A Century of the Trench Coat

The British Trench Coat, fall 1915

Before 1915 men wore overcoats or raincoats (aka Macs). Overcoats were warm but heavy, and raincoats were light but not warm. The advent of the Great War necessitated a solution to combine the advantages of both styles of coats for officers in the trench – thus the name Trench Coat.

American ‘doughboy’ 1918

Produced in khaki cotton with an oiled silk waterproof interlining, the new ‘trench’ coat was made in both single and double breasted styles, most often with a removable lining of sheepskin or blanket wool. The body was cut like a sack with a belt to adjust to the wearer’s waist, and straps on long sleeves that could be pulled tight to the wrist. Some styles had D rings attached to the belt for adding gear. Patch pockets were sewn with expanding pleats to accommodate various items, and a buttoned flap to keep the contents dry. The collar could be done up in several variations from open to buttoned to the chin, and some early designs incorporated a buttonhole slit at the front of the skirts at the hem so they could be tied back to aid marching.

Women’s service coats, fall 1918

The style developed in England early in the war for use by officers, and was quickly adapted for women’s service uniforms (nurses, ambulance drivers). The long coat style, as well as a shorter jacket version, were avidly worn by American soldiers soon after they started arriving in Europe in the fall of 1917. By the end of the following year, after the war, manufacturers continued making trench coats but for civilian use in tan and navy blue gabardine.

For more information read this article.

Glossary – Skeuomorphism

A skeuomorphism (pronounced skyoo-o-morf-izm), is a word created by archaeologist Henry March in 1890 to refer to designs or details that are no longer relevant but still exist. In fashion this can include original design features that are still made, but no longer used like watch pockets, sleeve buttons, and D-rings on trench coats. It can also refer to things made to represent something they are not, like crocodile imprinted pleather belts, or leopard print anything. It can also refer to archaic traditional ways of dressing, such as Gentlemen leaving the lowest button of their vest unbuttoned.

Glossary – Welsh Comb

Thomas Law Hodges, c. 1794-1795

According to Online Etymology Dictionary, a Welsh comb dates from 1796 and means using your thumb and four fingers to comb your hair.

Considering most men had doffed their wigs by the mid 1790s and were sporting their own hair, which was often long, it would have been difficult not to run your fingers through your own hair… but why blame the Welsh?

Glossary – Budgie Smuggler

Photo taken last month of an advertising campaign for the Sydney swimwear company. Photo courtesy of Susan Walford

Originally an Australian slang term for a pair of tightly-fitted briefly-cut Speedo-style men’s swimwear that highlight the male bulge – likening it to what a smuggled budgie might look like. The term appeared shortly after the turn of the millennium – the earliest references in print appear c. 2003.

The term became popular when Tony Abbot, Australian PM (2013 – 2015), was photographed wearing a pair. It was around this time that Adam Linforth founded his Sydney-based swimwear company Budgy Smuggler.  The term Budgie Smuggler was inducted into the Oxford dictionary in 2016.

Glossary – Holoku, Muumu, Wrapper, Mother Hubbard

The holoku, as it is known in Hawaii (and its shorter version, the muumuu – which means ‘cut off’), is also known as an ahu tua (empire dress) or ahu mama (granny dress) in Tahiti. Other variations in name exist around the South Pacific that all refer to these colourfully printed cotton dresses originally made as wrappers (aka Mother Hubbards) in the late 19th century. Originally designed for use as house dresses and maternity wear, these were intended to be worn with a belt (often in the same material) that could be adjusted during the pregnancy. South Pacific natives, who were given the dresses by missionaries to cover their nakedness, didn’t wear the belts and set in motion a regional style of dress that became a traditional clothing style for most of the South Pacific. Since the 1930s holokus and muumus have been made up from brightly coloured tropical floral prints that were printed in Japan before World War II, and in the U.S. since.

Glossary – Blue Monday

Bluing is a laundry additive that makes whites appear whiter – an optical illusion that has been employed since at least the 17th century and can still be found as little blue specs in many modern laundry detergent powders.

The earliest recipes for bluing were derived from indigo or smalt (ground glass containing cobalt.) The colouring was often mixed with starch and various additives that might include alum, gum arabic, or isinglass (powdered fish bladder) and sold as a powder or formed into lumps. An early synthetic blue discovered in Berlin in 1704 dubbed ‘Prussian blue’ was substituted for the indigo or smalt by the 1720s until a synthetic ultramarine was discovered in 1826 that was made commercially available by the 1850s.

Since the mid 19th century bluing was most often made into one ounce cubes from ultramarine and baking soda and kept in a little drawstring muslin bag that was dipped and swirled into the final rinse water on washday. As laundry was traditionally done on Mondays, the blue colour leant its name to one of the hardest work days of the week and became the source of the phrase ‘Blue Monday’.

Glossary – Pussycat bow

Melania Trump wearing a Gucci blouse with pussycat bow

Melania Trump wearing a Gucci blouse with pussycat bow

It took me a while to figure out what all the recent hubbub was regarding pussycat bows. Suffice it to say that Donald Trump was caught on film years ago referring to grabbing a woman by an anatomical synonym that also refers to a feline. The day after this old film surfaced his current imported wife wore a bright pink blouse with a pussycat bow, providing fodder for the fashion blogosphere to explode.

Norel, 1951. Norell popularized large pussycat bows in the early 1950s .

Norman Norell, 1951. Norell popularized large pussycat bows in the early 1950s .

I am usually easily regaled by  smutty double entendres and potty humour, but I really don’t think there was anything intentionally ironic about Melania’s fashion choice. What I do find peculiar is that suddenly pussycat bows are being called pussy bows.

Vogue magazine found the earliest reference to the style from 1934: “a cunning bow that ties high under the chin and looks for all the world like those we put on a Pussy Cat when company’s coming.” The bows are made from an extension of the collar that I have seen range from small toggled cords to flamboyant scarf necklines – most often on a blouse worn under a chicly tailored suit.

Glossary – Parfilage (drizzling)

As Rococo taste became ever more fantastic in the late 18th century, the cost of brocaded silks and metallic embellishments became prohibitive. And so it became the fashion in France for wealthy women, equipped with tools including a stiletto, knife, and pair of scissors, to pick the gold and silver from the brocades, laces, galloons (braid) and fringes of their old gowns to reclaim the metal threads. This was not a practice done in shame, suggesting a lack of funds, but an obsessive pastime commonly practiced in the company of friends, like embroidery.


Enamelled case for drizzling pick and scissors, late 18th century

Known as parfilage in France, where it originated and was commonly practised by the 1760s, it grew in popularity and geography. Lady Mary Coke noted an evening she spent at Princess Kevenhuller’s in Austria during the winter of 1770 where “All the Ladys who do not play at cards pick gold: tis the most general fashion I ever saw…”

Madame de Genlis, wrote in her 1782 novel Adèle et Théodore a scene in which a male character describes ten crazed parfileuses “tearing away my coat and packing all my fringes and galloons into their workbags…”

Refugees from the French Revolution may have imported the practise into England in the 1790s where it was called drizzling, but as the fashion for metallic trims and brocades fell from fashion by the early 19th century, so did the practise.

Glossary – Koumpounophobia

imagesKoumpounophobia is the fear of buttons. From the modern Greek koumpi ‘to button up’. About 1 in every 75,000 people have it. It’s not a dreaded fear that leaves people incapacitated in their presence but it does cause those inflicted with the phobia to avoid their use on clothing. The most famous known Koumpounophobiac was Steve Jobs, which explains his preference for touch-screens and turtlenecks.

Addendum 27.3.18: This guy does NOT have Koumpounophobia

Legend of the Button King

Glossary – Jigger button

glossary_J is for Jigger2Double-breasted jackets and coats have an overlapping front that close with an arrangement of two or more buttons sewn in parallel. To strengthen the fastening, an inner-button, called a jigger (or anchor), is usually added to fasten the under-lapped side of the garment to take stress off the outer buttons of the over-lapped side.