The Vintage Trench Coat

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Rain in LA is like manna from heaven, since it seems that the state of California is perpetually on the brink of a drought.  Other than giving us some much needed water, it also gives me a reason to break out my vintage trench coat.

I think I can speak for most of us in classic menswear when I say that trench coats are badass.  Ever since Bogey wore them in his movies, this piece of outerwear has always had an inherently “old school vibe” thanks to it’s long length, full belt, and wide collar.  I even think that I wanted a trench coat before I ever thought of wearing suits; I may have to thank Inspector Gadget for that one (pics to come).   It just looks so great when it fits right and the fact that it used to be hard to find (with all the right accoutrements) really planted it as a must-have in my mind.   Plus it just looks great with good tailoring.

lot of blogs have talked about the history of the trenchcoat, so we’re not really going to get into it here.  Basically, it’s a coat that came from military design that is used in rainy weather.  Collars can be in the ulster or mac variation, there is usually a belt, and the fabric is almost always cotton or wool gabardine, in a light brown or navy color.   Because of its eternal popularity, fast-fashion has definitely co-opted the garment and made it go the way of the suit.  Most of the ones you’ll find in mall-brands are too short and too slim, both of which are terrible qualities since you want to be able to fit suiting comfortably underneath it.   Sure, you can dress it down, but if I was doing that, I’d rather just wear a completely different jacket (I can’t bring myself to wear a tee shirt and a trench coat just yet).

I have no real recommendations on brands since you can find wearable trench coats seemingly everywhere (bonus points if you’re a larger guy).  London Fog (big in the 1960s-60s) populate every thrift store in America while you can find vintage Burberry on eBay.    The latter brand is almost always credited as the inventor of the trenchcoat, but that doesn’t mean that they are the only one to look at.  Cohérence is one brand that definitely is killing it with their trenchcoats and other outerwear, doing away with slim/cropped overcoats and pushing for a the original, full silhouette of the Golden Era.  Here are some inspiration pictures from a variety of brands, that all do their own take on this classic piece of outerwear.  Note the subtle differences in design!

Cohérence at the Armoury.

Checked Incotex fabric from B & Tailor.

Arnold Wong in a vintage coat.

Another Cohérence, in a belted mac variation.

The Permanent Style trench coat.

1930’s trench coats!

40’s trench coat.

Alex Hills, cutter at Dege & Skinner on Saville Row, rocking a great suited + trench coat ensemble.  The fedora is a practical accessory here.

As you can see, classic designs don’t go out of style and are completely functional.  I just don’t see how a “fashion-y” one is supposed to help you battle the elements.

My Vintage 1950’s Trench Coat

I’m going to admit that I didn’t really own a trench coat until last year.  Whenever it rained, I got away by wearing a Calvin Klein overcoat, gloves, and an umbrella. However, I learned the hardway that wet overcoats become soggy, heavy, and just uncomfortable.  It took a random visit to Joyride (on one of the rainiest days of the year) for me to finally get one.  The rain that day was pouring and my short “overcoat” wasn’t doing me any justice.  Luckily for Spencer and I (it was a random hang/photoshoot for this article), Joyride was selling some vintage trenchcoats, which happened to be right in our size.  Spencer picked up a 1940’s wool gabardine one while I ended up with this one:

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This wrinkled piece of cotton is a 1950’s trench coat.  It’s got the classic DB closure, gun stock flap on the upper right chest, epaulets, and an ulster collar, which allows the neck to be closed up if needed.  It’s not in the best condition (as the collar and cuffs are fraying) but it was worth it for the rain.

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It’s butterfly lined, as it really is supposed to be a shell of cotton to protect you from the rain.  I know that other trenchcoats can have full cotton, wool, or polyester lining but I think that makes the coat heavier; those models are probably more suited for places where you get cold rain.  Living in California where rainy days seldom drop below 55F, I just want a long coat to repel the rain that I can shed immediately when I walk inside.

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Adding to the coat’s shell qualities, you can see that the pocket isn’t a “real” pocket.  The slit leads into a small pouch, which you can use to hold stuff if you really want to (I just use it as a hand warmer).  More interestingly, is the fact that you can actually use this opening to get to your main layer of clothing.  It’s much better than having to reach inside your breast pocket (or undo your belt/buttons) since it leads right to where my jacket pocket is.

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Old labels are cool.

It sits in my closet since I don’t really get a chance to wear it.  Either the rain comes unexpectedly (I’m stupid and I don’t usually look at weather forecasts) or I just wear another jacket because I don’t want to wear a trenchcoat with jeans and sneakers.

Luckily it rained this past week here in LA (two whole days worth!) and it was time to break out the coat.

Wearing the Trench Coat

Honestly,  I wasn’t planning on doing a post/shoot on this outfit.  While I like rainy day fashion, I really hate the actual rain since it makes it harder to drive (making my commute super long) and forces me to protect all the shit I bring with me on a daily basis (laptop, camera, batteries, etc).  I asked Spencer for some inspiration for a slouchy, lazy outfit to just pass the day away, and he obliged; in the end, I really liked what I wore and decided to shoot the outfit during a lull in the rain.  It made for some cool pictures!

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I felt like this outfit was pretty good in regards for a rain attire.  Brown has a huge presence in my wardrobe,  and its definitely apparent here with the brown fedora, the brown fair isle peaking out, and the brown suede boots.  Obviously suede isn’t really the best for rain, but these boots were the only ones that were work appropriate; I also wouldn’t mind if they loosened up with the humidity, since they are a little snug after I put in an insole to help fill out the space.

The trench coat fits like it should: roomy so you can wear tailoring underneath and tastefully long in the sleeves and length for added protection.  Cropped anything doesn’t do you any favors in the rain.  Compared to the other trench coats we saw earlier, I like that mine is a big more minimalistic.  There aren’t as many clasps or flaps as the Cohérence or Permanent Style models.  It probably means that my coat was a cheap one, meant for regular joes to literally throw on when it rained; it’s not a cool fashion piece in the slightest.  But that’s what I like about it!

Though I will say that I would’ve loved to have some crazy wide lapels.  The fact that mine are fairly small point to how much later the garment is, when compared to the designs of the 1930s-40s.  If you recall in our guide to vintage style, lapels got narrower after the 1940s and only widened in the late 60s and 70s.

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Some nit picky notes. Even though the jacket definitely fits (unfastened, it’s huge), the belt is really tiny.  It makes sense, since most Americans were a lot skinnier back in those days, and I’m far from the skinniest guy out there.  A good trench coat would have a belt with a lot of slack, so you can tie it up with as much sprezzatura as you’d like.

Since I didn’t have that slack, I just fastened the belt and an admittedly sloppy way.  Eh, who cares; it’s fucking raining!

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Underneath the trench coat, I dressed for warmth. I was suffering from a cold during that day, so I wanted to amek sure that I was comfortable at work!  Unfortunately the repp tie and shirt aren’t really visible, but the main pieces of the outfit was my brown Brooks Brothers sack jacket and my fair isle J. Crew sweater, last seen on the blog almost two years ago! 

I would definitely prefer a v-neck fair isle since it allows you to see the shirt and tie, but the crew neck works well for casual outfits (think denim and boots).  Ideally, my fair isle sweater would be like the sweater I wore to Benny’s Christmas party:  short length (for high rise trousers), trimmer fit, and wide ribbing at the hem.

Conclusion

This outfit is one of my favorites, even though it’s less sartorial and a bit more understated than my normal attire.  I felt like wearing a suit with  a trench coat was a little too try hard, especially if it’s raining hard. Whenever there’s some intense weather, I just wanna wear something slouchy that allows me to feel comfortable and still look stylish.  Super sartorial looks don’t fall into that, no matter how big the temptation is to do the classic “dapper pairing” of a suit and a trench coat.  I think that my outfit accomplished that!  Though the fedora definitely makes it look pretty campy, it’s still perfectly practical given the weather.  Won’t deny that a ball cap is the “safer” choice though!

Anyway, trench coats are great.  They’re a practical purchase for anyone who likes to wear tailored clothing and lives in a place where it rains.  Obviously there are other alternatives, like waxed Barbour-esque jackets or field jackets,  but those work more with casual attire (but can still work with tailoring) and are obviously shorter in length than the classic trench coat.

When shopping for your trench coat, there are a bunch of brands that make some great stuff.  Buying new from Cohérence, Permanent Style, or Burberry will be expensive, so I definitely recommend buying second hand, whether that’s on Grailed, LuxeSwap, or eBay.  Vintage Burberry and Aquascutum are good to look out for on eBay, as they are the premier manufacturers of trench coats for a long time.

Since most of us here are money conscious, I would argue that most vintage ones you’ll find at eBay or a vintage store are pretty great.  General designs and cuts haven’t changed (other than the fact that modern ones are cropped) while smaller details like lapels and buttoning definitely depend on the era. For example, you may want to look at the 1930s-40s or the 1970’s if you want that wide collar.

Make sure that you pay attention to measurements and details when looking around. Inspect it if you can, because you won’t want one that’s falling apart and can’t hold up in the rain.  Fabrics definitely matter, perhaps much more than design, as they play into how it will interact in the elements.  I couldn’t photograph Spencer’s 1940’s coat, but his was quite heavy, as it contained shoulder padding and was made from a hefty twilled wool gabardine.  It still did a great job, but the wet vintage wool definitely had a weird smell; it also took a while to completely dry out.  Mine on the hand is 100% cotton and a light shell, meant to just repel water.  It dries fairly quickly and can be balled up, ready to pack for emergencies!

It was a great purchase that I’m sure will last me a few more wears (fingers crossed it doesn’t fall apart).  I’m glad that there was a lull in the heavy rain, since it allowed me a chance to photograph it!  I always thought it was weird when other bloggers take pictures in a trench coat during a sunny day.

Always a pleasure,

Ethan W. 

Street x Sprezza

@ethanmwong 

Photography by Ethan’s Tripod 

 

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2 comments

  1. Vig · January 12

    Great article! Had a couple questions. Why are traditional trench coats made of cotton? Doesn’t cotton get soaking wet in the rain? Are there any designers that make them in a more waterproof material, with the classic styling?

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  2. Michael Nevin · January 14

    From a BBC article: “Thomas Burberry patented his own water-repellent fabric, gabardine, a tightly woven twill weave, in 1879. He was reportedly inspired by the weatherproof linen smocks worn by English shepherds and farmers . . . ” I would add that the cape over the shoulder blades and a lining somewhat separated from the body of the coat keeps the wearer dry. Most also come with a wool liner – another layer from the elements. I just bought my vintage trench at thrift store, an Eagle Clothes brand made in Poland; wore it in the rain and was dry the whole time. I was also impressed by the breathability of the coat and how quickly it dried out out when not worn.

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