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The Trench Coat

Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009

Crouched in a trench, bullets whizzing overhead, you shoulder your rifle, crush out your smoke and ready for the enemy's next charge. At the end of a dark alley, you gaze for one moment into the lipid eyes of a femme fatale, before you slap on the cuffs with one hand and grab the microfilm with the other. Or maybe you just stand on the platform waiting for the 7:19 as a sudden downpour pelts away. For a century, the redoubtable trench coat has been the rainwear of choice for anyone who wants to style his way through adversity.

Like so much classic menswear, the trench coat is famed for being battle-tested, but its story began before it went to war, with the development of the archetypal high-tech fabric: gabardine. The British, who get their share of rain, had been keeping dry with Mac coats, made of Charles Macintosh's rubber laminate, which were phenomenally waterproof, but hardly breathable. Then, in 1880, another Brit, Thomas Burberry, invented gabardine by waterproofing wool yarn before weaving it into a distinctive diagonal twill. The fabric caught on with rough-weather sportsmen as well as the polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton. Then, at the behest of the British army, Burberry adapted a coat already popular with the officer class for soldiers to wear in the trenches of the First World War, and an enduring style as well as its name were born.

The design incorporated knee-length rain protection and a modified cape down the back with military details. Epaulettes could be attached to the shoulder straps, an extra flap at the shoulder was reinforcement for a rifle and D-rings on the belt were for hanging equipment (some say grenades, but that seems a bit dicey). It was another early trench proponent, Aquascutum, that added the removable liner.

Returning from combat, the coat became the purview of the hard-boiled detectives and secret agents of the cinema—particularly on the frame of Humphrey Bogart (pictured wearing an Aquascutum model). The form has changed little, although the fabric is typically now cotton or the lightweight polyester introduced by America's London Fog, though wool survives and is joined by leather and soft, even-more-water-resistant microfibers. Flirtations with modifications recur—shorter skirt, fewer details, etc.—but we think the real deal needs to be a billowing double-breasted model with a collar big enough to wrap you up in mystery.

Visit burberry.com, aquascutum.com and londonfog.com.

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