It’s April. So that means there’s a good chance of rain! In the 1920s and 30s, the raincoats and trench coats weren’t quite the same as we have today. It all started because of World War I. Little did Thomas Burberry know that his revolutionary invention of gabardine would change the history of not only the fashion, but also the war.
Raincoats are known for their water resistant material. In 1823, Charles Mackintosh developed the first waterproof coat. He formed it using rubberized cotton, which would face a multitude of problems. First of all, sewing needles would create tiny holes where water would seep in. So much for water resistance. Besides unable to be sewn, it would grow stiff in winter and sticky in the warmer temperatures.
In 1843, vulcanized rubber was invented, giving rubber a greater amount of durability and flexibility. The next development for raincoats came in 1879. The Burberry Company, run by Thomas Burberry, developed gabardine. It coated individual fibers, giving even more flexibility and movement to the coat. In past years, producers would cover the entire coat in a chemical substance which hadn’t allowed for a natural drape unlike gabardine.
Then in 1926, Dr. Waldo Semon from Akron, Ohio wanted to find a way to bond rubber to metal. He experimented by exposing discarded material and chemicals to heat. Polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC or vinyl, was the result. It was a felxible “gel” much like natural rubber. In the 1920s and 30s, this was the main resource used in the production of raincoats. However, there was still an issue with this way of production. It was rather uncomfortable to wear and you still got wet. The wetness wasn’t from the rain, however. Rather, your sweat was not able to escape.
The next invention in rain gear was the trench coat. The idea of the trench coat was originally developed during World War I. Once again, this was a design invented by Mackintosh using rubberized cotton. During World War I, there was a high demand for lighter, more breathable, flexible, and weather proof coat. Officers and soldiers alike were wearing overcoats of serge made with a thick woolen material. This was doable on the home front, but in the trenches, it was a whole other story. The overcoats were too long and a sponge for mud, which made them even heavier and difficult to move in. The trench coat was the answer to all their problems.
Two men, Thomas Burberry and John Emary, both claimed the invention of the trench coat. However, Burberry’s claim may have been more reliable with his invention of gabardine, the flexible, breathable, and waterproof fabric.
Today’s trench coat is influenced by the initial design meant for military. On the front, we have the epaulettes. They were designed to display the rank of an officer. On the back, we have the storm shield and pleat. The storm shield enabled water to run off the coat and maintain dryness. Pleats were made to allow for the ease of movement, especially when riding horseback or running.
The same design is still made today. Gabardine, the water repellent and ventilated fabric, is used as well. What may be even more recognizable then the coat itself is the “Burberry check” that lines the inside. It is a combination of camel, ivory, red and black. It was used, and is still used, to line the inside of the iconic coat.
Trench coats became popular when soldiers came home from war and could be seen wearing the outerwear. Soon enough, Hollywood captured the look and adapted it to characters like the stereotypical detective. Stars from the 1940s, such as Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Kathrine Hepburn, and Audrey Hepbrun all can be found in film sporting the classic trench coat. The style remained popular further into the decade with Peter Falk in his classic television series, Columbo.
Trench coats have definitely stood the test of time for both their practicability and fashionable look. From WWI to the runway, they were and are a favorite among many. Today we can see famous models like Cara Delevingne, Gigi Hadid, and Kate Moss still representing the Burberry product.