H2Over It

The Way We Waterproof feat. GoreTex, Mackintosh, Timothée Chalamet

  • Text: Alex Ronan
  • Illustration: Nathan Levasseur

There are many ways water can kill you, but not a single way to live without it. It’s equally damaging in absentia and abundance, in small doses and large ones. According to one dream decoding website, it symbolizes “life, death, change, rebirth and renewal, to name a few.”

Water gives us pruned fingers, hypothermia, and Timothée Chalamet—who presumably couldn’t catch a cab in the rain—on the subway in New York. He wore a Prada raincoat and a grin; his dripping hair indicated an unfamiliarity with the purpose of a hood, his ebullient manner suggested he doesn’t regularly have to depend on the MTA. But well before Prada and outerwear for a single type of precipitation, staying dry required a lot more work than knowing how to properly use a hood.

“When did humans start wearing clothes?” is a perfect question to Google at 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday, a means of procrastinating while feeling productive. The answer, it turns out, is 170,000 years ago.

With a shorter, stockier, and more muscular frame, Neanderthals were less susceptible to cold and thus less reliant on clothing—they favored primitive capes. Meanwhile, Homo sapiens’ vulnerability compelled them to develop specialized clothing for cold weather. When the world grew colder and the climate subject to rapid fluctuations between mild and freezing conditions, Homo sapiens showed up well dressed and having read Weather.com. They were, as Ian Gilligan writes in Climate, Clothing, and Agriculture in Prehistory: Linking Evidence, Causes, and Effects, “already familiar and proficient with making complex clothes. In effect, Homo sapiens were preadapted.” There is evidence that “as cold weather closed upon them,” Neanderthals began to develop this sort of complex clothing too, either through imitating neighboring Homo sapiens or of their own accord. But they wouldn’t survive the ice age.

Keeping moisture out is only half the battle, as our ancestors learned when the climate grew warmer, wetter, and more humid after the last glacial period ended some 12,000 years ago. Clothing that proved essential in the previously cold and dry periods no longer functioned as well. Homo sapiens could’ve simply shed their clothes, but, as Gilligan argues, thousands of years of covering up coincided with the rise of modesty. “[T]he problem of moisture in the postglacial world favored a great innovation,” he writes; that is, the development of woven fabrics with a level of porousness that facilitated sweat evaporation.

Over the centuries, with varying levels of success, humans have worked to develop clothing that keeps moisture out without trapping moisture in. Indigenous communities in North America have used seal skin and intestines as a waterproof material or furs slicked with fish oil to retain water resistance. The words “parka” and “anorak” come from the northern regions where specialty cold weather garments were perfected.

If today’s quintessential raincoat is a yellow one, that color betrays the failure of earlier outdoor gear. The association between yellow and rainwear emerged due to a flaw in the waterproofing agent used by 19th century Scottish sailors. Linseed oil offered a waterproof seal on canvas outerwear, but also became stiff and discolored. At first a byproduct of waterproofing, as technology evolved, the yellow color stuck for water-faring wearers, since it provided greater visibility. Off the water, this accidental component became a chosen one, well after the switch away from linseed oil coating. The practical promise of visibility merged with a psychological benefit—yellow as a cheery counterpoint to bad weather.

For centuries before Europeans showed up, Mesoamericans were making rubber from natural latex for a variety of purposes, including as a waterproofing agent. Some researchers believe they applied this waterproofing to clothing. Colonists brought rubber back to Europe in 1744 and struggled to figure out how to best make use of it in a variety of fields. Eighty years later, the Mackintosh raincoat hit the market, featuring two layers of fabric with a waterproof rubber layer in between. A Scottish classic that’s garnered international acclaim, Mackintosh’s recent high fashion collaborations include Vetements (SS17), 1017 ALYX 9SM (SS18), and Maison Margiela (SS18, men’s and women’s).

After the launch of the Mackintosh, it would be another few decades before Europeans learned how to stabilize rubber through a process known as vulcanization. Another innovation came from a London textile manufacturer by the name of George Spill. He added metal eyelets to the armpits of these new non-porous raincoats, a low-tech but brilliant answer to the increase in sweating caused by rubberized materials. Still, waterproof fabrics remained hard to work with, often cracking in the heat and growing sticky when warm. “[W]e do not have a great deal of rainwear from the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, and only a single rain hat (hardly a fashionable one at that),” one curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently lamented, attributing the problem to material deterioration.

In 1951, innovation meant Gannex, a waterproof fabric made of nylon on the outside and wool on the inside. Now less well known than some of its predecessors—say, the fictional Sherlock Holmes’ very real Inverness Cape—the Gannex raincoat spread from the United Kingdom across the world. In Surrender: How British Industry Gave Up The Ghost 1952-2012, Nicholas Comfort offers a list of Gannex raincoat wearers that sounds like the answer given by a certain kind of international relations major to that insipid “who would you invite to a dinner party?” question. “Gannex raincoats were worn by the Queen, her corgis and Prince Phillip, by President Johnson, Chairman Mao, and Nikita Khrushchev,” Comfort writes.

A decade later, raincoats got a little less stuffy. If the Chelsea Girl served as a symbol of the swinging 60s, Mary Quant gave them their signature style. In 1963, the British designer—credited with inventing the miniskirt—launched her Wet Collection, a slew of skirt suits, raincoats, and hats made entirely from PVC, a waterproof, plastic-coated cotton. According to the curator of a currently running exhibition on Quant, this represented the first fashion application of the material, though other designers quickly followed suit. Quant worked to make clothing that was functional and non-fussy, pieces that women could move in, dance in, and, as she once explained, wear when running to catch the bus. But her fully PVC numbers suggests her interest extended beyond the practical application to pure delight in the slick, already-wet-looking material itself. Appear sopping wet while staying delightfully dry.

In a similarly impressive feat, subsequent innovations made two seemingly impossible things true at the same time: fabric that’s both waterproof and breathable. Gore-Tex, a fabric porous enough to let small sweat particles out but not so large as to let the larger water particles in, filled their first orders in 1976. The material has since gone to space, Antarctica, and on my high school ski trip to Vermont. Numerous high-tech sounding competitors are making similarly arduous journeys. (A brand that’s prides itself on environmental stewardship, Gore-Tex has recently removed or is in the process of removing a number of environmental harmful chemicals from their fabrics’ lifecycle, chemicals often used to provide a waterproof or dirt resistant finish to outerwear.)

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing,” British rambler Alfred Wainwright once said, expressing a sentiment that’s beloved by dads, outdoor clothing retailers, and, apparently, all of Scandinavia. But what does one wear for a climate crisis? If you look to the fashion industry, the answer, doled out over the past few seasons, is militaristic meets outdoorsy. Performance fabrics, a plethora of uniquely sized pockets, and curt tailoring. Picture a soldier for good sense riding down a solar-powered escalator, smartly dressed to meet our dumb future.

The impact of the fashion industry on climate change is increasingly quantifiable, but what’s less easy to chart is how humankind’s shift to clothing our bodies impacted the environment around us. In his book, Gilligan argues that the emergence of agriculture had more to do with producing textiles than previously believed. He also reminds readers of the role textiles played in fueling the industrial revolution. Manchester, England was the site of the first modern factories and those factories were devoted to cotton textiles, which helps explain the city’s nickname of Cottonopolis.

The rise of plastics in the 20th century made waterproof outerwear cheaper and easier to manufacture. Water-proofing has become both increasingly high tech and increasingly common for everyday wear, synthetics spread across the globe. There’s now a certain type of outdoorsy bro who doesn’t ever step foot outside city limits, more interested in amassing gear than actually going anywhere. I find something premonitory in his daily uniform, that is, an alarming reversal; man need not seek out the natural world, instead, he can expect nature will impose its will on him, best to be prepared. In the wake of the latest headlines on climate change, it’s hard not to picture a future in which our waterproof gear has outlasted us all.

All this reminds me of a Lawrence Weiner print I once saw hanging in someone’s bathroom. WATER FINDS ITS OWN LEVEL, it reads, with an upward-moving yellow arrow. Bottom right, slightly askew is the word HOWSOEVER. The text, in its entirety, reads WATER FINDS ITS OWN LEVEL HOWSOEVER, the sentiment hovering somewhere between threat and promise.

Alex Ronan is a writer and reporter from New York.

  • Text: Alex Ronan
  • Illustration: Nathan Levasseur
  • Date: January 31, 2020