The Trench Coat: The Feminist History Of Everyone's Favourite Style Staple

Throwing on a trench coat instantly smartens up any outfit - and it is this easy styling that has earned it devoted fans such as the Duchess of Cambridge, Liv Tyler and Broadchurch's Charlotte Rampling.

But did you know that wearing a trench coat was once a symbol of women's emancipation?

Josh Sims charts the evolution of the trench coat in the following extract from his new book Icons of Women's Style...

When George Peppard’s distressed would-be lover finally embraces Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it is in the pouring rain. A good job, then, that she is wearing a trench coat.

The sartorial star of the film is, of course, Golightly’s little black dress, which made Hepburn a style icon. However, the image of her in what until then had been perceived as a predominantly male garment also created a stir.

Sales of the coat to women rocketed, establishing it as a fashion classic, soon after given added cudos when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Joanne Woodward and Brigitte Bardot were all spotted wearing the trench.

This was, however, the second wave of popularity for the trench coat. Women had worn them before, notably during the early 1920s, as much as a statement of emancipation as of fashion.

Again, it was stars of the screen portraying the strong woman archetype who wore the trench: Greto Garbo on the set of A Woman of Affairs, Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly and Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage.

The trench coat continued to be used to signal a sassy mannishness – Katharine Hepburn wore an outsized trench coat in The Iron Petticoat, for example – right up until Audrey Hepburn’s feminisation of the garment.

Burberry, a co-inventor of the style, made the coat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The post-World War II period might have seen Hollywood leading men and sometimes ladies – the likes of Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart – trying to pass off the trench coat as somehow quintessentially American (not to mention, the default choice of the hardbitten film-noir detective type).

But it is a British invention, belonging jointly, despite their rivalry over it, to Aquascutum and Burberry.

The former invented the first waterproof wool, devised a field coat for soldiers of the Crimean War (1853–56) and would later corner the market for trench coats in the movies.

Meanwhile, draper Thomas Burberry invented gabardine in 1879 and won the contract to supply a trench-type raincoat for the Boer Wars and beyond.

One of the oldest army garments still widely worn, the trench coat was devised as a means of keeping the endless mud off uniforms in the trenches of World War I, although it was allowed to be worn only by officers. This explains the epaulettes, which remain today, there to attach the insignia of one’s rank.

The raglan sleeves came with wrist straps, the D-ring at the waist was used to hook on ammunition packs and other equipment and the storm flap at the shoulder, while letting the rain run away from the body, also helped soften rifle recoil.

Such concerns were undoubtedly not a priority for actresses Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve or Charlotte Gainsbourg, each of whom made the trench coat part of their style, as well as ensuring the garment remains central to the idea of French chic.

In later decades, Kate Moss modelled the style in advertising campaigns for Burberry, while Victoria Beckham and Kate Middleton (the Duchess of Cambridge) also became fans.

Few items have stood the test of time in the woman’s wardrobe like the trench coat. It has proved a staple that can be reinvented time and again, whether by introducing bright colours or contrast sleeves or adding to, or reducing, the original ten front buttons.

To see how the look evolved over the years scroll through the gallery below...

Learn more about the history of women's fashion in Icons of Women's Style by Josh Sims, published by Laurence King Publishing, out 4 April 2015.

Marlene Dietrich

Celebrities In Trench Coats