Trench Warfare: The Battle to Find the Perfect Trench Coat

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Katie Holmes in NYC in 2020.

Gotham / GC Images

A trench coat is more than just the preferred piece of outerwear for leading roles in class movies. A well-made trench coat can last a lifetime, but only if you know how to shop for one. So before you drop half a paycheck on a critical investment piece, here's a brief history of the garment’s origins and evolution, as well as some expert insights on which fabrics to consider, what measurements to take, and which brands to look at before starting your search.

The Trench Coat’s War-Torn Beginnings

If there is one word that appropriately describes the trench coat’s early beginnings, it would be embattled. The garment claims many parents, among them: John Emery, whose menswear brand Aquasuctum specialized in creating outerwear from waterproof wool, and Thomas Burberry, whose invention of gabardine fabric in 1879 enabled the production of waterproof coats, while also improving mobility, breathability, and overall smell. The Tielocken coat—another of Thomas Burberry’s patented designs—is considered the predecessor to the trench coat; only employing a single button at the collar, the coat closes at the waist with a single strap and buckle fastening, a small departure from the double breasted, belted piece we know today.

As early as the mid 19th century, British soldiers were outfitted in Aquasuctum’s coats as a means of surviving the harsh Russian winters during the Crimean War. In 1901, Burberry submitted a design for a British Army officer’s raincoat to the War Office, and soon after, soldiers debuted the look in the trenches of the first World War. The coat’s style and function were designed for the battlefield, but it didn't take long before the garment was folded into everyday use, and its legacy cemented in popular culture.

From the Battlefield to the Runway: Trench Coats Go Mainstream

According to Gath A. D'Silva, the design head at The Jacket Maker, a direct-to-consumer e-commerce shop that sells custom leather goods, the earliest trench coats were built to be larger, wider, and bulkier than the silhouette we’re familiar with today. As the years progressed, designers played around with features like length, button quantity and placement, pockets, flaps, collars, lapels, and detachable hoods. But for most fans of the style, the coat’s appeal lies in its functional value, and simple but timeless cut.

The trench coat’s journey away from the European front lines and towards mainstream fashion was given a boost thanks to the garment’s inclusion in beloved film and TV projects, where it was worn by everyone from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Its bloody beginnings forgotten, the trench coat has since been classified in our cultural consciousness as a classic clothing item.

Audrey Hepburn wearing a trench coat in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Paramount Pictures / Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images

What to Look for in a Trench Coat

A good trench coat can last a lifetime, so if you intend to engage in a committed relationship with yours, D’Silva recommends that before shopping, you consider why you’re purchasing this item so you can identify what it is you’re hoping to get out of it. Asking yourself where you intend to wear the garment and how often you plan on incorporating it into your wardrobe rotation will inform what styles and fabrics you look at, and what measurements you should take.

Depending on your preferences, trench coats are available in oversized silhouettes, tailored cuts, or even as customized pieces. Customers should expect to provide their traditional measurements (shoulders, bust, upper and lower waist, as well as sleeve and coat length and width), however, if you’re shopping for a coat intended for active, daily use, D’Silva suggests that your measurements should “include a bit more ease allowance.”

Unlike the monolithic styles of yesteryear, modern trench coats come with options. Khaki, satin, and leather are some of the preferred fabric selections this season, with khaki serving as the de facto and most timeless option. For those in search of a more formal take on the coat, a long satin trench is the perfect solution to a chilly Spring evening.

Trench Coat Brands We Love

Like everything worth buying, trench coats are available at all price points, from the $12 vintage gem you find at your local Goodwill to the top-of-the-line designer garments that are built to outlive us all.

Banana Republic

Rio Bonded Trench Coat
Banana Republic Rio Bonded Trench Coat $300.00

Banana Republic's Rio Bonded Trench Coat is about as classic as they come. Made to be durable and water-resistant, this coat will more than earn its price per wear.

The Jacket Maker

Alice Brown Double Breasted Leather Coat
The Jacket Maker Alice Brown Double Breasted Leather Coat $350.00

The Jacket Marker’s double-breasted Alice coat in brown leather retails for $350 and is the perfect length for both day and night. But the company also offers customization, so you can get fancy with tailoring the fit, color, fabric, and various features to your own unique specifications.


Oversize Leather-Effect Trench
Mango Oversize Leather-Effect Trench $180.00

Vegan leather enthusiasts have a great option in Mango’s Oversize Leather-Effect Trench, which is sleek, stylish, and also sympathetic to those on a budget.


Timbs Double Breasted Trench
Aquasuctum Timbs Double Breasted Trench $587.00

If you’re in the mood to splurge, you can’t go wrong with the OG trench creators: Burberry’s iconic trench starts at $1000, but Aquasuctum’s Timbs Double Breasted Trench is available for half that price.

Wherever you decide to search for your trench coat soul mate, D’Silva says, the key when shopping for any investment piece is to base your search on “the frequency of use, function, and lifestyle of the wearer.” And of course, to remember the coat’s battle line beginnings, and fight like hell for the trench of your choosing.

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