The Mac Explained: Not Just a Raincoat

Hackett's single breasted Mac raincoat is a classic.

“You can’t go wrong with a Mac,’ attests Oasis front man Liam Gallagher whose label, Pretty Green, features a Green Warwick Lightweight trench coat from their collection.

“It’s a great British garment that every man men of every age should have. But Pretty Green is all about style, rather than fashion and the Mac is a great example of what we do. It’s plain, simple, transcends fashion, does its job and there’s no messing about with it,” said Gallagher.

Undeniably, the ever so ‘umble Mac is a hardy perennial perfectly suited to the temperamental British climate. Named after Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh who, in 1823, patented a method for making waterproof garments by using rubber dissolved in coal-tar naphtha for cementing two pieces of fabric together.

‘mac’ now Generic Term with a Long history

The term ‘Mac’ now denotes almost any three quarter length raincoat of any size, shape or design but, in truth, it’s evolution is down to two very English men – both of whom started experimenting with rainwear at the same time and whose companies are still very much in competition.

The first, Mayfair tailor John Emary patented a method of producing a water-repellent textile in 1853 named the company Aquascutum, from the Latin words aqua (water) and scutum (shield) and soon the streets of W1 were filled with men sporting his famed  ‘Aquascutum Wrapper.’

Next up was Thomas Burberry who opened his first store focusing on outdoor wear in 1856 but after years of experimenting in 1888 patented gabardine, a hardwearing, water-resistant, yet breathable fabric, in which the yarn itself is waterproofed before weaving.

the mac becomes a 19th century hit

Both companies hit pay dirt as the 19th Century moved on as thousands sought shelter from the elements whilst driving their new open top horseless carriages.

Other companies such as Alfred Dunhill capitalised on the automobile trend and opened a store, Dunhill Motorities, on Euston Rd, that sold, “Everything but the Motor” including a long oil skin ‘Mac’ though basic in it’s design ‘covered all.’

And like all good ideas, the ‘Mac’ or the long waterproof floor length coat swept the country until, by 1900, both Aquascutum and Burberry were kitting out most of the well to do. In 1901 Thomas Burberry was commissioned to design the British Army uniforms and one of his innovations was the army officers raincoat.

the mac morphs into military gear

So popular was the coat that, in 1914, as WW1 broke out, Burberry, was again called in by the war office to design rainwear to protect ‘our boys’ from inclement weather in the trenches and thus created the all weather unlined water repellent coat for the ‘dough boy’ at the front.

“In many ways Burberry set the tone for the Macintosh in all its glory,” informs Soho tailor Mark Powell. “ And for many, that basic single breasted WW1 infantryman’s raincoat block takes a lot of beating,” said Powell.

As one would expect, the officer class could not be left out of the fray as, even though they dodged most of unfriendly fire, they still wanted to look stylish   whilst surveying the carnage.

Mr. Burberry modified the now ubiquitous four button double breasted ‘trench’ coat, added the shoulder straps and D-rings (for the attachment of hand grenades and a water bottle; the shoulder straps were the hangers for epaulettes and other rank insignia.

Not to be out done, Aquascutum, facing demand from the military, whose overcoats were usually not lined, came up with the trench coat, featuring removable, buttoned-in lining and thus during the second world war, allied soldiers, sailors and airmen wore Aquascutum’s coats into battle.

the mac / trench coat goes hollywood

Subsequently, the raincoat that became regulation dress during both wars and like much other military mufti (such as the T shirt, bomber jacket) quickly became civilian-wear and Aquascutum and Burberry went ballistic.

But maybe the items’ biggest leg up was when Humphrey Bogart wore the Aquascutum ‘Kingsway Trench’ with such aplomb in Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca in 1941.

He was followed by Dick Powell’s adoption of the garment as a vital component of former serviceman turned private dick Phillip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet in 1944 after which its destiny was assured and its die cast.

While many a dude favoured the trench coat, others fell for the single breasted, fly fronted raglan sleeve variety that, once known as an ‘oil slicker’, harked back to Burberry’s original dough boy design.

the mac becomes a 60s hipster icon

The single breasted Mac truly hit pay dirt in the 60s when Michael Caine in the title role of the film, Alfie, adopted the garment, followed by Yves St Laurent, our very own Harold Wilson (who favoured the quite excellent Gannex rubberised mac) and for some reason the ranks of the ‘dirty Mac’ brigade.

Of late, the Mac, in both its classic shapes – the classic single breasted raglan sleeve variety and the double breasted trench – has made a triumphant comeback and while some favour a slimmer altogether more sixties silhouette, choosing the former, others wanting to push the boat out plump for the latter and, unafraid of the garments previous connotations, button up, step out, and keep dry.

And to be sure, there are plenty of great options today. Hackett’s Man in London single breasted is a winner, The Dunhill’s green raincoat is a tasty little number and Macintosh have delivered a shorter sleeker version of their classic dough boy.

The mac goes luxury

Not to be left out Louis Vuitton have seen fit to proffer a beautiful grey nylon single breasted and a cheeky single-breasted dark blue cotton and polyamide voyager Macintosh.

Of course, call me old fashioned, but I have always favoured Aquascutum as far as rainwear is concerned and this year’s they have not let me down. In shops now is their single breasted short raglan sleeved petrol blue Aquamac that, a must for all city dwellers, is almost on a par with the classic vintage Uxbridge trench boasts every single characteristic that made the company a household name.

Of course, some companies cannot boast either Aquascutum’s or Burberry’s legacy but their respect for tradition and style deems their provenance almost negligible.

One such is the Coach strapped raincoat – a classic DB trench with epaulettes and a storm flap and another is The River Island’s rather tailored version which is far simpler than a standard trench.

“Apart form anything else the mac is suited to the inner city because, whilst it can shield you from the weather, it is also light-weight and not too warm,” concludes Savile Row tailor, Mark Marengo whose fly fronted ‘Blue Label Raincoat’ with Ticket Pocket in 100% cotton is a latter day classic.

“So when you’re going from the tube to centrally-heated office you never get too hot but is regarded as a hardy Brit perennial because the British weather is perennially wet!” said Marengo. ML