A variation of the famous Coco Chanel’s quote says it all really. Every season you get new colors, patterns, details and maybe even slightly new fits. In other words, style changes. But just as style is ever-so-quickly changing, the design (the overall shape, look and feel) on which it’s based stays relatively the same.
Just as a great painting fills a certain emotional need, a well-designed piece of clothing solves a certain problem(s). We value things that help us do things by solving certain problems, and reject or get tired with things that don’t. That’s why style is constantly changing, but the underlying design of an item can remain for many years.
One of the most famous designs in today’s fashion industry is the classic trench coat. First designed by either Burberry or Aquascutum (both claim to be the first to use it) in 1900s for WW1 British military officers. The trench coat was designed with usefulness in mind, fashion and style coming only later.
Like all good design, the trench coat’s brilliance lays in its attention to usefulness over everything else.
Gabardine - as strong, water-repellent cloth invented by Thomas Burberry in 1879. Good design requires good materials. A trench coat would be of no practical use if it was made from a material that could be easily penetrated by water. While gabardine was the standard back in the day, there are better things out there nowadays.
Epaulettes - for indicating rank and attaching certain things (such as gas masks or whistles).
Gun/storm flap – to keep water from running into the garment. Due to the name, others suggest it was used to keep water from running into the gun itself when holstered and for absorbing some recoil (although I don’t see it being at all useful absorbing recoil without extra padding).
Hook and eye throat latch, cuff straps and storm pockets – for increased protection from the elements.
Yoke back – for increased protection form the elements. The water rolls off to the ground instead of down the entire back.
Belt with d-rings – for holding equipment such as maps and flasks.
Wedged back – the fan-like folds at the bottom of the back were designed for added mobility.
The khaki and sand color – the beginning of camouflage. Until then, soldiers still wore bright clothes that made them very vulnerable in a new age of long range gun fire.
Everything, including the details, served a purpose. And that’s the definition of good design – useful above all else.
What was good and useful during WW1 is no longer true today. Most of the details that once served a purpose are left merely for stylistic reasons. It’s only natural that with changes in technology and our daily lives, we are faced with new problems that require new design solutions. But even after more than 100 years, the trench coat still has great things to offer, all thanks to honest problem solving.