The Iconic Appeal of a Burberry Trench Coat

What’s made the Burberry trench such an icon? Its evolution and the incredible craftsmanship behind it

TO OUR 21st century eyes, the Burberry trench has become an object to covet – a status symbol almost. And how natural it is to associate the item with British stars, especially when it has been seen frequently draped on model Kate Moss, actress Emma Watson and businesswoman Victoria Beckham. In fact, it has become a uniform of sorts for celebs instead of military officers for whom the garment was originally intended when it was first created in the 1870s. As the coat gained traction among the fashion set in the new millennium, Christopher Bailey designed iterations in every material, colour and silhouette imaginable. The result: form became increasingly favoured over function.

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Emma Watson in Burberry's Spring/Summer 2010 ad campaign

But things have changed. For the February 2017 collection, the trench has been redesigned into something notably light and loose, yet structured. It retains features that hark back to its military beginnings: epaulettes, shoulder ornaments indicating rank, a waterproof storm shield, a D-ring belt to attach items (this was allegedly for fastening water bottles or guns), and back pleats to allow ease of movement (this was particularly important when running or riding on horseback). 

The new design also reflects the coat’s lesser-known roots as a performance garment, something that the description from a 1908 Burberry advertisement illustrated perfectly: “Absolute freedom for all limb movements. Extra durability in wear. Perfect air-porousness and almost negligible weight. An especially smart and sportsmanlike appearance. Practical impermeability to wet, cold winds.” 

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A model wears the tropical gabardine asymmetrical coat at the February 2017 show.

Indeed, the trench’s excellence as a performance garment has been testified by many historic legends: Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, wore Burberry anoraks (also made of gabardine, the standard material of the trench coat) to keep him warm in the polar region, where temperatures dipped to -42°C. British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his fellow travellers also wore them during their Antarctic expedition. Aviators Betty Greene (the first woman to fly across the Andes Mountains) and Arthur Clouston wore flying suits on their record-breaking flight from London to Cape Town, in a plane christened The Burberry because the brand funded the flight and clothing.

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Sir Ernest Shackleton wearing the Burberry anorak, as portrayed by actor Dominic West in the trailer of The Tale of Thomas Burberry.

But how could cotton, a natural fibre and material associated with the summer, protect its wearer in harsh conditions all year? The answer lies in a rigid methodical treatment devised by Thomas Burberry, which elevates cotton into the material we now know as gabardine. Patented in 1879, the fabric, which is still manufactured at the Burberry factory in Castleford, consists of tightly-woven cotton fibres that are individually waterproofed, as opposed to the finished garment undergoing that process. As a result, the brand’s 1908 advertisement rings true even now: “Rain runs off like dew from a leaf. Hooks will not penetrate beyond the barb. Self-ventilating: never hot, never cold.” This method was ground-breaking at a time when competitors rubberised finished garments, making them impermeable, heavier and thus less comfortable. 


Burberry’s gabardine is also perfect for the fluid trench coat, which was designed with “plenty of leg room for running or climbing in and out of trenches”. Producing the garment itself involves 100 individual manufacturing processes, one of the most intricate being the stitching of the collar. More than 180 stitches are hand-placed to ensure that the collar sits perfectly on the neck, a complicated process that requires workers to undergo a year’s training before they can execute it.

Another process that has the word “precision” written all over it sees the coat being lined with the signature Burberry check in a bias positioning that ensures the lines of the check meet at precisely 45°.


Right: A newspaper advertisement of the Burberry trench coat from 1908.

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A factory worker overseas a loom weaving honey-coloured gabardine.
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Gabardine being tested for water-repellency. Multiple shower heads spray water and a machine rubs the back of the fabric to simulate a wearer’s flexing.
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Yarn is transferred from spools onto beams in a process called warping, to ensure threads are wound at the same length and tension.

It’s one thing for a brand to have a rich backstory but another for its designs to be of cultural significance time and time again. While we can appreciate the rigorously-crafted trench for the amount of detail and craftsmanship that goes into it, the delight really lies in its impressive stories. It’s no wonder the humble garment has been sported by everyone from explorers and military officers to the British elite and international A-listers.

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Fall/Winter 2013
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Spring/Summer 2014
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Fall/Winter 2016
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February 2017

This article first appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of L'Officiel Singapore (out now on Magzter and newsstands). Click here to subscribe.

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