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Which one is the Burberry?

On encountering a female friend sporting a hat and scarf in distinctive Burberry plaid, a socially aware chap I know berated her for wearing a bourgeois status symbol. “You might as well.” was the climax of his reproaches, “pull a Harrods plastic bag over your head!”

Wrong, of course. Badges of good and expensive taste are usually tasteful and expensive – attributes for which most Burberry products are justly famed. In fact, the traditional Burberry raincoat is so much a symbol of classic, functional, elegance that the very name, Burberry, is now the generic one among foreigners for all tailored, belted, tabbed, stone-coloured raincoats.

British Home Stores’ raincoat. Photograph: Frank Martin/The Guardian

What makes anything a “classic” is that it irreplaceably fills a need. What we all want in a mac is simple, flattering cut, maximum protection from the weather, durability and adaptability – it must look good shrugged on over jeans or a tweed suit or a party frock.

One of capitalism’s virtues is that where there’s a demand, there’s usually a rush of suppliers – and the trench coat mackintosh is no exception. The choice is wide and so is the price range, so we decided to take examples from all over the spectrum and try to assess value for money.

Because Marks and Spencer’s version came closest in quality and stylish design to the aristocratic Burberry, we have made the most detailed comparison between these two.

The Burberry we photographed costs £99 (there’s a pure cotton version at £120): its tightly woven, well constructed gabardine is 51 per cent cotton and 49 per cent polyester and the water-proofing is good. The woven, plaid lining is half and half polycotton and is sewn down at the hem so that lining sag can’t develop with long wear. The finishing is excellent even down to the stitched buckle holes on the belt, except, surprisingly, for the pocketing, where a not-too-high quality woven cotton has been used. Because of the high quality of the gabardine, the collar and revers sit beautifully, exactly where you want them for the collar-up trench coat look. There is a long, reverse pleat from waist to hem, tabbed and buttoned to lie flat. No draughts or damp bottoms for the Burberry wearer.

To the casual observer, the trench raincoat from Marks and Spencer which we photographed looks indistinguishable from the Burberry; it costs £37.50 and its somewhat coarser gabardine is 65 per cent polyester and 35 per cent cotton – a fabric cheaper to make than the Burberry gabardine but with the virtue of qualifying for British Standards Institute approval for its easy-care qualities; something the Burberry fabric does not. It also rejects water more efficiently. The woven polycotton lining is only slightly inferior to Burberry’s but it isn’t sewn down. The pocketing is better quality fabric than the Burberry, but all the other details are just slightly larger or clumsier (the buttons, the buckle, the large metal belt holes, the hook and eye at the neck). Instead of a pleat, there is an open vent at the back. The slightly limper gabardine, while it hangs well, makes for a marginally less crisp look around the neckline.

Next nearest in appearance to the true classic is a raincoat from Wallis which costs £55; it is 60 per cent cotton and 40 per cent polyester woven in a two and one twill which is not a true gabardine. There is a shot quality to the fabric which you may or may not like. The lining is a cheapish viscose/acrylic. There are fewer tabs and trimmings but the cut is fairly stylish and the water-proofing is adequate.

Classic Burberry details. Photograph: Frank Martin/The Guardian

Ringwood, a classic trench style in Quelrayn’s new Adastra Gold range costs £48 and is made of a silky-textured polyester viscose and wool mixture (40 per cent wool, 60 per cent polyester). It looks smart but pays for its softness with less than adequate resistance to water. The lining is printed polycotton and the pockets, in the same fabric as the coat, are hardwearing. The details are nicely done but the finish – hem, buttonholes, loose threads – is below par.

British Home Stores’ trench coat costs £27.50 and is made in 65 per cent polyester and 35 per cent cotton poplin with a nylon taffeta lining. Because of poplin’s tighter weave, the fabric holds the shower-proofing better and this was the only raincoat which passed our expert’s water test. It’s stylish and the details are well done though the buttonholes are slightly tatty. Not much doubt that this is the practical woman’s best buy.

So our bourgeois status symbol is rightly invested with its glamour. In styling, fabric quality and finish it just manages to maintain the edge which those who know about such things recognise. Whether you consider it £60-worth of edge has a lot to do with your attitude to glamour – and need for status.

The Guardian, 7 February 1979.

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