To wear a trench coat as a woman is to effortlessly emit a sense of mystery. Slightly rumpled, perhaps even stained with tea, it is appropriated menswear of the highest order: stylish but practical; glamorous but anonymous; as comfortable in an Aston Martin as in a lorry. Redolent of steamer trunks and a ragged passport with extra pages, ideally a trench coat has a ballpoint pen from an international hotel residing permanently in its breast pocket.
Developed for battle in the 19th century — the extra fabric over the right shoulder was initially intended to soften the recoil of a gun — trench coats were popularized post–World War I, when the British government, having ordered thousands too many for its officers, distributed the leftovers among civilians after the armistice. Their practicality has been a selling point ever since. A 1937 Burberry advertisement boasted that its famous khaki coats were “tempered to territorial conditions throughout the world.” The trench coat, after all, is really nothing more than an amalgam of handy and phonetically romantic features: grenade loops, epaulettes, storm flaps.
No other article of clothing — not even the blue jean — has retained its original form so literally as the trench. There are variations, surely (PVC, fur-lined, sleeveless, leather), but the classic silhouette in a not-too-orange beige is still the best and most desirable. Perhaps that’s because it can be so many things to so many people. On a man, it can telegraph the intrepid grit of cinematic spies and foreign correspondents; on a woman, it can run the gamut from coquettish to outright erotic. The icy-haired Catherine Deneuve twirled around a soggy Cherbourg in one, Humphrey Bogart delivered his most famous mid-Atlantic lines in one. Both Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman wore them in Kramer vs. Kramer. Tintin sports a trench coat, as does Inspector Clouseau. A beltless one appears as a joke in Seinfeld.
And there’s a reason Helmut Newton chose to cloak his famous nudes in them. No garment is more perverse in spite of its practicality. Drab, cinched at the waist like a bathrobe, popular among flashers, the trench coat is almost comically concealing. What could be underneath but flesh?
*This article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.