Put simply, a trench coat is a three-quarter length coat designed to keep the grime and rain off your finer clothes rather than offer protection like a full-on winter coatwould; it was first created with a detachable sheepskin liner – back when the coat was known as the ‘trench warm’ – and still works well over a gilet to the same end.
On the most classic of styles, many of the original details remain. True, the epaulettes, for your insignia of rank, and the D-rings – metal rings attached at the belt from which to suspend your grenades and ammunition pouches – are largely redundant now. But then the storm flap at the shoulder – designed in part to help soften rifle recoil – is also, like the back vent, an arrangement that allows rain water to run off away from the body, rather than into the coat.
There are multiple versions of the trench coat: short ones and long ones, lined and unlined, in wool or cotton gabardine or khaki drill, poplin or twill weaves – with more expensive options treated for added waterproofing – with more or fewer of those classic details. Some have so few of these, in fact, that they’re more like a mac/trench hybrid.
But there’s one reason why this classic style never quite goes away: it works, and arguably more so now than it did a century ago. Since so much of our time is now spent in heated homes, offices or cars (not to mention the rising temperatures of climate change) the need for a seriously heavy coat is greatly diminished.
What’s really most useful is a breathable layering piece, one that, as a vintage Burberry ad had it, can “afford hygienic and efficient protection against wet or chill and prolonged resistance to hard wear”, adding that it was “suitable for every war zone”. With a blanket wrapped around your lower legs, it could even double as an “emergency sleeping kit”. That’s probably arguing too hard for the trench coat’s appeal today, but it does speak to why this style is so cocooning.
Aside from its practicality – it’s light and waterproof with deep pockets – the trench coat’s other great asset is its stylistic versatility. It’s one of the few coats styles that can easily transition from smart to casual dress – in fact, alongside a mac and overcoat, it’s one of the few coat styles that actually looks right over suiting, providing you don’t attempt to wear a formal hat too.
It shouldn’t, but it does look just as at home with a sweatshirt and jeans, in a way that seems very 1960s Parisian student. Worn buttoned up and with a big scarf and the reference is more 1980s football casuals, arguably the first style tribe to embrace the trench coat outside of formal dressing. Trench coats come in myriad colours now, but the most useful are, inevitably, in the traditional menswear shades of navy or black, or – for the trench coat at least – the definitive fawn/khaki.
The trench coat should form a good tailored fit when it’s fully done up, which is to say it should fit at the shoulders and not balloon around the body. That said, bigger men might like to avoid wearing the coat belted – it tends to draw attention to your mid-section – so much as just pulled on loosely over your jacket or jumper.
Length is an important consideration too: aim for a style that is no longer than just above your knee and no shorter than mid thigh. Trench coat fabrics are easily worked with so get your coat taken up if necessary. But don’t be too prissy about it: a trench coat tends to look better the more battered it is.
One of the two brands making the definitive trench coat, Burberry’s is replete with all the original details, but now also comes in three fits – relaxed, for easier layering, classic and slim, the latter being more of a fashion piece. With its signature gabardine made at the Burberry mill near Keighley, this trench coat is also among the more expensive. But then it’s an heirloom piece.
The mid-priced, good value option, British retailer Reiss offers outerwear that goes beyond that of the one-season wonder, and so packs in plenty of extras – a cotton shell might come with a quilted lining, neatly cut vents and a solid, suits-everyone standard fit.
Arguably the go-to brand for a well-priced version of the trench coat with much more of a fashion leaning, what you might lose in technical performance you’ll gain in a shorter, edgier cut. There are still plenty of the characterful details, from the belt to the storm flap.