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A Brief History of Outdoor Clothing

1938 Esposito, Cassin, Tizzoni after the first ascent of the northern wall of the Pt. Walker, Grandes Jorasse
1958 Bonatti and Mauri, first ascent of the Gasherbrum IV
Habeler and Messner after the first ascent of the Gasherbrum I
1977 Gore-Tex advertisement
Until the beginning of the 70s, garments used for outdoor activities were made of wool, cotton, leather, and silk, while down filling had started to be used only since a decade or so, but almost exclusively for clothes used in the first epic expeditions to conquer 8000 m Himalayan peaks. All the materials used for clothing back in those days had great limitations: they either absorbed humidity very easily, as it was the case of wool, cotton, silk, and down, or they were far too heavy and not breathable, as leather. This has always been a serious problem for those who had to spend several hours, or even days, outdoor in cold climates exposed to rain and snow, like climbers for instance. For decades climbers had to suffer the discomfort, which could easily lead to life-threatening situations, due to the fact that their clothes were soaking with water and moisture and did not dry.

To obtain water-resistent clothes the manufacturers started to soak textile fibers with natural substances, such as greases and waxes, but soon those systems showed their weaknesses: short durability and no breathability whatsoever.

The real turning point came in the early 70s when Bob Gore was granted a patent (U.S. Patent 3953566for the invention of a process (already independently discovered in 1966 by the new zealander John W. Cropper) to obtain expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), which Gore introduced to the public under the trademark Gore-Tex®. The patented process consisted in stretching a rod of PTFE (more commonly known as Teflon) to produce a very thin, porous sheet. The resulting material, by virtue of its high porosity and of the size of its pores, forms a membrane that stops water droplets, but at the same time allows water vapor to pass through it. This invention marked the beginning of the modern era of waterproof and breathable clothes.

In those years Yvon Chouinard (climber and founder of Patagonia® and Black Diamond Equipment®) together with his wife and some collaborators were among the first to look for more practical and effective solutions to protect themselves from the cold when they were up in the mountains. Inspired by a staple of North Atlantic fishermen, the synthetic pile sweater, they decided to produce a similar garment to be used as a mountain sweater. They bought a stock of fabrics from a company that had just managed to avoid bankruptcy after the collapse of the fake fur coat market. They sewed a few sweater and when they tested them on the field in alpine conditions, they found them astonishingly warm, insulating even when wet, light, and extremely rapid to dry. These new garments also offered the remarkable advantage of reducing the number of layers to wear, therefore simplifying life of people spending long time outdoors in bad weather. The first pile garments were made from fabrics intended for toilet seat covers. On the field they had outstanding performances if compared to the traditional wool sweater and for this reason they had a great and very rapid success. Shortly, the new pile sweater became one of the most popular outdoor garment.

However, soon it became also clear that it made no sense to wear a quick-drying insulation layer over the usual cotton underwear, which instead absorbs body moisture and then freezes. So in 1980 Yvon and his group came out with the idea of producing an insulating long underwear made of polypropylene, a synthetic fiber which is very light and absorbs no water. 

Starting from these two "inventions", the sport clothing company Patagonia® was the first one to try to explain to the outdoor community, also through essays in its catalogs, the functionality of the layered clothing systemToday this system represents a standard, being almost universally accepted, especially among those who practice sport outdoors.