Uncle John knows pretty much everything—and if he doesn’t, he heads his massive research library, or puts one of his many associates on the case. So go ahead: In the comments below, ask Uncle John anything. (And if we answer your question sometime, we’ll send you a free book!) This week’s question comes from reader Matthew P., who asks…
How did trench coats get their name? Were they really used for trenches at one time?
When you see a trench coat, you probably don’t think of World War I, the war known for its bloody, muddy “trench warfare.” But long before Humphrey Bogart and other classic movie stars made them the unofficial clothing of detectives and mystery men, the trench coat really did originate during World War I.
A trench coat is essentially a long, fabric-made raincoat that covers the body from neck to heel. They’re generally tan or beige, include belt loops and a belt, have ten-buttons, and are double breasted. The trench coat hasn’t changed all that much in the past century.
In the 19th century, British and French troops commonly wore serge coats – thick, woven, twill-like coats. They were hot, heavy, and didn’t so much deflect moisture so much as absorb it. The British army adopted trench coats, likely following a design submitted by Thomas Burberry at the turn of the 20th century. The key to Burberry’s design: a fabric of his own invention called gabardine, a predecessor to the fabrics used to make modern-day pants like khakis, or chinos. Unlike serge, gabardine was so tightly woven that it effectively deflected the heavy rains.
They weren’t standard issue – an optional item available to officers only, and they had to pay out of pocket for them. By World War II, the design and materials had spread around the world, and on both sides. But certainly nobody made the trench coat a must-have piece of stylish fashion than Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.