Tuesday, January 18, 2011

London Fog

'London Fog'

In fact the air was surprisingly clear today in London, where we enjoyed a day of blue skies, fluffy white clouds and sunshine, quite a change from yesterday's rain and gloom. I was informed that 17th January is regarded as the most depressing day of the year, which might explain why my thoughts turned to SAD yesterday. However, even with today's sunshine the temperatures didn't rise above 7 degrees C, so there was still good reason to wear an overcoat.

Who is that trench-clad person?
I packed my full selection of overcoats when I moved to London. In Sydney one's overcoats rarely wear out, being worn so infrequently, so I have an extensive selection gathered over the years. There is one in particular that I rather like, having found it in a rack of 'vintage' (i.e. pre-loved, aka second-hand) coats in a bric-a-brac shop in Canberra. It is a classic 'London Fog' (brand) trench coat, light weight, shower-proof, an unexceptional tan colour, with the fold-up collar and belted waist that places it squarely in the fashion genre "private detective, circa 1945".

You may have heard of the "London Fog" brand - its history goes back to 1923, when the 'Londontown Clothing Company' was founded, but note that it was a US company, which didn't open it's first London store until the 1970s. In the 1980s it was the world's largest maker of raincoats and outerwear. The company now has the ubiquitous 'superstores' and sells into the high-end market, with advertising campaigns featuring curvaceous models showing generous cleavage peeking out from their raincoats, indeed some barely clad in the coats. Whatever happened to the private detective in his trench?

The Thames River Valley

Of course the phrase 'London fog' also refers to London's (in)famous 'pea-soup' fogs of the 19th and early 20th century, caused by the fires from millions of chimneys, combined with the mists from the Thames River Valley. In fact, foul air from coal fires had been a feature of London life for centuries, ever since they chopped down all the trees for firewood and around the 12th century began burning icky coal fires. Read the history on this web site. One of the most startling facts about London fog is that a four-day fog in 1952 killed about 4000 people - following which some clean air regulations were finally passed - The Clean Air Act 1956. Almost as startling as the thought that someone over in the US would decide to name an overcoat after the fog...

Meanwhile, the fog must have been quite evocative, because it not only passed into folk-lore, with nicknames such as 'pea-souper', but also cropped up in stories, poems and songs. Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' (1880s - 1920 ish) wouldn't be the same without the foggy London streets through which the clients and criminals make their furtive way to 221b Baker Street.

I can also vividly recall reading for the first time of the image of 'yellow fog' in T S Eliot's 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'. I used to know this poem by heart:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,        
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,        
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And then there's Ella Fitzgerald singing 'A Foggy Day in London Town', a song composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and sung by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film 'A Damsel in Distress'. Lots of people have recorded it (Ella's version is a favourite of mine). Here's Fred doing the number - smooth, Fred, verrrry smooth....

A foggy day, In London town,
It had me low, And it had me down
I viewed the morning, With much alarm,
The British museum, Had lost it's charm
How long I wondered, Could this thing last,
But the age of miracles, It hadn't past
And suddenly, I saw you standing right there
And in foggy London town, The sun was shining everywhere

Humphrey Bogart, fetching in his trench coat
I think that's enough of a paean to air pollution. Let's return to the trench coat. Despite it's nominative connection to London, the 'London Fog' brand coat was not the first trench, and may not have been the brand Humphrey Bogart wore. The British trench coat was developed as an alternative to the heavy serge greatcoats worn by soldiers in the First World War. Invention of the trench coat is claimed by both Burberry and Aquascutum, with Aquascutum's claim dating back to the 1850s. The London Fog company made weather-proof coats for American soldiers in World War Two. As to the brand Humphrey is wearing...anyone know?

There's no doubt the trench coat looks fetching in winter weather, especially, I think, my somewhat crumpled 'vintage' version, labelled - UK origin or not - 'London Fog'.

Images from:

1 comment:

  1. I remember when you got that coat; glad it has come in handy.
    I saw 'Damsel in Distress' on late night TV recently, based on a PG Wodehose story - I haven't read it, but I suspect the movie might stray quite a bit from the original: