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The Genuine Mackintosh Coat: A British Style Icon

I love searching for bargains at yard sales, thrift stores, and charity shops. As fast as I donate items, I acquire new ones.

A window display for the Mackintosh brand in upmarket Burlington Arcade, London.

A window display for the Mackintosh brand in upmarket Burlington Arcade, London.

The Original Mackintosh Raincoat

What do you think of when you hear the term Mackintosh raincoat? Private investigators, shadowy lone figures, sexually challenged men, and Dirk Bogart? That’s so 20th century! The 21st century genuine Mackintosh branded raincoat, or Mack, is an upmarket style icon, and is especially popular with Japanese women.

The words mackintosh or mac have evolved into a generic term for any waterproof raincoat, but the original Mackintosh coat is made from natural cotton fabric coated with a rubber solution. The process, discovered and patented by Scottish chemist, Charles Macintosh, waterproofs the fabric using rubber dissolved in coal-tar naphtha. The process was patented in 1823 and the first genuine Mackintosh raincoats were sold in 1824.

The Google Doodle for 29 December 2016 celebrates Macintosh's 250th birthday. It shows him enjoying a Scottish rain shower whilst testing his invention.

The Google Doodle for 29 December 2016 celebrates Macintosh's 250th birthday. It shows him enjoying a Scottish rain shower whilst testing his invention.

Waterproof Rubber Coated Cotton Fabric

Charles Macintosh (1766-1843) was born in Glasgow, Scotland, UK. (But don’t confuse this Victorian inventor with Charles Rennie Mackintosh (with a k) (1868-1928) who was a famous Scottish architect.)

Charles Macintosh (without the k) worked in the cloth dying industry. He was a talented inventor and industrial chemist. He discovered that coal-tar naphtha acted as a solvent when applied to rubber. He experimented with various uses for this novel rubber solution. The most practical and commercially viable one was to paint it onto garments to make them waterproof. He made a fabric “sandwich” by spreading the rubber solution between two bolts of cotton cloth. This made the fabric rainproof.

In eighteenth century Scotland, people travelled by horseback or walk miles on foot. There were no cars or bikes. In wet and stormy weather (for which Scotland is well known) waterproof clothing was a welcome advance.

A worker operates a calendaring machine in the rubber factory of Charles Macintosh and Sons Ltd, Manchester, England, September 1918.

A worker operates a calendaring machine in the rubber factory of Charles Macintosh and Sons Ltd, Manchester, England, September 1918.

Calendaring Produces Thin Rubber Sheets

Raw rubber is transformed by being smoothed and thinned into delicate sheets before it can be applied to fabric. This process is called calendaring and the rubber is pressed between heavy rollers.

A calendaring machine presses the mixed and refined rubber mixture into rubber sheets of a consistent thickness and quality. The thin rubber sheets are then used either between or on top of various textiles to form a fabric sandwich.

Portrait of Charles Macintosh, inventor and industrial chemist.

Portrait of Charles Macintosh, inventor and industrial chemist.

The Name Macintosh Becomes Mackintosh

Charles Macintosh was an inventor, not a businessman. To make the most of his invention he needed an investor, someone with money as well as knowledge and experience of the garment industry. In 1824 he found just such a business partner in Hugh Hornby Birley. Birley owned a factory in Manchester, England and all his business interests were there. Macintosh was based in Scotland, but the investor was based in England and so although initially production started in Scotland, by 1840 the company had moved its manufacturing base to Manchester, England.

One result of the partnership was a change to the spelling of the brand name. Charles Macintosh (a Scot) spelt his name the Scottish way. In England the same name is spelled with a k. Thus Charles Macintosh (the man’s name) is spelled without a k. Mackintosh (the raincoat brand) is correctly spelled with a k.

Ancoats Mills, Manchester, England. Parts of these cotton mills date back to 1798.

Ancoats Mills, Manchester, England. Parts of these cotton mills date back to 1798.

Manchester's Nickname Was Cottonopolis

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Manchester, England, UK was the center of the world’s cotton spinning and weaving industry. This concentration of industry gave 19th century Manchester the nickname, Cottonopolis.

By 1871, one third of the entire global cotton harvest was processed in Manchester and its satellite towns. This steady source of cheap cotton fabric defined the Manchester area, and made it a good choice for Macintosh’s new rubberized textile venture.

Timeline of a Style Classic

  • 1823 Chemist Macintosh patents his rubber coated fabric process.
  • 1824 Factory owner Birley becomes a partner.
  • 1824 Arctic exploration team trial rubber coated waterproof canvas bags, air-beds and pillows made by the Macintosh patented process.
  • 1834 Inventor Hancock joins the team.
  • 1841 The British Army orders waterproof clothing for all its troops. The rubberized coats and capes were functional and hard wearing and became standard army issue.
  • 1843 Death of Charles Macintosh, and the company enters a period of decline.
  • 1945 Rubberized trench coat for the troops issued by The British Army.
  • 1951 The Mackintosh coat is shown at The Grand Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London, reviving the company’s fortune.
  • 2007 Yagi Tsusho Ltd. buys the iconic Mackintosh brand.

Behind the Heritage Fashion Brand

Mackintosh Raincoats Are a Fashion Favorite

The vulcanized rubber fabric used today in Mackintosh coats is virtually the same as that first produced nearly two hundred years ago. To maintain the waterproof quality of the fabric, stitching holes are recoated with the rubber solution. It’s a labor-intensive process and this is reflected in the price of the finished product. Modern manufacturing processes mean that Mackintosh raincoats are lighter and easier to wear than they used to be.

What Make a Mackintosh Coat Special?

The British Fashion Council describes a Mackintosh raincoat as follows.

"Each seam is glued and taped by hand, ensuring the coats are 100% waterproof. This technique is exclusive to Mackintosh. As well as ensuring that the seams of each coat are waterproof, this technique makes it easier to join both curved edges and corners.

All the seams are stitched and then each seam has the rubber-based glue applied, then rolled to make it flat. Following this, the glue is applied again so that tape can be applied on top of each seam."

Fashion Influencers Love Mackintosh Coats

Who Owns the Mackintosh Brand Now?

Most people think the Mackintosh fashion brand is British, but this is no longer true. In 2000 there was a management buyout in an attempt to save jobs. The new company continued to experience financial difficulties and in 2007 the Mackintosh brand was sold to a Japanese fashion company, Yagi Tsusho Ltd. Mackintosh raincoats are a status symbol in Japan and are very popular with Japanese consumers. Yagi Tsusho injected much needed capital into the brand and embarked on tie-ups with prominent fashion designers. As a result, the Mackintosh brand raincoats have gone from strength to strength and retain their iconic style status.

For an illuminating read on how fashion houses turn their products into fashion classics, I recommend Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara. It gives a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes working of the fashion industry.

Fans of the Mackintosh brand are said to have included actors Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Sellers and Audrey Hepburn. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is also said to wear the brand.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Victoria Hannah from Sydney, Australia on February 19, 2020:

Heavens Beth, you had me onto the Mackintosh website for about 10 mins after reading your very interesting article. Wow, they are pricey but very beautiful; I have worked in fashion for many years and understand the process of top quality garments like this.

I did not know they were bought out by the Japanese, thank you for such an insight into this iconic brand.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 08, 2020:

It is interesting to look back and read about the history of a brand that I grew up with. You have done a great job in charting the Mackintosh story.

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