Masculine, utilitarian and steeped in history, the trench coat is arguably the most iconic piece of outerwear. Unlike other men's wear classics such as the M65 field jacket, khaki chinos or a navy blazer, the trench coat wasn’t created for the military and then conscripted into everyday life. In the early 1800s inventor, Charles Macintosh developed a process to treat wool fabric with vulcanised rubber, making it water repellent. The “Macks” were revolutionary and offered a welcome respite from the elements in the highlands of Scotland and the bogs of Britain. Their rugged and functional appeal saw the long coats adopted by military officers during World War 1 and acquired the moniker we use today.
But the trench coat does have some controversy. In 1851, Mayfair tailor John Emary, set up shop and, seeing a gap in the market, he patented the first waterproof wool fabric and launched the Aquascutum brand, which derives its name from the Latin — “aqua” meaning water and “scutum” meaning shield. Not to be outdone, 21-year-old Thomas Burberry launched his eponymous brand in 1856. A few of years later, he invented and patented “” — a lightweight cotton twill weave with a diagonal rib that waterproofed individual threads rather than a coating that covered the entire fabric. Both iconic brands lay claim to having produced the first iteration of the trench coat we know today, but the jury is still out.
Based on a double-breasted button configuration, the trench coat was cut boxy with a belt to be cinched at the waist. The raglan sleeves, which go over the shoulder in one piece and join the coat at the collar seam — as opposed to the in-set sleeve that is attached to the armhole — allowed for greater ease of movement. Epaulettes at the shoulder were used to strap gloves, other accessories and munitions. The hook-and-eye throat latch could secure the large collar upturned that proved indispensable in keeping rain and dirt out. The gun flap across the right chest added a double layer against wear as the butt of a rifle gun was cradled at the shoulder. A storm shield was draped across the back providing a secondary layer for rain to be whisked away. Deep welt pockets at the hip are just as handy today as they were in the days spent in the trenches, perfect for an iPhone 12 Pro Max or a couple of hand grenades.
The trench coat can be considered a transitional piece, making it suitable for SA’s relatively mild winters. It’s considered casual due to its fabric, unlike the car coat or a polo coat that are cut from more formal, heavier fabrics. Playing with the length gives the coat a modern edge. I advise the mid-thigh to knee length variation compared with the more classic full length. Wear it layered over a hoody or some chunky knitwear with your favourite pair of selvedge denim jeans or chinos. A beaten-in pair of desert boots, aka Vellies, will round things off nicely. Knotting the belt at the waist rather than traditionally fastening it makes the coat less regimental and adds a relaxed elegance.
Trench coats come in different colours these days. While khaki is the classic option, navy, black, military green and grey are all de rigueur. Making an outerwear purchase is an investment, but the maxim, “buy better, buy less” should be applied to clothing in general.