keep bag straps in place, a storm shield at the back enabled water to run off the coat, a pleat was added for ease of movement and an extra fabric shield was added at the front shoulder for protecting the rain proofing from the butt of a rifle. The coat was given only to officers, which had a tragic unintended consequence. The officers were now very easy targets for snipers, especially as they would lead a charge. By the end of the war 17% of officers were killed, compared to 12% of the ranks. This caused a major shift in the make-up of the British Army, placing lower status citizens into officer positions, a position that would have been saved for lords. As the Americans joined the war, they adopted the style as part of their own kits.
Civilians in America began wearing the coat as a sign of patriotism. The advertising for the war effort would feature officers in the coat looking dashing. After the war, British government had a surplus of coats that they gave out to their citizens, helping to make it widely worn. Hollywood also adopted it as a sign of the war, adding to its glamour and elegance, cementing it’s place in the world as a classic piece.
I loved making this piece. It was an absolute labor and it took many hours of hand work, but it feels great to wear. The most intimidating portion ended up being the button holes and due to the thickness it did take hours to do them all. It was a great experience overall. In all my years of sewing it was the first project of this kind I have taken on. Given all the new things I tried and learnt along the way, I am very pleased with the result.