Not-So Rank and File
Part 1 of our Series on Outerwear Icons every gentleman should own.
Very few things in life can be considered both timeless and cool. It’s one of those tragic facts of existence; right up there with Santa being fake, and dragons a sham. And yet, once in a long while, if you are very lucky, all that traditional wisdom can be thrown out the window and you wind up with something awesome and ageless.
This is exactly where trench coats and leather jackets fit in. If your wardrobe doesn’t include these, well, man what are you waiting for? When people throw around the term “investment piece,” this is what they’re talking about. There’s a reason why your dad and granddad are each rocking the exact same item, and it goes back decades.
In the Trenches
The trench dates back to the late 19th century – one of those instances where materials innovation pre-dated style. Gabardine was a technological breakthrough that allowed for weatherproof-yet-breathable pieces. The trench style itself, however, came with the onset of World War I. British and French troops at the frontlines benefited from the lightweight and wholly protective garment. The cut permitted soldiers to run and climb in and out of the trenches with ease, and the removable sheepskin lining was an elegant solution for keeping out gusts. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that soldiers hung on to the garment post-war, when its popularity among civilians took off almost immediately.
By the Second World War, the coat had been picked up by armies across the globe, and a spate of films featuring be-trenched fellows (think Bogie in Casablanca and Alain Delon in Le Samurai) ensured the coat remained in public consciousness. And while fashion magazines every few years herald ‘the return of the trench’, in truth, its popularity has remained virtually unabated in nearly a century.
The leather jacket has a similarly army-entwined history. Incidentally, when we talk leather here, we’re really talking bombers and motorcycles. Think Brando, think Dean, think the Ramones. And lets pretend that 3/4 length phase popularized by The Matrix never happened.
Leather jackets date back to World War I, when Britain’s Royal Flying Corp issued them to pilots to protect them from the rough weather they were likely to encounter in their open cockpits. Those flight jackets were distant cousins of the bomber to come a decade later, but included protective collars, and tight cuffs and waists to keep out the wind. In the 1920s, the classic bomber was designed and supplied en masse to the RAF during the Second World War.
Almost concurrently, the motorcycle jacket in its current iteration appeared on the scene in the 1920s. As motorcycling gained in popularity, the coats grew more visible, but it wasn’t until Marlon Brando donned one in 1953′s The Wild One that they took off in the mainstream. Cut ahead to Rebel Without a Cause, Happy Days, Grease, move from the punk movement to the runway, and you’ll notice the coat has managed to stay the garment of choice for some seriously diverse groups.
As for the bomber, the classic sheepskin collared, elastic cuffed version we’re so enamored with these days, rocketed into popularity during and after World War II, when they became standard issue for pilots from a number of air forces. After a brief fashion hiatus, the bomber got a second wind from movies like Top Gun, and nowadays is inarguably a staple piece.
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