Cover Image: Trench Coat

Trench Coat

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Member Reviews

This is the first of the Object Lessons I've read end-to-end, which isn't a comment on the Object Lessons series--in fact, the ones I haven't finished (yet), I enjoyed more because there was a personal voice behind the research, a puppeteer guiding us through the narrative.

Trench Coat is packed with deep research, reading much like an informative paper, as opposed to a book that is meant to tumble the meanings of the trench coat. We get a lot of World War I, we get a lot of film noir, but to me, trench coats have so many other stories. For instance, my mother once was flashed by a man wearing only a trench coat while she was walking the neighborhood trying to lose weight. For instance, the trench coat serves as cover-up for so many women in TV shows who--whoops--show up without anything but a trench coat on. 

I know another reviewer appreciated the lack of the personal, and I conceded that one type of reader will love that too. For me, I wanted more, and maybe it wasn't the personal, but even more, beyond fashion, film, and war. 

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, NetGalley and thanks, Bloomsbury Academic--I'm in love with this series!
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I found this one of the more interesting of the Object Lessons series, not least because it was less autobiographical than some. It kept to the subject, exploring the history, trajectory and significance of the trench coat in all its manifestations. Many aspects of this iconic garment I hadn’t ever considered before. I particularly enjoyed the references to the trench coat in literature and film and I will certainly never see a trench coat again without this book echoing in my mind.
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I've read a number of the Object Lesson series, courtesy of NetGalley. They are all different - some are more memoir told through objects, some are deeply person, some are history. This is straight fashion history, but it could have done with better editing, and being more interesting. What a trench coat is gets defined in the afterword, and it felt to me like the author was so desperate to make the trench coat mean everything that in the end it meant nothing much to me but a style of clothing that has endured for a long time. There are whole chapters that seem to explaining the plots of movies where the protagonist wore trench coats.  There are claims that trench coats are the dress of rebels and outsiders - but also the upper-classes. I did not really gain any clarity or understanding from this book.
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This seemed to serve as a reasonably serviceable academic read about the phenomenon of the trench coat – the wait for a book to combine, as the best of this series just about manages, the academic with the for-everyone, remains.  Here we see the birth of weather-proofing of clothes, and what that meant for leisure wear, and how much easier and more pleasurable huntin', shootin' and fishin' was as a result.  This isn't per se the trench coat – that has to be named after getting linked to use in World War One, which opens the book up to riff at length on how women dared to wear them as well, in and out of service.

Next, the coats promised or threatened violence with anonymity, as a shadowy kind of anarchic terrorist was thought to be wearing them, and not a humble uniformed soldier, nurse or army driver.  To some extent that was proven when the early IRA donned them routinely.  Hemingway, Rick Blaine and his noir cohorts, and indeed everyone from Han Solo to Foucault crops up, before a tentative dabble at the race of trench coats, just to tick another box for the left-wing academe types.  The book swoops to a conclusion by showing us how fashion houses have directed our thinking to the trench coat as a piece of history, therefore fashionable, as opposed to fashionable, therefore something to be thrown away yesterday.

Which ultimately throws the book's problems into the limelight – if cinema and Hemingway types and fashion houses can demand we think of the trench coat as the sine qua non of semi-hermaphroditic-yet-testosterone-laden clothes, and timeless items of wonder, why the heck does nobody on the street seem to think that, and why on earth are they so seldom seen?  There certainly is a feel for me from this that "wow, I can find a cultural significance from these, and fashion houses keep trying to sell them, so that makes them important".  Well, smiley badges are all those things as well and nobody wears them, either – the ubiquity of these coats does not carry through to my reality.

Still, this has to be approved of as being an entry into this series that does not give us the entire life story of the author we never signed up for, in specific tokenistic relation to race, gender, sexuality or wanting to self-identify as a body-dysmorphic mammoth.  The author has taken herself out of things (we finish this and scratch our heads in trying to remember her donning such a coat herself), and this is all the better for it.  But what it does miss, still, is the readability these "books about things you never saw yourself reading a book about" are ideally finding, and the conviction that made me believe these things are actually in everybody's wardrobe.  I've yet to buy, or knowingly date any owner of, such a thing.  Three and a half stars.
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Trench Coat by Jane Tynan is an informative and fun romp through the history of the trench coat. An excellent addition to the Object Lessons series.

Most of us have owned at least one in our lives. In my case, I'm not sure how many, and they served different functions in my life. I had nicer ones for work and more worn ones for leisure. I had distant cousins like dusters as well. Even when I just thought I was putting something on because of the rain the fact of the matter I was, indeed, stepping into a bit of a persona. When I was in a suit for work (I so don't miss those days!) I felt just a bit more dapper in my, usually, London Fog. When I was going out or to shows, I think my more informal ones gave me a sense of hiding behind it and letting the fun (or trouble) come to me. In other words, I can absolutely relate to the various ways that trench coats have been used, appropriated, and even abused.

Tynan offers a nice history from conception through to today. From wartime to the golden era of cinema and contemporary television, these coats did everything from keep the wearers dry to letting an audience know something about a character. Through the ups and downs, the trench coat has come through and likely will continue to do so.

Recommended for those who enjoy history, including social history, told through objects as well as anyone who just wants to know more about this common item. The writing is wonderful and the information is engrossing.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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As per its own entirely fair self-summary, "This journey through the history of the trench coat illustrates just how alive, complex, irrational, transforming, and vibrant even the most industrialized material objects can be." Like the last Object Lessons book I read, Nicole Seymour's Glitter, it's about something I used to wear a lot. In glitter's case, the past tense is among other things down to the Event knocking out a lot of the occasions where it would make sense. With the trench coat, it's more a case of the collapsing climate meaning the temperature is seldom low enough for me to get away with one, combined with simply not being able to find the bastards anymore, at least not in black and of a half-decent quality. "I often wonder – since they improve with age – what it takes to convince people to buy a new one", says Tynan. Well, up to a certain point I know what she means, but in my case it's generally that the arm is hanging off or – worse – an epaulette has come loose. The sort of thing you can fix with lots of other garments, but part of the story here is about how, given the nature of its waterproof fabric, the trenchcoat is inherently an industrial product – and how it has negotiated the potential implications of that and avoided being seen as "drab and utilitarian". Not always successfully; Tynan's history shows how what was at first seen as a miracle of new industrial processes, enabling outdoor activities for all, soon became associated with unpleasant odours, "a peculiarly British indulgence" often mocked in French music hall. So for all that we can on the whole still regard the Great War as a Bad Thing, it turns out to have played a key role in rescuing the trenchcoat from the same rep as the anorak. Not least by giving it that name, of course, and Tynan is very good on some of the nuances of class and uniform code which contributed there. And to be honest, I would have been quite happy with a history of that sort, but there's more going on here. This is also the story of how one garment can "bring together Siegfried Sassoon, Greta Garbo, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Marlowe, and Beyoncé" (though personally I'd have ditched from that list the typist who becomes desperately boring as soon as anything he writes gets to the seventh word, and instead slotted in John Constantine, the book's most glaring omission). Which means we need to look at wider concepts of clothing, of the matter humans array around themselves, and the ways in which rather than concealing, adornment can reveal essentials – though ascribing that insight to Amerindian cosmologies exclusively, as against "the European insistence on polarizing appearance and essence, whereby adornment is commonly thought to hide some essential truth", feels like ceding Europe's whole intellectual history to the accursed puritans, and as such unfair on everyone from the Catholic church through Wilde to Adam Ant and, well, anybody else who has ever had the first damn clue about anything whatsoever. This is not the only such infelicity, or at least not in my Netgalley ARC – one can always hope they'll be sorted out by publication. See also the idea that trenchcoats "invariably stand in for feelings of emptiness and desperation"; whether the intent of that 'invariably' is that all empty and despairing characters wear trench coats, or that all characters wearing trench coats are empty and despairing, it's obviously wrong either way, isn't it? Still, even if they don't get caught, this will still be a book that's only one fairly minor edit away from being very good indeed.
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