The Fascinating Century-Spanning History of the Women’s Trench Coat

by Karly Rayner

The women's trench coat is a timeless and iconic fashion staple that has evolved over the years, transcending its military origins to become a symbol of sophistication and style. With its enduring appeal and versatile design, the history of the women's trench coat is a fascinating journey through the realms of fashion, innovation, and empowerment.


The Birth of the Trench Coat

Image credit: Wikipedia

Legend dictates that the trench coat made its dashing debut on the backs of soldiers in the trenches of World War One, which just goes to show how much the mythology of gallantry and daring are woven into the fabric of the trench coat. 

As romantic as this tale might be, the real origin of the trench comes in the form of waterproof coats created by Scottish chemist and inventor Charles Macintosh and British inventor Thomas Hancock (founder of the British rubber industry) in the early 1820s, almost one hundred years before the outbreak of WWI.

These “macks” were revolutionary because they were waterproof, but keeping dry in the drizzle came at a price. Due to the lack of breathability from the rubber shells, the coats were known for their distinctive sweaty odours. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the mythology of the trench coat has opted to leave this decidedly unglamorous origin story behind and start with a more illustrious chapter.  

Trench Coats in World War I

Image credit: Contrado

While the trench coat often appears in black and white photos of moustachioed soldiers in WWI, it was never actually standard military issue.This meant that the trench coat was somewhat of a status symbol, reserved for officers who were the only rank permitted to procure their own clothes from tailors and outfitters. 

Although the previously mentioned ‘mack’ was the first incarnation of the trench coat, the reinvented and renamed garment was claimed by two British luxury clothing manufacturers, Burberry and Aquascutum, with Aquascutum's claim dating back to the 1850s. Thomas Burberry invented the breathable gabardine fabric in 1879 and submitted a design for a British Army officer's raincoat to the War Office in 1901.

Traditionally made oversize to fit over the ‘British warm’ (a woollen overcoat designed for officers), the trench coat quickly evolved features which made it recognisable as the garment we know and love today such as D rings, shoulder straps, belts, oversized pockets and strategically placed structural flaps and vents. 


Image credit: MPR News


The popularity of the trench coat soared among the military personnel permitted to wear them, and its association with the brave soldiers of the Great War created a sense of resilience and endurance, which would later become part of its enduring appeal.

Civilian Support

Image credit: Wikicommons

Even in the midst of the war, civilians of both sexes bought trench coats as an act of patriotism and solidarity towards the war effort.

While we might think of exploitative marketing as a more modern phenomenon, there is do doubt that savvy advertisers plastered the word ‘trench’ onto pretty much anything they could get away with to key into people’s desperation to connect with loved ones on the front and embody their support. 

For women in particular at this time, there was a sense that dressing in a flashy manner was somewhat gauche and adopting the dress of the soldiers on the front became  the newest look. 

Image credit: Wikicommons 

While this trench coat glamour was a far cry from the reality of the front line, the “gad about town” officer was the emblem of high fashion in popular culture at the time. In the words of military historian and author of The First World War in 100 Objects, Peter Doyle:

“If you look at adverts, it’s very dashing … it’s very much giving a sense that if you’re wearing one of these, you’re at the height of fashion,”


The Trench Coat Goes Hollywood

Image credit: Michael Andrews Bespoke

After World War I, the trench coat made its transition from the battlefield to the silver screen, thanks to Hollywood's influence. Film icons of the time helped popularise the trench coat as a symbol of elegance and mystery. Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Rick Blaine in Casablanca and Audrey Hepburn's iconic look in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" elevated the trench coat's status as a fashion statement.


Image credit: See Rose Go

On the silver screen, the trench coat was no longer just a coat for men and officers. Rather, it was a sophisticated choice for men and women alike, lending an allure and mystique to the wearers. Often, the characters wearing the trench coats filled seductive roles with a taste of danger — detectives, spies, gangsters and femme fatales. 


Due to the popularity of the trench coat in cinema, it acquired an air of glamour that is still present. Wearing a trench coat is an emblem of timeless elegance, harkening back to days of style and class, dashing leading men and savvy leading women. 

Image credit: She Wore Stars 

In short, the trench earned its place as one of the most iconic silhouettes to emerge from the 20th century.


The Trench Coat in Women's Fashion

Image credit: Glamour 

Throughout the 20th century, the trench coat became a must-have item in women's fashion. Its androgynous appeal allowed women to adopt a look that was both stylish and practical. Fashion designers began to reinterpret the classic design, experimenting with various lengths, fabrics, and colours to cater to diverse tastes.

Seen on the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Mia Farrow and Twiggy, the trench coat became the epitome of edgy, nonchalant sophistication. Easy to dress up and down, the versatile trench coat became the uniform of mods and radical intellectuals. 

Image credit: Ian Drummond Vintage

Even now, pairing a trench coat with a black turtleneck still reads as effortlessly chic, especially with a shorter hemline so the trench takes centre stage. 


Modern-Day Trench Coat


Today, the trench coat continues to be a fashion staple. It has evolved to suit contemporary tastes and lifestyles while retaining its classic charm. Designers have incorporated sustainable materials, updated cuts, and innovative features like detachable hoods and removable linings to adapt to changing weather conditions.

The trench coat remains a symbol of timeless elegance and empowerment, with women in various fields of endeavour donning this iconic piece of outerwear as a symbol of strength and independence.

The history of the women's trench coat is a testament to its enduring appeal and adaptability. From its military origins to its transformation into a fashion icon, the trench coat has become more than just a piece of clothing; it's a symbol of resilience, style, and empowerment. 


Popular posts

Make British Winter More Bearable by Embracing Seasonal Living
Make British Winter More Bearable by Embracing Seasonal Living
The ever-rotating wheel of the seasons profoundly connects us to nature and weaves our lived experience into the infinite tapestry of time, but also, winter sucks. ...
Move Over Resolutions, 2024 is All About Setting Intentions and Here's Why
Move Over Resolutions, 2024 is All About Setting Intentions and Here's Why
There is something staunch about the word resolution which I have never really taken to (read; compulsively rebelled against), but there is another way to set...
Nobody Likes a Fashion Braggart, Especially the British
Nobody Likes a Fashion Braggart, Especially the British
The shimmering mirage of contrasts and contradictions which make up UK style are a slippery fish to grasp, but suspicion and ridicule of anything excessively boastful...
What is Transeasonal Fashion and Why Does it Matter?
What is Transeasonal Fashion and Why Does it Matter?
When the last throes of summery sunshine beam through the reddening leaves of Autumn, we have entered the in-between realm of transeasonal fashion. Despite what fashion...