Of course it’s not spring, but never one to hold to tradition, I’ve been doing a ton of extra cleaning… recycling, re-purposing and re-imagining of stuff.
This includes selling a very cool coffee table made with legs from a 1920s stove (we still have three other tables);
a complete cleanse of my file cabinet (where I discovered a forgotten letter from movie star Van Heflin), and free-cycling many yards of denim and corduroy fabric (new slipcovers involved here).
Then there’s this other item.
It’s hanging in my closet, but I haven’t put it on for at least five years. Yeah, I’ve been saying goodbye to it for a while now, but now I’m almost there, almost ready to pass it on to its next owner.
It’s my trench coat. And if I seem pretty attached to it, I am.
That’s because, for those who don’t know, owning such a coat once upon a time wasn’t just about owning sturdy
outerwear for inclement weather.
Nope. It was part of the uniform that made me a journalist.
After all, Edward R. Murrow—one of the most esteemed reporters of the last century—wore a trench coat while broadcasting dispatches from London during World War II. It seemed that everyone on the 60 Minutes team had trench coats, too: I remember watching the late Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Bob Simon chasing down bad guys in theirs. They’ve also been essential to the wardrobes of famous female correspondents, a list that includes Barbara Walters,
Diane Sawyer and Lara Logan.
The trench coat has served fictional muckrakers as well.
Lou Grant, the gruff newspaper editor played to perfection by Ed Asner on television, had a trench coat, even in sunny Los Angeles. And in the 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman, star George Reeves conveniently grabbed his trench coat out of Lois Lane’s car when, disguised as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, a bomb ripped his clothes off.
I got mine—a woman’s model made by London Fog, beige and double breasted with a removable plaid liner—sometime in college and after the circus life. (Most recently, the Seattle based manufacturer became famous again in Mad Men.) It was a mindful buy, made not long before I received my journalism degree and high-tailed it to New York City. Given that this was long before the Internet and imported clothes from China, the purchase took place early one evening at Robinson’s department store in Beverly Hills, and was made in the United States. I paid what was then considered a pretty penny for it, too, probably in the $75 range.
Putting it on, I felt that I had arrived.
The coat traveled with me to Manhattan, where I did some freelance work (landing bylines in People, Working Mother and Ms.) while concurrently working as an intern for McCall’s magazine. It then rode the subway with me to a small publishing house (in the same building as The New Yorker!), where I was employed as an editor. There were a handful of other writing gigs after that, but finally, it hung in my office at Columbine, the in-house publication at CBS; there; I was a staff writer.
When I returned to California four years later, the trench coat was still in great shape.
It was beside me when I was hired to write a couple of lifestyle articles for a teen magazine on the Sunset Strip, and next for a movie-oriented public relations firm. It then accompanied me to the West Coast bureau of Screen International, a British film trade magazine, where I did a whole lot of interviews in the field, as well as attending hundreds of sneak screenings and more than a few press conferences.
After a stint with a syndicated entertainment columnist, then a move to a tabloid magazine, the trench coat and I stumbled into television production. There, both of us spent nearly a decade at Unsolved Mysteries. (Come to think of it, host Robert Stack was fond of wearing his trench coat on camera.)
From the department of You Can Learn Something New Every Day, it wasn’t until I began researching this post that I learned it wasn’t reporters who made the trench coat so popular.
In fact, the coat was made for, duh, fighting in the trenches.
Designed as an efficient alternative to the heavy serge coats worn by British and French soldiers in World War I, its invention is claimed by both Burberry and Aquasctum, with the latter’s claim dating back to the 1850s. As for Burberry, founder Thomas Burberry submitted a design for an Army officer’s raincoat to the United Kingdom War Office in 1901.
Then, during what became known as The Great War, modifications were made: shoulder straps to attach epaulettes or other rank insignia, and a D-ring for fastening map cases, swords and perhaps hand grenades to the coat’s belt. The advent of World War II only made the coats more popular. British military personnel continued to wear them, but now other soldiers from other nations, notably the United States and Soviet Union, wore similar designs. Many veterans returning to civilian life kept the coats, and made them fashionable for both men and women. This, of course, included globe-trotting reporter Edward R. Murrow.
So undeniably, the trench coat has a lineage that is noble and distinguished.
But somewhere along the way, it stopped working for me.
Some of this definitely had to do with becoming a mom; my daughter’s early years saw me in sensible sweat pants and hoodies. These days, some of it has to do with living in a sweet beach town—a hard-boiled writer’s coat simply doesn’t fit in. When I do need a coat, I’ll zip up my red or blue parka, even when I’m wearing the occasional dress.
And mostly, I don’t wear the trench coat anymore because I’m not the same kind of journalist anymore.
My work now tends to be done at home, with pretty much everything I need waiting on the Internet, or with phone and email interviews. The days of hopping a plane to chase down folks in person; rushing out the door to interview someone who’s in town for only a day, or traveling long distances for research is pretty much gone.
Then why do I still have the coat?
It’s because I don’t want to give it away to just anyone.
In fact, I’m hoping to gift it to someone who still does, or is longing to do, the writing things I once did.
Perhaps, like I once was, she’ll be a new journalism school grad ready to change a corner of a corner of the world, ready to slay the dragons that journalists need to do, now more than ever, and that the best ones do so well.
I also want that someone to appreciate how much this singular piece of clothing once defined me—and how I hope it will do the same for her.
Until then, my trench coat (and the stories that go with it) will remain happily retired in my closet… waiting for a new, and I hope dazzling, set of adventures.
Is there an article of clothing, or another object you own, with an interesting tale behind it? I look forward to your stories and comments!
P.S. Want to know more about the history of the trench coat? Check out this detailed article from Smithsonian magazine, at www.smithsonianmag.com/history/trench-coat-made-its-mark-world-war-i-180955397/?no-ist.
P.S.S. Today’s celebrities love trench coats, too. Take a look, at www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/trends/g2926/iconic-trench-coat-fashion/.