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The Trench Connection

It's Not Where a Coat Is Going But Where It Has Been That Makes All the Difference

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page C01

I see by the papers that the strange, voluminous bag of a garment known as the trench coat is back. Or, if "back" isn't quite the right word -- it's never really been gone since its invention for the Western Front in 1914 -- at least it's being paid attention to in the right places.

Of course. What piece of apparel could be more appropriate to our absurd age than something that has no utilitarian value except as a costume for frontal attacks through clouds of Maxim bullets and mustard gas; something that is showy, pretentious, heavy, expensive and desperately delusional? It says: I wish I were a man who did things and took risks -- Brit officer, foreign correspondent, private detective, Bogart, French guy sitting in cafe sipping Pernod -- when I'm really a man who goes to the office and types all day long. Oh, I wish I wish I wish I wish.

In fact, here at The Washington Post, where a great many people do things, few actual trench coats have been spotted. You'd certainly never see a real foreign correspondent in one. Serious people don't wear them; serious people don't need brass D-rings on their belts on which to hang imaginary Webley revolvers and Mills bombs. Serious people don't even know what Webley revolvers and Mills bombs are. Serious people don't have a Bogie jones and worry about the lack of a crumple factor in a waterproofed lapel or the exact shade of mocha latte acquired by the leather of a properly aged sleeve strap buckle. Serious people don't wear trenches.

I have six of them.

Oh, it's worse. I've spent untold portions of my adult life in pursuit of the perfect trench. And what defines perfection in a trench? Well, it's not necessarily high-end, as in the two spiffy English aristocrats, the actual Burberry that the lads of '14 wore, or its equally regal brother in pretention, the Aquascutum. Wonderful coats, if a trifle pricey, which of course is no obstacle at all to a fanatic.

In fact, I recently upgraded to a very nice Burb. Naturally, I paid full retail. I didn't want to sully the purity of the coat by looking for a bargain, such as waiting for tax-free week in New York, where I bought it. The other rule of guy-shopping, obeyed here and always: Make your decision in less than 2.5 seconds. How fast can you say "I'll take it!"?

I will point out with some pride that I picked up the $800 model, not the $1,300 model. The difference is in the material. The more expensive one is made of Egyptian pima cotton with a grotesquely intense weave-to-inch ratio and it has a sheen to it, a subtle luster, not discernible to the naked eye of anyone who isn't clinically insane or in the trench industry. I did not spend the extra five yards for a ghostly, waxy glow I alone could detect. In my world this qualifies as fiscal responsibility (but I hated not buying that coat!).

So I have the $800 model, in a kind of bone-pale desert khaki, armored-up against the cold with inch-thick wool lining, and enough belt for my five other coats. It's a proud, beautiful thing and it looks great -- hanging in the closet.

I've worn it possibly four times. Because, of course, the day after I bought it, I found a better one.

I like a trench with all the jazz. I don't like minimalism, severity, discipline. To me a trench ought to have gewgaws, doodads, doohickeys, foofaraws and fretwork. I'm talking the whole 19 yards of cotton, as well as the D-rings, the leather buckles, the flaps and possibly even ailerons. There's got to be a sort of capelike sheet sewn across the rear shoulders, for that touch of Batman fetish. It must be in a hue off the brown-indigo-violet section of the spectrum that carries with it a suggestion of the eternal sun over either Sandhurst or Cawnpore. It must scream of empire, Pimm's Cup, the scrawny, coughing Orwell hurtling through the London gloom in a cab to get to his BBC studio, hoping not to be bounced by a random buzzbomb, say February, 1945. It certainly can't be one of those cheesy black things the Columbine monsters imitated from "The Basketball Diaries."

The $800 iteration comes very close to ideal, though it lacks an absolute must, which is some kind of yoke sewn into the outside of the collar that can be unbuttoned, rotated and rebuttoned to seal off the chest in case the mustard shells start falling in downtown Washington and the bloody Hun launches another of his bayonet attacks through the vapors.

I got where I am only by slow evolution. One doesn't achieve trench clarity overnight. It started, I suppose, with "Casablanca," where Bogart nails Maj. Strasser because his Burberry pocket was big enough to conceal a Colt .32 and the Nazi fiend lost a crucial second pulling his Luger from his clownish wool overcoat. Round up the usual suspects. God, was Bogart cool or what? It haunted my imagination through college, that great swath of coat, that swaddling of cotton held taut by a festival of buttons and belts and straps.

Then in the '70s, to celebrate a victory over cigarettes, I allowed myself to buy my first Burberry. It was of a color that otherwise does not exist in nature, a khaki variation with a strange indigo half-life, a kind of radium burn effect. I loved that coat to death, weird as it was. In 10 years, it surrendered to large-scale disintegration but I couldn't throw it out.

It was replaced with something from the retro leather-jacket outfit Avirex in the '80s. This was a 125 percent cotton replica of the Army Air Force trench issued to European bomber crews in the '40s. It hung great. It had the slop of government contract work and it was lined with what appeared to be ancient horse blankets from the caisson days. Soon enough my rapidly expanding stomach, alas, rendered it war surplus.

Then came the '90s and a Chinese knockoff from a discount bin for about $35. It had every conceivable pretension. It was like a "Saturday Night Live" parody of a trench coat. Its flaps had flaps, it had both the yoke and the cape (a rare daily double!), epaulets from Ruritania, and some kind of previously unencountered slot in the rear held together by button No. 17. However the buckles were plastic and the material appeared to be eggshell, wood pulp and industrial toxins fused under tons of hydraulic pressure. It did not bend, crumple or fold. It never creased. It might even stop bullets, but it was so perky it depressed me. It always reacquired its shape. It hangs somewhere, gathering dust, singing of ambitions unrealized and absolutely without wrinkle anywhere on its perfect plastic skin.

Then came the big Burb, bought on a three-second binge in the Burberry cathedral on 57th Street in Manhattan. This was a reward I gave myself for, well, gee, for being me. It was perfection almost . . . but not quite.

Finally: karmic achievement. The secret, my friends, is contained in the following three words: "Burberry Coat Men." You type them into a little slot on the eBay home page and in nanoseconds before your lusting eyes is a trophy chest of rapturous possibilities. Properly aged Burberrys for under a hundred! Good Lord, one could assemble a collection overnight.

So I finally acquired the world's best trench for $41 from someplace in Minnesota. Orwell would be so proud, as would Col. Johnny Frost, Gable and Bogart, Jean Gabin and Alain Delon and the PR people at the International Spy Museum. It must be 35 years old, and the patina has mellowed to a kind of leathery insouciance. The drape is superb, slightly decadent, rumpled as Bronson's face, boasting an old Greek shield's network of scars. Its color doesn't have that greenish buzz to it but is pure Western Desert khaki. It has a yoke, fabulously tattered, the stitching unraveling raffishly. It looks like it won the war, any war. Its leather buckles seem to be parchment from the original Gutenberg Bible. Someone adventurous wore it hard and strong as he dashed about the world, covering the Troubles in Ireland, running guns to the Loyalists in Barcelona in '36, smoking Camels on the quay at Smyrna, attending the first U.N. meeting in Frisco in '45. There seems to be a bulge where the Luger or the Webley or the Colt government model rode in the shoulder holster under the left arm. Best of all, it's puckered.

I cannot quite describe this phenomenon, but it is a superb quality of the ancient Burberry now lost to the world: It develops puckers as it ages, where the concave of the material -- perhaps the cotton is shrinking ever so slightly against the bondage of the stitches -- captures the light in a kind of camouflage dapple pattern. Truly superb.

There was only one problem. It didn't fit.

It was a very cool Burberry designed for a very cool Munchkin. I am neither cool nor a Munchkin, but I wanted that blasted coat.

I reach the apex of my madness. Too bad Dostoevski isn't around to describe it, but you're stuck with me. Remember the first Burb that I wore out, that I couldn't throw out, that hung like a rag in some back niche of a closet?

The first several tailors turned the job down.

"Why don't you just buy a new coat?"

I couldn't say, I just did buy a new coat. I -- uh -- I don't like it as much as this one.

Who on Earth could understand such a thing? But finally one of them -- "It will cost very much" / "I don't care, I want this coat!" -- agreed and somehow with genius and concentration, plus a hundred bucks, he got it done.

It was a genetic recombination of two Burberrys merged into one. Mr. Min took two swaths six inches wide from the worn-out coat, halved the cool coat, and inserted the swatch on both sides. The material almost matches. It's Frankencoat. It's the Night of the Living Dead coat. It's the Zombie Burberry.

It's alive!

As my girlfriend says, shaking her head in what is either wonder or despair, "At least you haven't wasted time doing something really stupid."

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