Friday, March 20, 2009

Ultimately, the popularity and appeal of a classic Trench Coat may well stem from the fact that it is flattering on just about anyone who wears it...


As with no other garment, men seem to develop a sentimental attachment to their trench coats. No doubt Hollywood has something to do with it. After all, the trench coat was a virtual second skin for the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson, to name only a few. Indeed even Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis were at their feisty best (as in "witness for the Prosecution" and "Deception") when devilishly draped in such decidedly masculine outerwear. On the other hand, the appeal of the trench coat may well stem from the fact that it is flattering on just about anyone who wears it.


It is all an illusion, really. The epaulets give lend more heft and thus, more importance, to the shoulder; a turned-up collar allows even the meek to wax sinister; the generous amount of fabric drapes the body well, and, with the wide belt drawn tightly (always knotted, never buckled, in devil-may-care nonchalance), it is forgiving of either the overweight or the undernourished. The result of all these details is an appearance that seems battle-ready, which, after all, was the original intent.


The legend behind this great raincoat began with an Englishman, Thomas Burberry, who sought a way to improve upon the Macintosh, a coat developed by a Scotsman, Charles Macintosh, in the early 1800's. Macintosh had patented a process for molding rubber between two layers of fabric, thereby making the garment waterproof. The problem with Macintoshes (the name given to almost any form of raincoat until the turn of the century), as Burberry saw it, was the lack of ventilation,which rendered them both hot and uncomfortable.


In seeking to develop a lighter weight fabric several decades later, Burberry, a self-proclaimed "dress reformer," noticed that rural shepherds wore linen smocks that appeared to be cool in summer, warm in winter and kept the wearer reasonably dry in the process. Burberry also discovered that it was the tightness of the fabric's weave and the looseness of the shepherd's garment that kept out the wet. He resolutely developed a tightly woven fabric made of cotton, which was cheaper than linen, and called it "gabardine" after a line spoken by Trinculo in Shakespeare's "Tempest": "I hid me under the dead moon calf's gabardine for fear of the storm."


The yarn in Burberry's new fabric was also chemically treated to repel rain; he first used the material in an overcoat called a "slip-on," a name he never bothered to register. He didn't have to. King Edward VII inadvertently rechristened the coat by constantly reminding his valet to "fetch me my Burberry." The name stuck.

While the noble King most assuredly got his "Burberry" whenever he asked for it, British soldiers on the front lines during World War I weren't nearly as lucky in proffering protective outerwear. Thus, a concerned military appealed to various outerwear manufacturers to develop a water-repellent, functional and protective coat for the soldiers and officers in the trenches, with military contracts to go to those whose coats were best designed and most practical.


With the war full blown, both Burberry and another apparel maker, Aquascutum (Latin for water shield), began producing trench coats that fast became standard military issue, worn even by the Army's highest officers, including Lord Kitchener, Britain's esteemed Secretary for War. The trench coat we wear today is virtually unchanged in its myriad details and construction. The authentic ones are still made of all-cotton, treated gabardine, are double-breasted and are lined with a wool or camel hair fleece that may be buttoned out in the warmer seasons. Of course, all the functional characteristics of the trench coat that enabled it to survive the war are what lend the garment its stylish allure and functionality. Those clever flourishes also add to its hefty price tag.


If a man is serious about his trench coat he should be aware that a modicum of misinformation surround's the coat military detailing. For example, those semi-elliptical brass rings that are attached to the belt and known as D-rings were never there for the purpose of carrying grenades. Not unless he wanted to blow himself up.

In truth, the D-rings were attached to secure a satchel that in turn held a soldier's grenades, maps, flasks, and other assorted articles of combat. The satchel was further steadied by a shoulder strap or harness that was slipped under one of the epaulets, which became known as the Sam Brown belt. The other epaulet was used for stowing binoculars and, on occasion, a gas mask.


The so-called "storm" flap on the coat's front was never put there as a cushion for absorbing the impact of a fired rifle. It's sole function was to prevent rain from seeping in through the top of the coat. The dropped yoke in back functions much the same way in that it helps rain to slide off. The slanted side pockets are always covered with a button-through flap to prevent seepage and the throat latch, which is hidden and secured in back behind the collar, is meant to be buttoned in front when facing strong wind and rain. The buckled wrist straps enable a soldier to tighten his sleeves and keep water out as he raises his arms in firing position. And that vertical procession of small buttons that run up the center vent in back was originally designed to allow the horse soldier to drape his trench coat on either side of his saddle.


A genuine trench coat will also be finished with genuine horn buttons, just as the D-rings are always brass and the various buckles are made of leather. The wool and fleece lining, lightweight yet thermal, should have two large patch pockets on either side. Which brings us to another trench coat myth. Contrary to popular belief, no trench coat, military or otherwise, is completely waterproof. Manufacturers get around this little drawback by using such garment industry nomenclature as "shower proof" and "rain resistant."


In fact, the chemical weatherproofing processes used in trench coat fabrics today will repel wetness up to a point. It is also important to remember that repeated dry-cleaning will wear away the weatherproofing treatment in the fabrics eventually. For that reason, it is advisable to keep dry cleaning to a minimum. And whenever the coat is taken to the dry cleaners, it is imperative that all leather buckles be removed, since certain cleaning fluids and solutions will discolor them forever.


Ultimately, it is perfectly understandable why a man might take meticulous care of his beloved trench coat; the price tag alone is a frightful reminder of how costly neglect can be. Still, the trench coat, more than any other outerwear garment in a man's wardrobe, tends to be regarded as a close friend--with a character that becomes even better with proper age. Lord Kitchener loved his trench so much he asked that he be buried in it. But I think we can agree that's probably going a bit too far.

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