During the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), tailor and entrepreneur John Emary outfitted British soldiers in coats made of a waterproof cotton he had developed for his company, Aquascutum (Latin for “water shield”). A couple of decades later, in 1879, Thomas Burberry invented a fabric called gabardine, which he later used to create a coat design he submitted to the United Kingdom War Office in 1901.
The trench coat as we know it is a military construction that combines a waterproof cape and the greatcoat worn by British officers. By the time the First World War rolled around, trench coats were common outerwear for First-Class Officers of the British Army, as well as officers in the French military. The waterproof, double-breasted coats were characterized by ten buttons on the front, raglan sleeves, generously sized pockets that fastened with a button, wide lapels and collars, a storm flap over the right breast and a belt at both the waist and the wrists. The signature shoulder straps were added during WWI so that the wearer could attach epaulets that indicated rank. There is a legend that the metal D-rings on the belt in the back were designed to carry grenades, but they were apparently designed to fasten map cases and other field gear to the belt.
Though they often come in black and navy, the original color for the trench coat is, of course, khaki, which comes from the Hindi word “khak,” meaning “color of dust.” When American soldiers returned from the Second World War, many of them brought their trench coats back to their college campuses with them, contributing to the popularity of the coats, the fabric and the color in civilian circles.
Though both Aquascutum and Burberry claim to have invented the trench coat, the classic trench as we know it today is, essentially, the one that was refined during WWI. The iconic double-breasted raincoats from both companies have the same signature characteristics, from the raglan sleeves and shoulder straps to the waist and wrist belts, storm flaps and D-rings. A key difference lies in the fabric: Aquascutum’s is made with John Emary’s patented waterproof cotton and Burberry’s is, of course, made with Thomas Burberry’s gabardine.
While both are exquisite raincoats with rich histories, neither is inexpensive. Burberry’s Mid-Length Cotton Gabardine Trench Coat will run you between $1,700 and $1,800, and Aquascutum’s New Kingsgate Raincoat will set you back $1,200. If you can swing it, great. Take a close look at both (try them on if you have the geography) and make your choice. The classic trench from either house will surely take stylish, trend-proof care of you for the rest of your life. (Though as of this writing, Burberry is enjoying a nice ride, while Aquascutum is a company in trouble.)
For a gentler hit to the wallet, there is always eBay, a perfectly legitimate and exponentially less expensive option than a full-price new coat from either company. It’s a roll of the dice, but a perfectly viable one. If you’re in the market, just save your search and keep checking back until your size and preferred style appears. As with overcoats and topcoats, be sure to choose one that is the same size as your suit/jacket, not one size up (a popular sizing misconception for men’s outerwear).
Other less expensive possibilities are available from other stylish venues like Banana Republic, J.Crew or Uniqlo. Over the past few years, each of these shops has offered a reasonably faithful “homage” to the original WWI trench coat template, differing from Burberry and Aquascutum originals on a few minor points, like six or eight front buttons (instead of Burberry/Aquascutum’s ten) or missing the D-rings on the belt in the back. Trench coats and other outerwear from these retailers also only come in S/M/L/XL sizes, as opposed to a more refined sizes like 38, 40, 42, etc. The only drag with these stores is that the trench coat is not necessarily an all-time staple and only available during fall and winter months.
Currently, I wear a slight deviation from the classic trench from J.Crew Factory. It’s called the “Holborn Trench Coat.” It’s a simple, Arthur Miller-esque, single-breasted number with standard sleeves (not raglan) and no shoulder straps. It does, however, retain the belts on the waist and wrists. It’s a handsome, well-made cotton raincoat that fits perfectly and keeps me dry between buildings. But, as I mentioned above, it’s a seasonal item that is only available on the website in Fall/Winter only.
However you play it, the trench coat is a classic men’s outerwear staple. Whether you go with a single-breasted derivative like mine or a Burberry or Aquascutum original in a different color like navy or black, it’s a timeless classic that boasts an amazing history that goes back more than 100 years.