There are few sartorial sights as quintessentially British as that of a handsome, impeccably made Burberry trench coat protecting its owner against the drizzle of a London winter – perhaps when he or she is making a dash up the regency splendour of Regent Street. This classic piece of clothing is woven into the fabric of British history and culture, has played a part in some of the country’s most pivotal moments and supports a British manufacturing industry that keeps communities alive.
The trench coat has appeared in various reincarnations under current Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey – nipped, tucked and reworked with beads, fringing, see-through fabrics and painterly splashes – but it has remained a solid style investment for over 100 years.
The trench has sheltered some impressively iconic figures, from Humphrey Bogart and Winston Churchill to Audrey Hepburn and Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and is an enduring part of both Burberry’s and Britain’s style history. In 1856 Thomas Burberry, a draper’s apprentice, set about launching an outdoors clothing company and found his clothes swiftly enlisted for military purposes.
In 1912, Burberry patented a long coat called the Tielocken, which would later go on to be called the trench coat, designed to protect army and naval officers against Britain’s harsh weather. These officers carried on wearing the coat off-duty. Stylistic adjustments were made to suit its military purpose – epaulettes were added to carry military badges and, according to fashion folklore, military items were attached to the D-shaped belt buckle.
The Burberry trench is unique because of the fabric innovation at its heart. Thomas Burberry is credited with the invention of gabardine, the tightly woven cloth that the trench was traditionally made from. Until gabardine appeared, fabrics had to be waxed or rubberised to repel water, making them heavy and ungainly. By increasing density and thread count, Burberry created a fabric that allowed ventilation but was robust enough to repel water – a new direction for outerwear.
As well as outfitting British people for generations, the trench has also kept many skilled workers in employment in the UK. Burberry trench coats are made in Castleford in the north of England, by craftspeople who combine traditional skills with modern technology. The gabardine fabric is woven here, checked by eye to ensure that the cloth is flawless.
It takes around three weeks to make one coat, with over 100 steps involved. One trench coat collar is so complex that craftsmen must train for a year to learn how to stitch this piece alone, to ensure it sits on the neck in a fluid, easy manner. The back pleat and detailing of the cuffs and straps are handcut and handcrafted; the line of the back pleat remains the same as it did when the coat was worn for horse riding, to allow movement and ventilation.
Whether you choose classic caramel with Burberry’s instantly recognisable checked lining or a high-shine metallic version, when you slip on a Burberry trench coat you’re wearing a piece of British history and craft expertise.