Buttoned Up?

An Ode to the Trench Coat: The Burberry vs. The Lloyd Dobler

What does the lead character from Cameron Crowe’s ’80s classic ‘Say Anything’ have in common with a centuries-old British fashion house? In a word: khaki.

The eight coats crowding the three hooks behind the door to my studio apartment are so bulky that the door itself doesn’t open all the way. But each is essential to my wardrobe—and none more so than the trench.

It could be argued that my trench, whose black leather sleeves risk getting nipped every time I open and close my door, is not a true trench. It has leather sleeves, for one. It’s not double-breasted. It doesn’t have buttons. It’s not even waterproof, dammit! And—probably most important of all to trench coat purists—it doesn’t have a tartan lining.

You know the one I’m talking about. The black, white, beige, and red plaid lining so closely associated with a certain brand it may as well be a flag for fashion ubiquity. That brand is Burberry, and it created the trench. A century ago, the British War Office commissioned the luxury brand to use gabardine, its tough, tightly woven, water-resistant fabric, to help adapt its officer’s coat to protect soldiers from harsh weather while they were on the front lines.

These days, though, the trench has become so much more than a rain shield. It’s the epitome of a fashion statement. And the way I see it, there are two trench philosophies.

There’s the Lloyd Dobler Philosophy: the casual, left-open, worn with high-top sneakers (and maybe a boom box above your head), I’m-so-cool-and-effortless look. (For the pop culturally challenged, Lloyd Dobler, is the main character, played by John Cusack, in Cameron’s Crowe’s acclaimed 1989 film Say Anything, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.)

“John Cusack will forever be a stud,” says Melissa Middleton, “pinfluencer” and founder of JNSQ, an online lifestyle blog. “The trench was a key component to his costume.”

Then there’s the Burberry Philosophy: the buttoned-up, starch-collared, belted with a side of aristocracy look; the proper, oh-let’s-kiss-in-the-rain! fashion statement.

GALLERY: In the Trenches: From Burberry to ‘Say Anything’ (PHOTOS)

“Although I do not own a Burberry, I often daydream of owning one, so I can run away with [George Peppard], like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” says Ford fashion stylist Rachael Russell.

Call me a sucker for Peter Gabriel, but I prefer the Lloyd Dobler look; hence my aforementioned nontraditional trench style, which, strangely enough, I bought in England.

Those like me tend to root for individuality.

“That trench coat, especially worn with his kickboxing clothes, certainly helped to establish Lloyd Dobler as a different kind of guy—an individual with his own style,” says film and television costume designer Jane Ruhm, who worked on Say Anything a quarter-century ago.

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Jenny Greenstein, a New York stylist and the founder of the blog Your Soul Style, agrees: “John Cusack’s trench only helped his cause because he had his own style and swag that separated him from the rest.”

As opposed to, say, looking like every other lady who lunches from New England.

“Burberry trench coats make me want to barf a little,” says Brooklynite Shira Berger, who owns a similar-looking traditional version from Banana Republic. “I do like mine, but also wonder whether it’s one of those things that I have an intrinsic affinity for because I’m from Connecticut. (See: stripes, nautical ropes, Kelly green.)”

While Ruhm acknowledges that the trench, in general, is “a timeless classic that can be crisp and tailored or soft and slouchy (as it was in Say Anything), short and snappy or long and dramatic,” Burberry elitists cite certain coat requirements to be considered True Trench. (Even Wikipedia says the garment should be double-breasted “with 10 front buttons, wide lapels, a storm flap and pockets that button-close.”)

“John Cusack looked like a schlep! Is that even a trench? It is not cute!” says another Brooklynite, Jillian Greenberg, who tends to err on the side of Burberry, though she doesn’t own one herself. “Do any of them fit well, though? The belt is important, I think.”

“Fit is crucial,” echoes Middleton, who says she ordered a Burberry version online but that to her dismay, it “swam” on her. She’s holding out for a vintage one that hugs her “petite with curves” figure.

Color is also key, and getting it right depends on your skin tone, she adds: “A beige or khaki color is more timeless, and I definitely think you will get more wear out of it. But a black one is really chic as well. Colored ones you will get tired of!”

And you don’t want to get tired of a trench, especially a Burberry one, with some starting at a hefty $695. Indeed, price tends to be a deciding factor in selecting a trench philosophy. Who wants to drop half a month’s rent on a coat they’ll likely only wear for that long? My feeling is: If I do spend that much money on a coat, do I really want to look like everyone else?

Many who pay a pretty penny for a trench chalk it up to nostalgia.

“I love my trench. It’s the most expensive jacket I own, actually,” says Woman’s Day photo director Stephanie Kim, who owns a Moncler. “Memories of my mother wearing a Talbots trench back in the ’70s made me want one just like hers. She looked so cool and stylish. I still would love a traditional Burberry. Someday…”

To me, it also seems wasteful to spend so much money on a coat that’s more likely to see the back of my door, than, well, my back. But others argue that its shelf life is longer than we might think.

“Not only do I think that a classic trench is worth it, but I feel that the seasonality is longer because it works in both spring and fall,” says Greenstein, who owns three trench coats, each with a different style and color. “My more classic one is from Zara, and although it was reasonably priced, I would have been happy to spend more. I just happened upon an affordable option that I loved.”

Plus, as Middleton says, “Many great vintage and the Burberry come with wool linings.”

To be fair, through its 100-year history, Burberry’s aesthetic has become increasingly Dobler-esque, eschewing buttons for zippers and even gemstones. There’s a style in the Prorsum line with hand-stitched embellishments that’ll set you back nearly $5,000, and a powder green silhouette that’s crafted from intricate cotton lace for a whopping $6,500. To honor the evolution of the coat, Burberry launched The Art of the Trench campaign, whose hashtag (#artofthetrench) and dedicated Tumblr feature street shots of similar styles from a range of designers and labels.

Burberry’s Heritage line, meanwhile, remains filled with options for those who continue to associate the traditional trench with the British brand. While you can choose between “stone” and “honey” (aka beige and beige), each style is a streamlined statement meant to protect you from the elements with a hint of ambiguity.

Which, it could be argued, is itself very Lloyd Dobler: “I think he thinks he’s hiding by wearing it, but it’s actually a statement,” says freelance brand consultant Amanda Russo Rubman. “I bought mine from the Gap years ago because it’s a wardrobe must-have, but I will purchase a Burberry trench at some point in my life. I’m slowly scratching at the list—Chanel bag came first.”