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It must have been difficult to imagine that the coat Burberry created during the Great War would be so successful after the conflict ended, but that’s how things turned out. More than 100 years later, the “trench coat” (thus named because it was worn in the trenches) continues to be popular.
Raincoats had already existed since the early 19th century — both for civilians and for the military — but they were made of a rubberized cloth that was as effective for repelling water as it was for making its wearer hot. (Besides that, they were heavy and smelled bad.)
Then, Thomas Burberry arrived — a cloth merchant who, at the age of 21 (in 1856), decided to start his own coat-making company. In 1879, inspired by the waterproof smocks used by the shepherds of Hampshire, he created gabardine, an innovative cloth that breathed while being waterproof, and which was light, comfortable, and effective at protecting from the rain.
In 1912, Burberry saw the opportunity to use this cloth to design part of British officials’ uniforms, as what they needed was precisely a cloth that was strong and waterproof, but also light enough to allow easy movement. Thus, the famous long khaki raincoat was born. (It was made this color to match the rest of the uniform; if there was anything that the British had learned during the rebellion in India, it was that beige is an effective camouflage in sandy areas and dirt surfaces. In fact, khaki means “dust” in Hindi, one of the official languages of India.) The plaid interior was emblematic of the Burberry brand. Burberry called it “The Tielocken,” but the public baptized it with the name of “trench coat.”
Besides the color, Burberry incorporated other details to satisfy the needs of those soldiers of the early 20th century. For example, they had D-shaped rings for clipping on equipment (binoculars, pistols, etc.), deep pockets to provide more storage space, straps on the shoulders for epaulettes so as to indicate military rank, and other characteristics that made these raincoats both elegant and practical.
However, don’t assume that all the soldiers in the British army looked like classical English gentlemen on the battlefield. Each Burberry trench coat could take up to three months to be produced, and they were fairly expensive, so they were only acquired by high-ranking military men who, at that time, were usually representatives of the upper class.
Patriotic sentiment inspired many men to want to wear trench coats in their daily life — although, of course, it was a version without the elements exclusive to the military. Even after the war, trench coats continued to be produced, because they were appreciated for their classic design and utilitarian fabric, especially useful when traveling. Other brands began to copy them, and to call them trench coats as well.
When World War II came, the trench coat’s popularity received an additional boost, mainly because it received a second source of publicity: the greatest stars of Hollywood (both men and women) started wearing trench coats in movies. How could we forget, for instance, Humphrey Bogart with his Burberry trench coat bidding farewell to Ingrid Bergman in the last scene of Casablanca (1942)? Or Audrey Hepburn’s kiss in the rain in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)?
Today, the English brand continues to produce its trench coat (with slight modifications to modernize it), and its marketing continues to use famous entertainers to remind us of the great history of this iconic piece of clothing, which, at its origin, was a synonym of war, but today is a symbol of timeless glamor.