HISTORY OF THE HERO: THE BURBERRY TRENCH
From polar exploration to cinematic styling, this is how Burberry’s iconic creation became part of the fashion vocabulary
This article was originally published on harpersbazaar.com
Every 100 years or so, someone creates a very special piece of fashion that is as beautiful as it is practical. In the early 1900s, that piece was the Burberry trench coat – a feat of design that’s as desirable now as it was over a century ago.
It all started in 1879, when gentlemen’s outfitter (and founder of the eponymously named brand) Thomas Burberry invented gabardine. Until then, waterproof macs were made of rubberised cotton – a heavy fabric that would cause the wearer to sweat profusely. Not very chic. Unlike its vulcanised rubber counterpart, gabardine’s fibres were individually waterproofed before weaving, making it lightweight, comfortable and considerably less sweaty.
The revolutionary new material was such a hit among adventurers that Burberry was entrusted with outfitting several high-profile expeditions. Norwegian explorer, zoologist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr Fritjof Nansen was the first to take gabardine to the poles in 1893, and he wasn’t the last – Sir Ernest Shackleton wrapped himself, his team, their tents (and even the engine of their motor car) in gabardine on three separate antarctic treks.
It was a PR dream and one that likely contributed to the British Army asking Burberry to create a coat suitable for the battlefield. Thomas Burberry took the existing Tielocken coat (Burberry’s one-button, single-strap design that was popular among officers in the Boer War) and updated it with D-rings to carry flasks, maps and grenades, flaps for extra chest protection and epaulettes upon which an officer could display his rank. The trench coat was born.
Notably, it was only those of officer rank who were permitted to wear such an item, establishing it as a status symbol. Affluent civilian men and women followed suit, wearing Burberry trenches as a show of national pride – and social standing – while officers continued to wear their coats after the war (and later, into WWII). By 1934, the trench coat was so popular that Burberry was even offering same-day delivery in London.
The trench had become synonymous with adventure and utility, but it was Hollywood that made it glamorous. In the 1942 film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart utters his famous line, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ while wearing a trench coat. (A Burberry coat – worn by Bogart for the film’s publicity photos – sold for over $10k at auction in 2005).
It would be remiss to write about the trench coat’s most iconic silver screen moments without mentioning Breakfast at Tiffany’s kissing-in-the-rain scene. In the 1961 film’s final moments, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly (and her cat, Cat) is wrapped in a mac as she reunites with Fred. It is one of the film’s most iconic costumes – second only, perhaps, to that Givenchy LBD. Although the designer of the aforementioned coat remains a mystery, it’s likely this cinematic moment fuelled sales of the Burberry original. Sure enough, by 1965, one in five coats exported from Britain was a Burberry product.
Decade upon decade, the allure of Burberry’s trench never waned. It appears on-screen in 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, on a bow-haired Catherine Deneuve; 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer, as worn by the elegant Joanna, played by Meryl Streep; and 1987’s Wall Street, as the coat of choice for Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and nearly a century after the trench was first dreamt up, the brand’s iconic creation remains virtually unchanged, from its beige cotton-gabardine to the craftsmanship with which each is made – honed over 50 years at the Burberry’s Castleford Mill in Yorkshire. Each garment comprises 80 pieces (including the ‘pork chop’, a piece that can be buttoned at the neck for extra insulation) and takes four hours to stitch. Of 120 separate processes, the most labour-intensive is the collar, which involves more than 180 hand-sewn stitches to create a curve that perfectly contours the neck – a method that takes one year for each specialist tailor to master.
Burberry’s five heritage styles are reprised season after season. There is the Kensington, Chelsea, Waterloo, Camden and Paddington, each with a slightly different silhouette and length – some with soft raglan shoulders, others sharper, sleeker. You can also add custom embroidery, monogramming and vintage linings, using Burberry’s Trench Bespoke service – available at the brand’s London flagship store.
For collectors, there are limited-edition, seasonal versions. Over the years, this iconic piece has been metallicised in jewel tones, adorned with feathers, cloaked in leather, or deconstructed, its Nova check lining (added in the 1920s) turned inside out – many of which can be tracked down via pre-loved websites including 1stDibs and Vestiaire Collective. There, you’ll also find myriad versions in classic beige – a wise investment, considering the timeless design. If you find a label that reads ‘Burberrys’, that means the coat was made before 1999, at which point the ‘s’ was dropped.
The Burberry trench possesses a rare kind of versatility that goes some way in explaining its enduring appeal. It layers as effortlessly with a Breton tee and jeans (just ask Katie Holmes and Miranda Kerr) as it does with a cocktail dress (see Rihanna in a 2019 satin trench). It’s polished enough for Kate and Meghan (with the unofficial royal uniform of tailored-dress-and-pointed-pumps), and cool enough for Bella Hadid, atop leather trousers. You can wear it day and night, at work or at the weekend – and of course, for kissing in the rain.