Fashion writer and author of The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman, Navaz Batliwalla on the enigmatic all-rounder

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Blue cashmere sweater

Long before the trench coat became a symbol of romantic modernity, it was a humble military garment. With its take-no-chances double breasting, storm flap, epaulettes and deep pockets, it served in the first world war, putting the British-designed outerwear icon on the style map forever after.

Fast forward a decade or three and the trench coat’s role in many a movie classic cemented its influence as a signifier of glamour and intrigue. Throw on a trench in a downpour, flick up the collar, clutch the throat dramatically and you too can play the lead in your very own celluloid love story. Romance aside, the trench coat also has the ability to convey a certain pragmatic power. When I think about the sirens of bygone Hollywood, there’s inevitably a Bacall, Bergman or Garbo emitting enigmatic froideur in a buttoned-up, tightly belted trench. Maybe it’s those militaristic overtones, but the combination of armor-like protection with a hint of vulnerability conjures a compelling image of femininity.

Burberry may have been responsible for the original trench coat design (updating its Tielocken raincoat with epaulettes and D-rings for wartime use), but there has since been endless creative experimentation of this all-season stalwart. While it’s become shorthand for French girl chic thanks to the likes of Maje and Isabel Marant, it’s now more in demand as a totem of global Gen-Y cool. Exaggerated proportions, off-beat fabrics and unexpected details are what make a trench from JW Anderson or Maison Margiela a deconstructed classic for the Instagram generation.

But a trench coat can also be unapologetically sexy. It all comes down to that suggestion of what’s underneath (or not). The trench as glamorous evening attire comes into its own in the hands of the Italians, with Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli adept at reimagining it in the most seductive leathers and printed silks.

Blue cashmere sweater

For the stylish fetishist, lacquer-shiny finishes are their own kind of classic. Of course, for this iteration, all roads lead to Catherine Deneuve’s good girl gone bad character Séverine in Luis Buñuel’s 1967 masterpiece, Belle__ de Jour. In her glossy black Yves Saint Laurent trench and sensible Roger Vivier pumps, she projected an appealing ambiguity of erotically charged innocence.

Perhaps for most of us though, the ultimate trench is the 24-hour investment buy. If you only buy one trench, make it the versatile workhorse that will take you from a power breakfast at The Wing, to impromptu cocktails at the W. Go for the non-color, medium-weight option cut on the roomy side to accommodate year-round layers. For this, Iris & Ink and Victoria Beckham are the sartorial equivalents of that chic, capable friend who never lets you down. Me? My trench BFF is the classic Burberry gabardine I self-gifted with the bonus from my first proper fashion editor job. It’s a proud reminder of a great time in my life and brings back that feeling of achievement and ambition when I put it on. A real wear-forever piece, it also serves as a good luck charm; the day I bought it, I ended up winning a significant company award. 

To make it your own, the trench lends itself to all manner of fun details and styling options, from pushing up the sleeves to reveal a contrasting cuff (or fabulous watch), to switching the utilitarian belt for a vintage silk scarf. Right now, the retro Left Bank look is enjoying a mini-revival. What better way to super-charge your trench than with a knee-length boot and bourgeois bag? Just spritz your cologne, clamp on your aviators and off you go.