The fashion designers of the past ninety-four years all seem to be of one mind when it comes to the subject of the trench coat: it needs to be re-designed every four months. Years have passed, but still the garment has not reached a final state; meanwhile the rest of us only get one shot at a first impression. It is no matter whether the one who wears the trench coat is an actual trench-dweller or simply one who Tweets all day; the designers all have their opinions regarding the fluctuating number of straps and 'D' rings. There has been no end to the amount of cleverness applied to the re-treading of the garment and through the years we have been treated to doggy trench coats and lady's evening gowns cut to resemble trench coats. Yet in the dark days of 1917, when the United States entered the fray, it was not lost on those who glanced at the attached column that too many of these raincoats were already buried in the damp grave yards of France and Belgium.
The trench coat, the submarine and the machine-gun were just a few of the innovations bequeathed to the modern world following the bloody brawl of 1914-1918. All three are still with us today, and one could even argue that, given the bitter peace that followed, these three were the only victors that emerged from that war. If that is the case, three cheers for "Field Marshal Burberry" and his legion of trench coats that have marched on every capitol city since that first autumn on the Marne!
This small notice is interesting for what it doesn't say: of all the uniform foppery and up-town military accessories that were made available for American officers of World War I, there was no run on serge, whipcord or fine Melton wools; pigskin was plentiful for custom boots and no one seemed fearful that pewter flasks were scarce. What was in short supply were trench coats. The officer candidates from Plattsburg (N.Y.) were making their desires known: they did not care to risk life and limb only to wear a mackinaw. These men wanted trench coats and the New York Times found that newsworthy (It is interesting to note that the reporting journalist had never actually seen one, or else he might not have said that it extended to the ankle).
An excerpt from a British tailoring journal which explains what the garment is and is not. The illustrations show a long forgotten pattern with billows pockets and excessively long cuffs, which were intended to be gathered by wrist straps. You will also note that the trench coat is bereft of "D rings" and "gas flaps" and other fantasy elements of military-tailoring.
Attached, you will find one of the first elegant, elongated fashion figure drawings to depict the trench coat as an element of feminine mode. Although this drawing first appeared in a Harper's Bazaar fashion editorial recommending the coat as one of the better private purchase uniform items that could be worn by an American woman in one of the auxiliary units, it is clear that the fashion potential of the garment was not lost on the magazine's editors or anyone else on this side of the Atlantic. This particular one was produced in far nicer fabric than was made available for the men. The acquaintance between the trench coat and American fashion designers has remained a strong one ever since.
To see other examples of war's influence on fashion, click here.
The following four images were first published in Stephen J. Chambers' remarkable book, Uniforms & Equipment Of The British Army In World War I, and they will give the viewer good understanding concerning the broad variety of different trench coats that were made available at the time.
The afore mentioned British tailor's journal "West End Gazette" remarked:
"A feature (so far as tailors are concerned) of the European War is the variety of garments worn by officers, the details of which are suggested by the actual requirements of the campaign, rather than by the usual official regulations from the War Office. Never in the history of military tailoring, has such latitude been allowed, and officers are quick to recognize and avail themselves of the advantages of every practical design that is submitted for their approval."
Click here to read an old Vanity Fair magazine article about the trench coat.