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A Cultural History of the Trench Coat

From the hell of the trenches to the very different hell of early 1990s comic books, it’s been a billowing icon of macho cool for more than a century

The dark alleyways with ever-present smoke; the slow, sauntering manner of a world-weary Robert Stack: These were the things that set the stage for that classic true-crime series Unsolved Mysteries. But it was Stack’s costume, the rumpled trench coat synonymous with the hard-boiled detective, that tied the whole thing together. Something about that coat made the steely look in Stack’s eyes all that more steely, and it made the audience feel like they themselves could help find that missing person, or alien, or ghost, or missing alien ghost, or whatever other mystery needed solving that week.

But the gritty detective is just one of several ideal models for the trench coat. It’s also the go-to attire for businessmen, gangsters, military men, a plethora of comic book characters, brooding existentialists, time-displaced soldiers, the occasional 1980s vampire, and of course, flashers. Since its creation more than 100 years ago, the trench coat has meant many things to many people, but while some iterations were practical — it is, after all, an ankle-length raincoat — most of these incarnations have been based around it either looking cool, or hoping it looked cool. Again, this is kind of surprising when you consider the fact that everything about a trench coat is 100 percent utilitarian.

Two companies lay claim to the invention of the trench coat, and it’s never really been officially decided who deserves the credit. Both Burberry and Aquascutum had important ties to the British military by the time World War I rolled around, and when a lightweight, waterproof long coat was needed to navigate the muddy trenches of The Great War, each contributed their own versions. While long coats for military men existed prior to this, they were much longer and heavier, so when warfare shifted from fighting in big fields to trench warfare, the trench coat (for that’s how it got its name) became a necessity.

As for its utilitarianism, “there’s nothing on it that’s just for looks. Even the extra flap on the back is a rain shield,” fashion historian Mary Ann Ferro told Racked in their 2017 piece on the garment. As for all those buckles and straps on the shoulders and sleeves, “they were used for holding the straps for map cases as well as military insignia,” explains Jennifer Grayer Moore, a design historian at the Pratt Institute.

The big problem with the trench coat back then is that it was a luxury item, granted only to British officers, so it made them stick out like a sore thumb. According to The Smithsonian, the trench coat is even blamed for an officer shortage during World War I, as the enemies knew who the most important man to target was when sniping into the opposing trench.

As ever, the U.S. entered the first World War late in the game in 1917, but after only a couple of months, we were already adopting the trench coat for our own officers. Civilian men and women back at home in Allied countries also began wearing them, which had less to do with style and more to do with the simple fact of missing their loved ones at the front. As The Smithsonian explains, the word “trench” was thrown around a lot during that time, as marketers would slap it on just about any product in order to sell it to people wanting a connection to their men fighting overseas. And so, far from being instantly cool, the first public connotations with the trench coat were born out of patriotism and solidarity.

Following the war, many officers were allowed to keep their trench coats, and due to their lightweight, waterproof nature, they became a part of a man’s regular wardrobe. Since it was only worn by officers, it also came to represent a certain level of stature, particularly in the U.K. where generally only the upper class served in the higher ranks: “There’s a certain aristocratic feel to the trench coat,” Moore tells me.

Between the wars, the trench coat took on a new meaning. In the media, it found life as the sartorial choice for spies, private detectives and the like. As fashion historian Valerie Steele told The Smithsonian, “[The trench coat] does have a sense of kind of world-weariness, like it’s seen all kinds of things.” Fine examples of this seen-some-shit tough guy include Dick Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. And while he wasn’t playing a detective as such, Bogart plays a thoroughly world-weary guy in 1942’s Casablanca, where he would don a trench coat in one of cinema’s most iconic scenes of all time.

These guys would help inform the looks of every seen-it-all, put-upon hero from James Bond and Rick Deckard to Kojak, Columbo and Dr. Who’s Doctor (not to mention Robert Stack’s persona on Unsolved Mysteries). It was such a staple that it was already being parodied as early as 1963 by Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, in the Pink Panther films.

It wasn’t just the guys trying to fight crime who wore them, either: Those on the other side of the law were also wearing every manner of trench coats, overcoats and other long coats. While part of this was simply the nature of the “dapper dons” of yesteryear, these coats also provided the very practical function of concealment. “It has the advantage of being this big loose thing where no one knows what’s going on underneath it,” says Moore. For gangsters, this meant hiding everything from baseball bats to tommy guns in those voluminous folds.

They weren’t the only lawbreakers who became emblematic of the trench coat, of course: Streakers, too, picked it as their attire of choice, also due to its length and level of concealment. While it seems that the identity of the first-ever trench-coat flasher is lost to history — much like the first guy to photocopy his ass — it’s worth noting that the first U.S. arrest for this kind of thing took place in 1874, and as we learned from our complete history of flashing, the practice goes back to at least ancient Greece (and really, what is a trench coat if not an updated toga?).

It can be assumed that the first trench-coat flasher may have struck sometime after World War II, as this was when the garment became a more common piece of attire for many men and women. During the Second World War, the trench coat’s popularity surged again as it was put back into practical use on the battlefield. Additionally, the fabric of khaki was widely used in wartime as it blended in with sandy terrains, and after the war, khaki became a more common fabric for civilians. It was a union that would see the trench coat surge to new heights, becoming a common garment among businessmen, bankers and other white-collar professions.

Before its inevitable descent, the 1980s and early 1990s saw one last big surge for the trench coat (and not only because Prince donned a purple one). Trench coats quickly became a big visual element in the realm of comic books, taking on all the cool visual aesthetics of a cape, without actually being a cape. The common trope of the badass longcoat could be found on a great number of comic-book characters, including the likes of John Constantine, Hellboy, Rorschach, Gambit, the Punisher, Multiple Man, Grifter, the Question, Midnighter, and well, you get the idea. Even Batman would ditch his cape on occasion to wear a sweet-ass bat-trench instead.

Much like the streakers and gangsters, other comic book characters — like Fantastic Four’s The Thing and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — have been known to wear trench coats to disguise their bizarre appearances. That said, the trench coat as a disguise usually comes off as someone conspicuously trying to hide something instead of an actual disguise, much like the old joke of kids stacking themselves on top of each other in a trench coat in order to sneak into an R-rated movie.

By the 1990s, though, as stylist Todd Hanshaw explains, the popularity of trench coats started to decline along with the overall formality of dressing. While a breakdown in the codes and standards of dress took place all throughout the 20th century, in the Post-Reagan era, these rules eroded even more. In their place, people began opting for coats that more specifically fit their geographic needs — trench coats tended to be “a bit too light for the cold and a bit too heavy for when its warm,” Hanshaw explains.

Come the year 1999, however, trench coats would take on a new and terribly tragic connotation. Early in the year, it might have seemed like a revival was on the way, especially for black trench coats: On March 31, 1999, The Matrix was released in theaters, and Keanu Reeves’ Neo donned a badass black trench that was the envy of cyber-goths everywhere. Just a few weeks later, though, the Columbine shooting happened, and one of the two shooters wore a black trench coat. This led to many schools banning trench coats, particularly after false reports that the shooters were part of something called the “Trench Coat Mafia” (a name which was simply used by a rebellious band of friends in the same school — as it turned out, most of the members of this group had already graduated by 1999, and the two shooters were never within that circle of friends).

By the new millennium, with the connotation between black trench coats and tragedy persisting, the general decline of the garment continued. Nowadays, Hanshaw explains, it’s still got a very conservative look to it, so while you may see them down on Wall Street, not too many people wear them today.

So does this mean that the trench coat might go away forever someday? Probably not. Moore explains that these kinds of things tend to be cyclical: In women’s fashion, trench coats go in and out of popularity, and as for men, while there are certainly highs and lows, as with the suit, they’re a staple of men’s style and likely never going to completely vanish.

Who knows, with the current popularity of comic book films, maybe we’ll even see a resurgence by the end of the decade. Dick Tracy is returning to comics this year; a new Hellboy film is on its way; Star Lord wears a trench coat in Guardians of the Galaxy; and even one of the Spider-men wears one in the kid-friendly superhero stoner movie, Into the Spiderverse.

Perhaps then we’re already in the early stages of a trench-coat revival and we don’t even know it. We can only assume the confirmation will finally come once Netflix debuts its reboot of Unsolved Mysteries. Because come on — with this show, it’s trench coat or GTFO.