Fashion and History: The Burberry Trench Coat and the Representation of Masculinity in World War I

by Olivia Jastrzebski

Clothing of any variety had been used as a method to display status, especially in the military. They also document the available materials, technological advancements, and public demands in design, form, and function of the time. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution assisted in the multiplicity of garment creation, construction, and innovation of practical and comfortable fashion, functionalities which were then adopted for the use of war. 

Figure 1 shows a man standing with his back towards the viewer, holding a pair of binoculars to scout or observe the surrounding scenery. However, the focus is not upon the man specifically, instead it shows off the distinctive drape of the trench coat. It stands out, forcing the eye to enjoy the photo for the sake of fashion. For some viewers, the sight of this trench coat might perhaps also prompt a sense of nationalistic pride, as the image suggests a civilian donning the trench coat is transformed into a soldier for his country. The overall construction and development of the garment have a deeply rich history.

However, Burberry as a company had started out as a new form of utility and sportswear, before expanding into the world of military use. The origins of the Burberry company started with the creation of gabardine in 1879 and the famed Tielocken coat in 1912. Known for being worn by people such as Sir Ernest Shackleton and later by Lord Kitchener, this coat became synonymous with heroism, Britishness, and high fashion. Even in Australia, the image of a Burberry coat held strong patriotic emotions. Examining advertisements during the pre-war period from The Bulletin, the size and placement of the image were smaller and less impactful than one on the eve of war, containing a full-page spread that adapted to the necessity of Burberry attire.

Analysing the garment in Figure 1 can demonstrate how the change of technology had been so intricately influential to changing fashions, and how it affected the way men had spent their money on clothing. Military uniforms had always been used as a way to display status, provide protection from the elements, and act as identifiable tools to distinguish friend from foe. Form and function had always been relevant when considering the concept and construction of military garments, but none more so during the early twentieth century due to the context of the First World War, where military garments such as the greatcoat and the trench were not only used for protection but also used for fashion, sporting attire, and for expeditions.

The Industrial Revolution had introduced new methods of manufacturing, with the creation of a close weave fabric called gabardine in 1879. This new fabric encouraged how fashion would have to adapt for new technology, munitions, and weather, and had been used to assist in sheltering the wearer from harsh conditions while being far more comfortable than older competitive brands. Other additions to the innovation of the trench coat construction had been the practical elements including epaulettes, D-ring belts used to carry munitions, and the gun flap that provided extra protection from extreme rainfall. All of these features of the trench coat underline the fact that it was designed for military use, with trench warfare in mind. The British company Burberry, with its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, uniquely made the outstanding fabric gabardine. With properties that could withstand and insulate against harsh weather conditions, this iconic tartan had been created with a lightweight fabric that was far superior to any other brand in the market due to its durability and for being weatherproof without suffocating the wearer’s skin.

Other improvements in the clothing industry had also seen advancement in how military uniforms and attire were designed and produced. Colouring of early twentieth-century military attire is significantly important. Khaki, with its origins in India, gained popularity due to the remarkable ability to camouflage. This was a new concept, as military uniforms from preceding wars had valued national colours and other varied regalias, which were not considered useful in the new style of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One.  Khaki represented a new style of warfare. It was designed for blending into the surrounding environment and at times had been used to display status, thus it became a form of codifying men’s fashion and style whilst acting as an authority to the behaviour of gentlemanliness and the future of the fashion industry. This was further assisted through the use of Burberry advertisements during the pre-war and wartime periods.

Noting that Australia was still intrinsically linked with the British Empire in the early twentieth century, it is worth examining Australian Burberry advertisements from the pre-war and wartime periods. These advertisements suggest a strong presence of British cultural, behavioural and gender norms. We might read these ads as aimed at enforcing a patriotic view in regards to what could and should be worn. In fact, the British War Office had issued a decree that encouraged the use of the Burberry brand in 1900. These advertisements served to codify a particular masculine behaviour and aesthetic, and included motifs that effectively amounted to propaganda enjoining men to fight for their country or empire. 

However, not all countries had used the Burberry trench coat for a positive and patriotic light. For example, in Ireland the trench coat had also been utilised on both sides of the conflict, which caused a change in the message of the garment. Instead of British patriotism, for some, it would have incited feelings of fear and anxiety due to republicanism and the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the Auxiliary force. Exchanging the representation from patriotic hero, to the conflict in Ireland would have instilled a form of public fear when the coat was worn.

Examining the purpose of the coat, we find an emphasis on function and form together. With the addition of camouflage and synthesis of fabrics, the Burberry trench coat was meant to last. Technological advancement in fashion seemingly coincided with the imperatives of war and changes in the nature of warfare. The history of this garment shows us that form and function are not mutually exclusive and can work in conjunction, especially when there is the technology available. An overall extension of the creation of the coat manifested itself into British cultural life, therefore influencing how and when it was used. In the pre-war time, the trench coat was a message of hardship and endurance; during the war, it became the face of patriotism, enabling and marking the change from civilian into hero.


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