The term “Mac” has now come to refer to almost any 3/4 length raincoat. The origin of the term, however, properly lies in the name of its Scottish inventor, Charles Macintosh, who in 1823 patented a coat made with the new waterproof fabric he had created. Macintosh’s father made his fortune manufacturing dyes and this was the early basis for Macintosh’s interest in basic chemical processes. At the age of 20, Macintosh left the family business to practise chemistry full time. While experimenting with naphtha (an oily by-product of tar) Macintosh stumbled across a method of making a material that was both waterproof and flexible. He sandwiched it between two layers of fabric, made it into coats and the “Mac” was born. The idea of impregnating fabric with rubber to make it waterproof was not a new concept as it had been around since Aztec times when they used latex (unrefined rubber from the rubber tree) for the same purpose but this was the first time the process had been used on an industrial scale.
Coats produced from the new material were a technical revolution at the time and were used in many applications including riding coats in the army and police forces and on the railways. It was also used to clothe explorer John Franklin and his crew during their exploration of the Arctic in 1824. The early coats had problems with stiffness and melting in hot weather but in 1843 Thomas Hancock (the company had merged with that of Hancock in 1830) invented the process of vulcanising (the process whereby sulphur and heat are applied to natural rubber in order to improve durability, strength and resistance to heat of the finished product) which solved many of these problems.
The evolution of this Scottish invention, however, also owes much to two Englishmen, both of whom started experimenting with raincoat design in the mid-1800s, and whose companies are still very much in competition today.
The Mayfair tailor John Emary patented a new method for producing water-repellent fabric in 1853. He named the company Aquascutum, from the Latin words aqua (water) and scutum (shield) and his famed “Aquascutum Wrapper” soon made the brand a great success.
Following hot on his heels was Thomas Burberry, who after years of experimentation, patented his gabardine fabric in 1886. It was a hardwearing, water-resistant yet breathable fabric in which the yarn itself is waterproofed before weaving.
Both companies benefitted from the invention of motor vehicles in the later years of the 19th century. Many of these early “horseless carriages” were open-top and did not offer shelter from the elements. Indeed, mac raincoats were often marketed as essential equipment for any motorcar driver.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Burberry was tasked by the War Office to design rainwear to protect soldiers from wet weather in the trenches. The basic single-breasted infantryman’s raincoat that he designed is still one of the most recognisable mac designs in use today. He also designed a double-breasted trench-coat for the officer class with shoulder straps for epaulettes and other rank insignia, and D-rings for the attachment of hand grenades and a water bottle.
These coats were usually not lined so it was not long before Aquascutum came up with an improved warmer trench coat which featured a removable, buttoned-in lining. By the time of the the second world war, allied soldiers, sailors and airmen all wore Aquascutum coats into battle.
But perhaps it was seeing the mac on the silver screen that most sealed its iconic status in the 20th Century. Humphrey Bogart famously wore the Aquascutum “Kingsway Trench” in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca in 1941. This was closely followed by Dick Powell’s wearing of the garment in his portrayal of Phillip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet, the adaption of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell My Lovely in 1944.
Despite the popularity of the mac, by the end of the 20th century the factory producing Mackintosh coats had almost gone out of business. It was acquired by senior staff members who collaborated with some of the largest fashion houses in the world including Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Liberty and Hermès. This opened a whole new chapter in the story of the mac. Interest in the design, particularly in Japan, once again grew cementing the mac’s modern relevance. Thus the mac entered the new century with as much aplomb as at its original creation almost 200 years previously.
It is a Japanese company who now own the brand name “Mackintosh”. The core material in a Mackintosh coat (a “k” has been added to the name over the years) is still the bonded cotton used in the original design in 1823 but it is now made in Japan before being transported to the Mackintosh factory in Cumbernauld, Scotland where it is cut and pieced by hand. Each seam is sewn by hand. Workers then use their finger to rub it with rubber-based glue to waterproof it, then each seam is rolled to make it flat.
This continued worldwide interest in the design has ensured its status as a design classic and an iconic emblem of British fashion. Still a favourite of celebrities, city workers and those in the fashion business, not to mention anyone else looking for a timeless and practical raincoat, the mac has been keeping people dry for nearly two centuries and shows no signs of going out of style anytime soon.Back to all Articles