When it comes to autumnal weather, the raincoat totally claims its importance in the wardrobe of the functionality. Over time it experienced lots of stylistic changes and even now, in the 21st century its close link with historical background have been retained. It's hard to believe that raincoat with waterproof material was created already in the first half of the 19th century! More correctly, significant developments were made to develop, evolve and to transform it.
Interesting is the connection of a raincoat with trench-coat and its derivatives ... Actually the raincoat was devised from the late 19th century trench-coat. Hereafter the raincoat was developed as a waterproof garment during the 20th century. It was worn as a unisex style wardrobe item and therefore is considered as a good example of military style clothing. Raincoat version with epaulets and a double yoke at the shoulders were its characteristic features. In addition to them, raincoat was characterized by a collar turned up and loosely belted. Such a raincoat is iconic for Hollywood film stars of the 1930's. [1.] This fashion endured into the 1980's and still a typical raincoat is recognizable by these details.
And yet, there is no raincoat, no matter how similar to trench-coat it would be, - is not referred to as raincoat unless it is made of waterproof material. Therefore, the process of creating this material should be considered as one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind.
Invention Of The Waterproof Material
During the early part of the 19th century there had been many attempts to make a waterproof fabric. In the early 1820's Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh discovered the actual method by using a tarpaulin material. He described his patented material as "'India rubber cloth," whereby the texture of hemp, flax, wool, cotton, and silk, and also leather, paper, and other substances may be rendered impervious to water and air. It was made as a "sandwich" of two pieces of material surrounding a core of rubber softened by naptha. [5.]
That way, the Mackintosh or raincoat was first sold in 1824 and it was made of rubberised fabric. [7.]
Although it has been claimed that the material actually was invented by the surgeon James Syme, but then copied and patented by Charles Macintosh. [7.] Syme's method of creating the solvent from coal tar was published in Thomson's Annals of Philosophy in 1818. [ Thomson T., Phillips R. & Brayley E. (1818) The Annals of Philosophy, Vol. 12. ] This paper also describes the dissolution of natural rubber in naphtha. The essence of Macintosh's process was the sandwiching of an impermeable layer of a solution of rubber in naphtha (derived from tar) between two layers of fabric. Syme did not propose the sandwich idea and his paper did not mention waterproofing. [7.]
Actually it was an old idea to waterproof clothing items with rubber and as such was was practiced by Aztecs, who impregnated fabric with latex. [7.]
In the 19th century it was not just a Macintosh who was interested in creating impregnated material. In 1830 Macintosh's company merged with the clothing company of Thomas Hancock in Manchester. Hancock had also been experimenting with rubber coated fabrics since 1819. Thanks to these efforts the production of waterproof coats soon became widespread, especially in the UK. Every type of coat was produced with rubberized material. Among them was a riding coat and military coats supplied to the British Army, British railways, and UK police forces. [7.]
However, in these coats, there was also a problem with smell, stiffness, and a tendency to melt in hot weather. Hancock worked with improvement of his waterproof materials and fabrics, patenting a method for vulcanising rubber. It happened in 1843 and solved many of the problems with early waterproof garments.
[7.] The legend of Hancoc's company continued also during the 19th
and 20th centuries. In 1925 the company was taken over by Dunlop Rubber. [7.]
Many stories also relate to other classic raincoat details. Macintosh once warned tailors that the coats sewn from this material would leak because of needle holes, but the "India rubber cloth" was deemed such a success that tailors hurried to try to use it nevertheless. [5.]
After some time Macintosh opened his own shops to make and sell coats with properly waterproofed seams in order to protect his reputation. His tartan-lined rubber cloth coat with fully sealed seams remains the iconic raincoat. However, because temperature always rises in the rain and because rubberized cloth is nonporous, the raincoats were liable to make the body perspire when worn. London manufacturer George Spill discovered a solution to this by inserting metal eyelets under the armpits; such eyelets continue to be used in many raincoats. [5.]
However, with these experiments and new discoveries, nothing has yet come to an end.
From 'Water-Shield' to Trench-Coat
The first raincoats were created by the firm of Aquascutum that was established in 1851 as a tailor's shop in London, England. The word "aquascutum" comes from the Latin, literally 'water-shield'. Those were among the first showerproof coats to be made of wool and were worn by British soldiers in the trenches during World War I. [1.] By this also began the history of trench-coat.
Aquascutum coats were ankle-length with a military appearance, that was emphasized with epaulets and brass rings on the belt. It was a style that has remained popular.
In the time period between the wars, while supplying coats for the military, the company also sold fashionable showerproof coats for men and women who required suitable clothes for their increasingly active, outdoor lives. [1.] During the early 1950's Aquascutum raincoats were made exclusively from Wyncol D.711, - a cotton and nylon poplin fabric. In 1955, a cotton gabardine in iridescent shades was introduced. Up to this point, rainwear had been made mainly in grey, blue and beige. These new coats were lined with with satin and woven fabrics of different, mainly geometric patterns. [1.]
During the 1976-77 season, the so called 'Club-Check' was introduced as a lining for men's raincoats. [ 1.]
The history of classical raincoat is inextricably linked with the development of trench-coat, as well as the development of waterproof materials. The name of Thomas Burberry is definitely important here.
Thomas Burberry was born in 1835, in Dorking, Surrey, England. He trained as an apprentice to a draper. In 1856 he opened his own drapery business, T. Burberry & Sons, in Basingstoke, Hampshire. [1.] During that time, in collaboration with the owner of a cotton mill, he produced a waterproof coat based on the close weave and loose style of an agricultural smock. The cotton cloth was called gabardine and it was proofed in the yarn before weaving, then closely woven and proofed again. [1.]
In 1891 Burberry established a wholesale business in London. He specialized in making gabardine clothes for active leisure pursuits and for the sports field. [1.]
In 1902 Burberry established 'Gabardine'as a trademark and in 1909 'The Burberry' was registered as a trademark for the company's coats. [1.]
During World War I, Thomas Burberry devised a weatherproof coat for the officers in the trenches, made of a fine-twilled cotton gabardine that was put through a chemical process to repel water while allowing the fabric to breathe. The "trench coat" was not totally waterproof, but was effectively water resistant under most weather conditions and the raglan sleeves, which allow for ease of movement, as well as the gabardine fabric used, became the norm for waterproof coats of later years. [5.] The military style model of the Burberry became known as the trench-coat - one of the most legendary garments in fashion history of the 20th century. It has a deep back yoke, epaulets, buckled cuff straps, a button-down storm flap on one shoulder, and storm pockets. Metal "D-shape" rings on belts were intended for the attachment of military accouterments. [1.]
After the war, the trench-coat was absorbed into civilian life. It's still topical and timeless.
References & Further Reading:
1. O'Hara Callan, G. The Thames & Hudson Dictionary Of Fashion And Fashion Designers. - Thames & Hudson, London, 1998.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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