The Raincoat

Spring is coming and nothing says WASP style like a classic raincoat.
Spring is coming and nothing says WASP style like a classic raincoat.

It’s been a particularly brutal winter for the howtoWASP and in anticipation of the arrival of spring, warmer, and wetter weather, what better time to feature that all-time WASP wardrobe great: the raincoat.

Not just any raincoat, mind you, but the classic Burberry style trench coat.  As I’ve often mentioned, one of the great things about WASP fashion is that so few of the trends every go out of style and the raincoat is definitely not an exception to that rule.

Here’s a simple test; go look in your grandparent’s closet and see how many of the clothes you’d be willing to wear out today.  Since they probably lived through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the answer will invariably be: not many.  However if you’re lucky enough to pull out a Burberry trench coat, you could wear it with pride and not look a bit out of place walking down Madison Avenue.

Of course there have been updates to the classic style over the years (more on that later) but the basic raincoat has endured as a fashion icon for more than a century and likely won’t be going anywhere soon.

History:

So which is it, a trench coat or a raincoat?  Both are technically correct but the former highlights the original purpose for which the coat was designed, and eventually made famous, in the trenches of Europe during World War I.

The trenches of Europe during WWI gave birth to the original trench coat.
The trenches of Europe during WWI gave birth to the original trench coat.

But let’s back up a little first.  The true origin of the raincoat began with Thomas Burberry’s invention of a new water repellant fabric he marketed as Gaberdine in 1888.  The material was made of a pre-treated worsted wool and cotton blend and tightly woven together to enhance water resistance and durability.

Any early example of the original Burberry trench.  Many feature remain today.
Any early example of the original Burberry trench. Many features remain today.

Burberry used the material to outfit the great British explorers of the day (including polar pioneers Ronald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton) but it wasn’t until 1901 when he submitted a design to the Army for a new, lighter weight, officer’s coat that concept of the trench coat was born.

Or more correctly, the “military style officer’s raincoat” was born.  The term “trench coat” would not become ubiquitous until a decade later with the onset of the first World War.  By then the coat had received minor modifications including the addition of several now classic features including shoulder straps for epaulettes, D-rings along the belt to carry equipment, large pockets, and various flaps and vents all designed to aide functionality on the battlefield.

After the war, many of the officers returning to civilian life held on to their beloved trench coats and gradually the style became as common on the streets of London as on the battlefields of Europe.

The Modern (Classic) Trench:

While there have been countless updates to the Burberry style raincoat over the years, the true classic will always include certain features:

A modern version of the Burberry raincoat, featuring many of the classic elements.
A modern version of the Burberry raincoat, featuring many of the classic elements.
  • Khaki or tan colored gaberdine fabric.
  • Fairly long, with the bottom hitting somewhere around the knees.
  • Double Breasted, button up enclosure.
  • Shoulder Straps.
  • Rain flap over the back of the shoulders.
  • Belt with D-Rings attached.
  • Strap adjustments for the cuffs and sometimes the collar as well.
  • Large front pockets.
  • Gun flap over the front of the right shoulder (less common but still a classic feature).
  • Zip-in liner for added warmth.

If you’re a true sucker for tradition, then there’s really no other way to go.  However, if that all seems like a little too much, there are more modern versions.  The best of these manage to look much less conspicuous (fewer straps and military relics, different colors), are easier to wear (single breasted, no belt, shorter length), while still retaining small touches and nods to the classic version.

This definitely makes a statement, although probably not one a WASP would comprehend.
This definitely makes a statement, although probably not one a WASP would comprehend.

Ironically, today the company that seems to be pushing the envelope the most when it comes to raincoat styling, is the company that brought us the original: Burberry.  While they still do offer some traditional versions, many of their modern interpretations take the concept to the point of bizarre.

While the howtoWASP believes everyone is entitled to their own opinion when it comes to style and taste, I would not recommend going that route if the air of WASP’iness is what you seek.  And let’s be honest, would you have really made it this far in the post if that wasn’t the case?  I thought not. Let’s move on.

Where to Buy:

If money is no object, then your best option is to head over to Saks, Nordstrom, or some other high end retailer and pick up a classically styled Burberry raincoat in khaki.  Or, if you’re still not impressed and just can’t bring yourself to buy off the rack, then you could always go the bespoke option for the ultimate in WASP’ish outerwear.

However, if you’re like me and neither have nor want to blow $2,500 on a coat, there are other alternatives.

First is to look into other manufactures to see what’s available.  Virtually every major clothing brand makes at least one style of raincoat and many can be had for very affordable prices.  Quality is going to fluctuate with maker and price, but you could easily pick up a nicely made, classic looking coat for a mere fraction of the cost of the Burberry original at just about any mall in America.  No, you won’t get the Burberry check on the inside, but most people will never know the difference.

The second option is to go used.  The advantage here is that through eBay or some other second hand source you can pick up true Burberry raincoat for for under $100.  The obvious downside is that you’ll be at the mercy of what’s available on the market at any given time with respect to size and style.

Condition can also vary wildly so be sure to either inspect in the item in person if possible, or request plenty of pictures before committing any of your hard earned dollars.  The last thing you want is a stained, ragged, and obviously used looking coat.   However a nicely worn (and  remember they are meant to be out in the elements) vintage coat can look just as classy and last longer that something bought new in a store.

A vintage Burberry label.  If you're buying used, make sure you can spot a fake.
A vintage Burberry label. If you’re buying used, do the research and make sure you can spot a fake.

One other word of caution, if going the second route, make sure to become familiar with the features and label of an authentic coat.  There are many more counterfeit Burberry items on the market than legitimate ones and it only takes a a little research to pick out the obvious fakes.

Option three is to get lucky.   Or in other words, find a friend of a relative that has a nice vintage raincoat that they no longer use nor want and is willing to donate it to you.  This is the classic grandpa’s closet strategy and unfortunately, more often than not, you’ll come up empty handed.  Then again, that’s exactly where my own mother got her Burberry raincoat, so you never know what you might find.

When to Wear:

Once again, the truly great feature of the raincoat remains it’s versatility.  While ideally suited as a topcoat over a suit or other professional wear, it’s equally at home on a casual weekend out.  That’s doubly true for today’s more modern versions, which are designed with more casual wear in mind.

For me the only real requirement necessary to break mine out is having the right kind of weather.  It’s definitely an “in-between” kind of item, at its best during the transitional seasons of spring and fall when it’s too cold for a jacket but too warm for a full on wool overcoat.    And of course any time you get a cool, damp day (think stereotypical London) there is no better choice.

The only real exception is if you find a coat with a good removable liner, which in some cases can pull double duty as a winter coat in less frigid climates.  Get yourself one of those and you’ll have truly found a real workhouse of WASP outerwear style.

The weather the raincoat was designed for.  However that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it in the sun as well.
The weather the raincoat was designed for. However that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it in the sun as well.

The French Cuff

A funny thing about WASP culture here in the United States is that it usually involves Americans imitating the British, who themselves are imitating the French.  In other words, when it comes down to it, WASP style is basically French style as viewed through the lens of the British.  There is perhaps no better example of this trend than the classic “French Cuff” dress shirt.

If Mr. Bond wears it, it must be WASP'y.

French Cuffs have long been a staple of the WASP wardrobe.  The reason is simple.  While the standard everyday barrel cuff certainly has its uses, when it comes to making a statement in the boardroom, or impressing at a formal evening event, the French cuff reigns supreme.  So, if you want to dress like a WASP, they need to be in your closet at home.

Admittedly French cuff shirts are more complicated than their standard barrel cuff counterparts.  You’ll find they take a little more time and effort to prepare and put on.  They require some additional specialized accessories.  And they’re not suitable for every occasion.  However don’t let any of that put you off because, when worn properly, french cuffs add a subtle touch of class and flash to your outfit that can help you stand out among the competition.

The Beginnings:

dumas
Alexandre Dumas: Literary royalty and possible father of the modern French cuff shirt.

According to popular culture the double cuff shirt first became popular in the 1840’s with the publication of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.  One of the book’s antagonists, Baron Danglars, is described as having extravagant adornments set on the turned back sleeves of his shirts.  French tailors of the time began making shirts imitating those turned back or “French” style cuffs, as they soon came to be known.  The trend quickly caught on among the well to do in Britain, sealing its place in WASP culture.  Since then French cuffs have remained popular the civilized world over to varying degrees ever since and have actually undergone a bit of a resurgence within the past couple years.  Even so, it’s good to remember that regardless of trends, like most classic WASP wear, they’ve never gone completely out of style and never will.

What You Need to Know:

Three Stages of the French Cuff: Unfolded, Folded, and Linked.

The good news when it comes to French Cuff shirts is “not much”.  Aside from the cuffs, they’re identical to any other  dress shirt out there.  But about those cuffs… You’ll likely notice three things right away:

  • The sleeves (the cuff portion at least) are way too long
  • There are too many (four) holes
  • There are too few (zero) buttons

What’s going on here?  Well it’s not that complicated.  Remember that French cuffs are actually turned back cuffs, in that you must fold the end of the sleeve back over on itself before it can be worn.  Once that’s accomplished you’ll find (assuming you’ve got a shirt that fits) that the sleeve is now the proper length.

How do you know where to make the fold?  Easy!  Just line up the holes, one on top of the other, and make your fold.  Bend the now doubled-back cuff over the top of your wrist and line up the two remaining holes on each end.  What you should be left with is all four holes lined up, forming a straight passage through the cuff.  Now there’s just the matter buttons, or rather, the lack of any.  But don’t worry because that brings us to…

A Word on Cufflinks:

Basic cufflink anatomy. Note the broad top, the vertical stud, and the hinged back.

In place of the buttons that normally fasten the cuffs of a shirt, french cuff shirts rely on cufflinks.  Cufflinks are at their most basic are matched pairs of fasteners, usually consisting of a broad top, a stud, and a hinged back that rotates from vertical to horizontal to lock the shirt cuff in place.

Going back to the example above, once you have your cuff folded over and aligned, take the cufflink and pass the stud completely through the hole.  Next, flip the hinged back into the horizontal position to lock the link in place.  One thing to watch is to make sure you insert the cufflink in the right direction.   the top of the cufflink should be aligned with the top of your wrist and the hinged portion with the bottom of your wrist.  With your arms at your side you’ll want the decorated portion of the cufflink facing out.

Specialty cufflinks are a great way to personalize your look. They can also serve as good conversation pieces.

Yes, it’s true that cufflinks can be a bit of a headache.  They require additional cost, extra time to put in place, and if you forget them then you’re while traveling you’re going to look silly.  However, cufflinks have some real benefits as well.

For example, they provide an outlet for creative expression, something that’s often difficult to do while wearing a suit (appropriately at least).  Are you really into sailing?  Get some nautical themed cufflinks.  Avid golfer, how about some duffer style links?  The options are essentially limitless.  Whatever your interests, chances are that someone makes a cufflink to go with it.

Then there’s the “dress to impress” factor.  Here cufflinks give you a chance to make a statement by adding a little extra flash to your ensemble.  Let’s face it, when it comes to jewelry, men (WASP’y men at least) are very limited in their options.  Basically you can wear a watch, a school ring, a wedding ring, and… that’s about it.  Cufflinks provide an additional opportunity to showcase your superior taste as a well dressed man.

Some Guidlines:

When it comes to wearing French cuffs, there’s really not too much to worry about.  Most of the time it’s simply a matter of picking the right shirt, cuff links, and getting dressed.   However here are a few of my own guidelines that might come in handy.

  • Save your French cuff shirts for the right occasions.  My general rule is that you should only wear them with a suit and tie, or with formal evening wear (black or white tie).  Sport coats and blazers are technically a no-no, but you can get away with it in some situations, as long as you’re wearing a tie.  Anything sans tie and you’ll want to leave them in the closet.  French cuffs are formal by nature and they just don’t look right with a more casual look.  Again, if you’re not wearing a tie, go with the barrel cuffs instead.
  • This shirt does not fit! Ideally you want to show about an inch of cuff. No more, no less.

    Make sure your shirts fit!  This is a good all around rule for any dress shirt, or any shirt period for that matter.  In particular here you’ll want to make sure your sleeves are the correct length.  You’re looking for something that rests just behind the base of your thumb when your arms are at your side.  Ideally you want an inch or so of cuff protruding beyond the sleeve of your suit jacket.

  • Match your cufflinks.  When matching cufflinks, the only thing I really pay attention to is making sure that the color of the metal matches the other hardware in the outfit.  For example, if I’m wearing gold colored cufflinks, I’ll also want to go with a gold colored belt buckle, shoe buckles, brace clips, and watch if possible.  Matching hardware is not critical, especially in terms of your watch (which is really a separate element in my mind), but doing so helps bring everything together.  When it comes to formal dress, it’s the details that make the difference.
  • Select your cuff links appropriately.  When it comes to the design of the cufflinks themselves, it helps to use a little common sense.  Again, cuff links provide a chance to be an individual, but like all things WASP’y subtly is key.  That being said, it’s probably best to steer clear of really obnoxious or potentially offense material, especially when in the company strangers or more casual acquaintances.
  • As a general rule, anything inspired by trucker mud-flaps is not WASP'y.

    Keep it classy.  Along those same lines, it’s generally a good idea to keep the “bling” quotient down as well.  While wearing an iced out pair of $50,000 gold and diamond cufflinks may impress some people, chances are that your average WASP is not among them.  Also, there’s something to be said for not walking down the street with a giant advertisement on your wrist that screams “Rob Me!”  Just remember that despite what “The Donald” would have you believe, expensive alone does not classy nor good taste make.

Next Steps:

  • Nothing fancy here, just go out and buy yourself a shirt with French cuffs and a pair of cuff links.  I’d recommend starting with a simple white dress shirt that can be worn with just about anything.
  • In terms of shopping you can’t go wrong with any of the standard mall department stores.  Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Nordstrom in particular are all good options and should have plenty of selection.  Men’s stores like Joseph A. Bank and Brooks Brothers are solid bets as well although prices may be a bit higher.
  • Cufflinks are available in department stores as well, but you may have trouble finding something you like.  I’d recommend looking online to find something unique and more inline with your own personal interests.   Specialty sites such as Just Cufflinks can show you what’s out there.