The Story Of Rainwear was published in three parts in Atomage A5 editions 26, 27 and 28. It gives a detailed history of the development of rainwear.
The Story Of Rainwear (Part 1)
|Our picture oppposite is from a 1933 ‘Klepper’ French macintosh catalogue and introduces a new series on rainwear, compiled for Atomage by a reader whose collection of catalogues and press cuttings forms a complete history going back 150 years.|
A letter in a national newspaper complained at the number of umbrellas now seen in the countryside. The writer always understood that umbrellas were correct in town, but that in the country one wore a macintosh and a tweed or soft felt hat. He was right (with the exception of those indominatable old ladies who are a law unto themselves and have carried large brollies, wet or fine, since the days of Sarah Gamp) and his letter illustrated the force of social conventions in Britain, the home of the macintosh and the umbrella. Convention is commonsense fossilised. Fashion is seldom sensible, and for most of the last 150 years – the period since the invention of the macintosh – high fashion emphasised that milady was not bounded by commonsense at all. Until 1914, and perhaps until 1939, to be really fashionable was almost a full-time occupation for a woman. A form of bondage a little less restricting than poverty.
The natural distinction between life in the country and life in town was hardened, and in town milady seldom went out on foot. She walked only for pleasure and only when the weather smiled. At other times she rode, and if it rained it was someone else’s job to hold an umbrella over her as she stepped between door and carriage or car. In London, or at a spa or watering place she had no need of rainwear, and in the country or at sporting events she wore country clothes which were practical and not really considered to be fashion, apart from the special clothes for particular fashionable sports.
While fashion was for the wealthy few, rainwear was never fashionable. The many – the working class and the very poor – wore what they could afford, and a few trimmings when times were good marked the limit of their concern for style. Middle class women did not work; the few who prospered in the professions cultivated an air of respectability, and the rest either did likewise or aped their ‘betters’. In either case, smart rainwear was not needed. Actresses and other women who earned their livings in public were, of course, despised and their influence on fashion was restricted largely to what they wore on stage (at a time when a theatrical costume was, if anything, more artificial than fashion itself).
Before the industrial revolution, rain generally stopped work as well as play; in a largely agricultural community work was geared to the seasons and the weather, and only shepherds and farm hands, wrapped in plaids and cloaks, and seamen and fishermen in their oilskins, faced storms as a matter of course. Well-equipped sentries and watchmen wore leather or tarpaulin capes, coats or jerkins; others made do with greatcoats, or shivered and cursed. Waggoners and travellers huddled under canvas or tarpaulin while the road remained passable. When they could go no further they, like the labourers in the fields, sought shelter. Women wrapped themselves in the long dark, winter cloaks beloved by the designers of historical plays and films, or flung their skirts over their heads, or borrowed their menfolk’s gear.
The coming of stage coaches, and then railways and steamships, keeping to timetables, and the development of factories with regular working hours, meant that people had to go on in heavy rain, where before they would have stopped and sheltered, so Charles Macintosh’s invention in the 1820’s had a ready market among prosperous workers. Tarpaulin was too hard and heavy for active work, and the same was true for leather thick enough to be rainproof. Oilskins were better but needed the care that seamen gave them, for seamen in those days made their own from canvas coats which they dressed regularly with linseed soil. The thick cloth of winter coats and the tightly woven linen of the country man’s smock gave protection against showers, but were useless when wet through, so it is not surprising that only four years separated Thomas Hancock’s development of rubber as a raw material (where before it had been only a curiosity) and Charles Macintosh’s discovery that fabrics could be proofed by a solution of rubber in naphtha.
SICKNESS AND SMELL
“There is a wild garment that still carries nobly the name of a wild Highland clan … I like to think of all the Macintoshs, in their macintoshes, descending on some doomed Lowland village, their wet waterproofs flashing in the sun or moon”. Unfortunately, despite G.K. Chesterton’s romantic vision, Macintosh was a Manchester dyer when he patented macintosh fabric in 1823 and produced the first macintosh coat in 1824. He worked with Hancock, who later recalled that they were proofing 3 – 4 thousand square yards of double-texture material a day before 1840. In 1825 the Duke of York appeared on parade in a blue macintosh cape, lined with crimson silk, and the Guards followed his example. Sportsmen of all classes, explorers and outdoor workers gladly adopted macintosh coats and capes, and today’s riding macs, council workmen’s coats and soldiers’ cape groundsheets are lineal descendants of these early garments.
There were ‘buts’, of course. Until Goodyear discovered vulcanisation in 1839, the rubber was sticky in ho1 weather and liable to crack in cold, Without carefully placed ventilation holes the active wearer was soon in a sort of Turkish bath, and some doctors spoke of ‘rubber-sickness’ as a result. Also a long coat of stout double texture cotton, with a generous rubber layer, was at least as heavy as a greatcoat. A further problem was that tailors disliked working with a material that must have been more like leather than ordinary cloth. Seams needed splitting and taping to make them waterproof, and then could not be pressed to lie smoothly, so gave no opportunity for the tailor’s art. Most macintoshes, therefore, were raglan sleeved or sleeveless with a hip-length over-cape, ready made on the ‘LMS’ system – large, medium or small.
Early macs smelled. In muggy weather you could smell them across a street. It is reported that in a small market town on a wet market day the smell stopped the church clock – but the smells of wet wool and wet cows may have contributed. Mandleberg’s (of Manchester) were the first to avoid This with their ‘FFO’ coats (Free From Odour). Nowadays rubber chemistry has reduced the smell and masked it with vanilla and other perfumes.
|Wearing her smart, modern, military style, satinised rubber coat, one of our lady readers ‘Erika’ points to how the raincoat has moved up the fashion ladder from inauspicious beginnings.|
WOMEN’S FIRST MACS
As the 19th century advanced, lighter cloth, thinner rubber coatings and single-textured material made a macintosh for women a less formidable object, but mantle-makers were as reluctant as tailors of work rubberised materials. Ladies had little need of macintoshes, and it was the working class woman who provided the market for macs made up on the LMS system like the men’s.
Women did not wear tailored coats in those days, and the various shapes of skirt and bodice, emulated by all classes where possible, did not encourage fitted rainwear. Capes and loose caped coats were the commonest forms, often with pointed monks’ hoods in place of collars. A hooded cape which goes over everything – even a crinoline – gives good protection, but these garments in drab colours and tough materials had nothing of the romantic about them, and it seems certain that women wore them only when they had to.
The second major advance in rainwear occurred in Basingstoke, where Thomas Burberry had set up as a young clothier in 1856. He delighted in sport and noted the value of the countryman’s linen smock and its rain shedding power. He devised a close woven cotton cloth, chemically treated to prevent the fibres absorbing water, and registered the trade name Gabardine in 1879. This registration was later dropped owing to the similarity of the word ‘gaberdine’ used for the ancient Jewish cloaks. Burberry’s earliest garments were like smocks and meant for sportsmen, but later he designed the Walking Burberry, prototype of the classic English raincoat, straight cut, fly-fronted, buttoned to the neck, with storm collar and slashed pockets. The riding mac was similar apart from wide skirts, which made a belt and leg-straps advisable in gusty weather; square flapped pockets and other details could be varied to taste.
At its best the chemically proofed coat is thoroughly effective, and as the material can be tailored and pressed it can be made up into a fashionable coat. But the need to proof it in the yarn as well as in the piece and the need for a tight weave to reduce porosity combine to restrict the range of suitable materials. Other materials proofed in the piece are only showerproof, and the urge to reduce costs has resulted in a lot of doubtful garments debasing the reputation of the class as a whole.
One further advantage of the chemically proofed coat, which collected the name ‘raincoat’ is that it can be dry-cleaned and re-proofed, while ordinary dry cleaning fluids dissolve the rubber of a macintosh, and only since 1945 has it been possible to clean macintoshes with confidence. Hence the raincoat could be made in delicate colours, while macintoshes tended to look grubby after much wear unless they were tough enough to be scrubbed. Right up to modern times raincoats were worn as ordinary coats when macintoshes were hardly suitable for everyday wear. Unless lined, they were not warm, the scrubbable ones such as the riding mac were not stylish, and the stylish ones under hard wear soon became ‘my old mac’.
|From an advertisement in a French journal December 1928: on the left and right coats “for the rain in rubber”. The price was 12 francs. The coat in the background is in leather.|
FASHION AND PREJUDICE
Around 1870 fashionable women started to break out of the ‘Victorian’ restrictions. The Queen and her contemporaries went on in the old way, but younger women started joining the men in their sports and open-air pursuits. Cycling, tennis, shooting, climbing, adventurous travel, all demanded clothes that permitted active movement, and women started to go to men’s tailors for coats and suits. They still wished to look well, and to retain a feminine air, although laces, ruffles and bows, had to be restricted to a token display at the throat, so a sports style was evolved with tweeds and plain clothes tailored to follow a modified ‘fashionable’ line. Whilst the English woman’s town dress might miss the pinnacles of chic, “pour le sport” she undoubtedly led, and this included “pour la pluie” with a range of macintoshes and raincoats and proofed suits (and footwear and boots) made as a necessary and natural part of sporting dress.
This type of rainwear was “socially acceptable” for the country, but it was naturally dull from the point of view of fashion. Plain in colour and style, ankle length or slightly shorter, in appearance it differed little from the ordinary working rainwear, although quality of materials, fit and finish were infinitely superior. Travel wraps allowed more in the way of cut and colour, and some elaborate town coats were made in rubberised silk, trimmed with braid or piping, but the town in macintosh remained under a cloud for a variety of reasons, of which the technical difficulty of making-up was probably the least.
Prejudice against the macintosh was limited almost entirely to women. Men had worn them in wet weather since their invention, and the raincoat was now as common as the overcoat for everyday wear. For women, perhaps guilt by association with miserable days would count, coupled with an irrational hope that the weather would stay fine indefinitely, so making a macintosh unnecessary. The fact that a ‘mac’ was then an additional garment, shed when the rain stopped, meant that it was not considered as part of an ensemble: and as it did not rain everyday, a woman who owned a dozen coats could make do with one mac, and did not want that to clash with hats and accessories matched to the dress beneath. Snobbishness made a smart woman want to look as if her carriage was waiting, even when it was not. If she was obliged to walk in the rain, she aimed to look as though she had come up to town on business, and would be back in the country oefore dinner. Finally, and probably most potent of all, further guilt by association damned the smart macintosh. One group of women tried to look smart in all weathers, and no respectable woman waiking or waiting in the rain would risk being mistaken for a prostitute.
Some of these reasons are true today, and if prostitutes no longer parade the streets of London, the spread of school uniforms for girls has led many women to hate raincoats along with gym-slips and to boast that they have not owned a macintosh or raincoat since they cast off their school gabardines.
Up until 1914 the prejudice was so strong that it may be seen reflected in cartoons and magazine illustrations where pretty girls almost invariably wore coats and carried umbrellas in the rain; dowdy women wore macintoshes. Only at a sporting event or a long country walk did a heroine dress for the rain, and she shed her chrysalis as soon as possible after meeting the hero. The convention ensured that artists drew frumpish rainwear for frumpish characters, and ugly macintoshes to emphasise the distress of damsels – and so they reinforced the convention. Fashion magazines of this period reflected the situation: rainwear was not news. The rainwear trade had no exciting wares to show, so one may search volumes of bound magazines before finding an editorial illustration of a macintosh. Raincoats are more common, especially in magazines intended as guide for dressmakers. There one will sometimes come across a coat which ‘may be made up in proofed material’. The alternative materials are usually tweed or woollen cloths, so the proofed material intended was likely to be chemically proofed.
Cotton or linen dust coats and driving coats could be made up in rubberised material, but these coats seldom differed much from the classic raincoat, so had little fashion interest. Manufacturers seldom had the resources to promote their garments, so advertisements were usually small and wordy, and thumbnail illustrations were used over and over for years – a sure sign of the unfashionable! Department stores and fashionable dress drops advertised, but seldom advertised rainwear.
Rainwear began to improve from about 1910 and a new era in rainwear began – but that story must wait for Part II
…to be continued
The Story Of Rainwear (Part 2)
Rainwear began to improve from about 1910 when the motor car was becoming more reliable and motoring was less of an adventure. Fashionable women had wrapped themselves in heavy waterproofs to ride in the earliest cars, and from about 1900 motor clothes developed a style of their own. Then as folding hoods for cars and closed saloons became more common, so ladies could adopt lighter and smarter coats for ‘motoring’, though proofing was still advisable. The silk coat – satin or taffeta, likely rubberised – was sufficient for the car and smart enough to wear at the end of the journey.
In all this the general movement of fashion helped, for the silhouette had become more natural, and a slim coat hanging straight from the shoulders, without exaggeration in sleeves or skirt, did not automatically proclaim itself a macintosh if the material were rubberised inside. Revers and turn-back cuffs in a contrasting shade or a different material, and elaborate buttons or other trimmings presented no difficulty, and stylish (and expensive) macintoshes were advertised by firms such as Elvery’s and illustrated in the catalogues of big stores.
Firms such as Burberry’s and proofers such as the Cravenette Company advertised town raincoats similar in cut and finish to the best ready-made unproofed coats. They were helped by the fact that a market was developing for good ready-made clothing and the similar ‘made to measure’ clothing now sold by large stores. Models designed or adapted to the current year’s fashion appeared and bright colours were offered for lightweight raincoats in oiled Jap silk. The norm was still a grey, fawn, mole or navy macintosh built on the LMS system, and customers were still invited to order by post ‘stating height.’
The first World War led to social changes that would not have occurred in the same way in peacetime, and these changes were reflected in fashion. The nurses and voluntary workers who followed the Army to France wore ankle-length skirts, but not for long. After the first year or so war work at home became serious and all but the most frivolous women dressed in styles that followed the practical pattern of country clothes. Private cars and taxis became rare and in 1917 women walked and worked in flared skirts that reached only to mid-calf.
|An advert from The Sphere dated 30th May 1914 almost the eve of World War I which was to make a dramatic change in the social patterns and on fashion. Where today would you find a firm to guarantee rainwear for two years?|
THE TRENCH COAT
Army officers in France adopted the ‘trenchcoat’ in place of the cumbersome long greatcoats. The origin of the name was obvious and the trenchcoat was proofed, double-breasted with a good wrapover and yoked with an extra layer of material; loose enough to go over sweaters, scarves and jackets; belted to hold the bulk in; short length so it kept clear of the mud of the trench.
Women were soon wearing feminine versions of the same practical coat and by mid-1917 a flared, belted, calf-length raincoat was advertised – a complete change from the long straight coats of the preceding years. Men on leave welcomed a sight of shapely legs, and were not adverse to femininity and fashion, so for the first time since the Napoleonic era a simple and girlish look became high fashion, with the couturiers following their clients rather than leading them.
FIVE BOB STYLE
After 1918 and the end of the war, skirts dropped and a romantic look returned to fashion. Capes and hoods and draperies enjoyed a new popularity but very soon the short skirts and jazzy patterns of the Charleston era, worn by a new generation, took over the lead . A macintosh in town was no longer a solecism though the bulk of those worn were still in the three classic styles – walking, riding or trenchcoat. Young women of good family earned their own livings, and some of their working class contemporaries earned good wages and could afford to dress with a measure of style, if not high fashion. Frilly ‘impractical’ clothes were reserved for evenings and formal occasions such as Ascot.
The prejudices against stylish rainwear lingered too despite- the efforts of the better manufacturers. Torillhon in Paris introduced named models like ‘Daisy’ and ‘Dolly’, shown in 1919, available in rubberised cloth or gaberdine, with cut and trimming similar to unproofed coats of the period. Even the hautiest of the haute couture showed macintoshes occasionally and achieved the honour of a full-page plate in a snob magazine.
Nevertheless, rainwear between the wars was seldom more than ‘with’ fashion in general; at its worst it was no better than before 1900. In fact rainwear manufacture, apart from a few well established firms, was almost a cottage industry and illustrated all the characteristics of a’Boom and Bust’ economy. Small firms without adequate control sprang up in back streets in and around Manchester. They obtained supplies of the cheapest rubberised cloth on credit and this was made up on the LMS system to standardised patterns. The resulting garments were hawked to wholesalers and stores at cut-throat prices.
The clothing trade is well known for having five seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter, and slack; for rainwear there were only two – wet, and slack. A long wet spell meant that those fin-as could not fill the orders available, and a long dry one made them bankrupt. Few could afford to carry enough stock to stand the fluctuation in demand.
The macintoshes they made, unlined fawn or drab slip-on styles, sometimes lacking pockets and other amenities, sold for five shillings (old money) apiece in shops selected by the man who bought the overalls and aprons (which in those days were not colourful nylon affairs). If it rained, a rack-full was dragged to the front door by the haberdashery and a high proportion of total sales in towns consisted of such rainy-day sales, as is true of the cheap plastic macs today. Like the plastic mac of those days it was pushed into the hall cupboard at home, available to anyone caught by a sudden shower. Neither in the store nor the home did it come into the fashion department; bought, worn once, flung into a mixture of brollies, mufflers, gum boots and old coats, it waited glumly for the next rainy day. In that famous novel ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier, the second Mrs. de Winter is provided with an over-large raincoat from a heap in the flower room of her stately home.
Further up the scale the picture was not much better. Some established firms advertised three ladies’ models – belted coat, unbelted coat, and cape – in up to six dull colours. Bust measurement as well as height was invited from those ordering by post, so a larger range of sizes than the bare LMS was made, but emphasis was still on durability at a low price, and durable garments must never be too stylish or they go out of fashion. Finally, a few specialist retailers and the better department stores sold good quality rainwear – usually under their own labels, no matter which firm made the coats – and sold off the previous year’s styles in January sales. Even then the bulk of sales was of classic styles; ‘fancy’ macs were likely to make a brave show on the wax dummies until the end of the season.
After the outrageous styles of the twenties, outerwear became dull in the thirties as the bright young things grew older and the slump clouded the future. The wave of development in fashion which followed the first World War was receding, but the plain walking styles adopted for coats made classic styles for rainwear less noticeable in comparison; a good quality mac was less of a Cinderella, and in 1931 the idea of looking smart in the rain was propounded in one magazine, the writer suggesting a black double-breasted raincoat with selected black and white accessories. By 1934 a military look was ‘in’ and long slender belted macintoshes in clear colours and white might sport buttoned pockets, shoulder straps and flaps to look like a Ruritanian army version of the classic trenchcoat.
At the other end of the scale, a lightweight Indiana belted macintosh could be had for 125 cigarette coupons, and a plain walking style in drab material enlivened by coloured facings to the collar, cuffs and pockets was advertised as ‘smart’.
Development began again in 1936. Schiaparelli used translucent sheet rubber for a floor-length evening cape and hood, and in the next few years this unsupported sheet, as well as very fine oiled cotton, was used for lightweight coats and capes. Some were printed with dots and other patterns, one outfit having a small scattering of cats and dogs. These materials were rather fragile and stud fastenings and tie-belts were used to avoid the need to reinforce buttons and button holes. Styles were usually very simple, and this simplicity was continued for the completely transparent macintoshes in Pliofilm and a cellophane like material which followed the sheet rubber garments.
Three quarter length swagger coats became popular for general wear in the late 30s. Their cut and drape could be carried out well in leather and the heavier rubberised fashion fabrics, as well as in bright patterned silks and cottons. Swagger macintoshes and raincoats were in the stream of fashion, and coloured photographs of the brighter macintoshes began to appear in magazines. By the outbreak of war in 1939 technical developments in proofing, a wider range of textiles, the first zip-fastened rainwear and new designs of hoods and capes showed the possibility of rainwear developing a style of its own. And, for the woman without much money to spend, the choice was widening; a mail-order catalogue listed fourteen different styles at prices ranging from 5/- to £2, although the styles were mainly classics, the colours mainly traditional, and the illustrations mainly dull.
The second World War made modem rainwear possible; its effects made manufacturers and customers look at rainwear in a new way. In France women strove to look smart despite defeat and occupation. Elegant women rode bicycles in Canadiennes – thigh length belted jackets, often proofed and hooded, while the remaining couturiers used oilskin and gabardine to help keep fashion alive. In Britain, compulsory employment for women, the banning of private motoring, and rigorous clothes rationing made any macintosh or raincoat that could do duty as a topcoat doubly valuable, In the United States a former seasonal trade in cheap macintoshes was turned into an all year fashion trade.
The shortage of rubber promoted the development of synthetic rubbers and plastics for war purposes, while Amerian designers, without competition from Paris, developed lined raincoats that would stand a blizzard as well as rain. The U.S. edition of Vogue in 1944 illustrated a short, belted corduroy raincoat worn over a short evening dress, when taxis were desperately few and American fashions were world leaders. In Britain the double-texture coat, though heavy on coupons, was durable and made best use of the available rubber. By using different colours for the two textile layers, contrasting facings etc., reversible coats could be made, an the idea that serviceable macintoshes were necessarily dull was disproved. Oiled cotton was popular for lightweight coats, and needed few clothing coupons. One such coat by Valstar was illustrated in colour on the cover of the British edition of Vogue, the coat being cream with an attached hood lined in green and yellow plaid.
Shortages and controls lasted for years after the war ended in 1945, but fashion at the couture level could be re-established more quickly than most trade. The New Look was soon holding women’s attention everywhere and although it was really a backward look, like the romantic escapist wave after the first World War, it would not mix with wartime styles. Many women moaned that it was no good wearing an old look mac over a new-look dress.
Fashion was no longer for the few, younger women assumed the right to be in fashion, and most of them had jobs, at least until they married. Jobs meant fixed hours and commuting for most; buses, taxis and private cars were still scarce and the wartime habit of sensible clothes for weekday wear persisted. A proofed coat of some sort was still a necessity for all but the foolish, of which the usual proportion still existed. Britain’s prolific magazines for women included a new type, usually monthly, aimed at the smart young woman with a job; these magazines reviewed clothes, paying attention to value for money and fitness for purpose as well as to style, without being preoccupied with home and children on the one hand, or culture and snob values on the other. They took (and still take) great interest in rainwear, and have done much to develop women’s knowledge of types of proofing and materials, and to encourage an informed choice.
Post-war styles were mainly the classics adapted to the new length and fullness of the skirt, some dressy macintoshes were given the new look styling, but these were for the few, and the most important change lies in the old feminine habit. Once women had accepted the idea of a macintosh as part of the wardrobe, they looked around for suitable models to supplement the classic styles; they found them where they had found the oilskin, the riding mac and the trenchcoat – on their menfolk – and proceeded to borrow and adapt the duffel coat, the slicker, the poncho, the parka, the formal Chesterfield and the humble working jacket.
In the technical field, traditional materials were supplemented by synthetic textiles and blends and variants of older textiles. What proved to be most important of all in the long run was the invention of the third major type of rainwear – the PVC coat. Polyvinyl chloride is a synthetic plastic developed during the war and was available soon afterwards in sheet form to make the basic ‘plastic mac’ although its full potential was not realised until much later.
Social acceptability, demand, materials and methods of manufacture, press publicity, general economic and social development, these all contributed in the late 1940s to the establishment of rainwear as a major branch of fashion, creative in its own right, and feeding as well as following fashion in general. In the export drives that followed the war effort, Britain offered a wide range of rainwear, both classic and fancy. The basic fawn walking style in rubber and chemically proofed cotton was well to the fore and much appreciated in Northern Europe.
The plastic mac was worn all over Britain, milky whites and glass-clear being joined by bright colours and glossy black in 1947. Welded seams were also introduced in 1947, but for a long time the cheaper types were stitched and, therefore liable to leak, and plastic’s fashion status remained low. One Paris house showed a transparent jacket over a tweed jacket in 1951; thereafter Britain seems to have been the principal home of the plastic mac.
In 1955, according to The Times – “They (plastic macs) are still cheap and they are still unbecoming”, but at least they were sturdier than earlier versions. Terylene net sandwiched between two layers of plastic (1958) together with reinforcement of button holes and other weak points made a stronger but dearer coat possible, but technical development was balanced by a tendency to elaborate patterns and surface effects and a disastrous urge to imitate textiles. Some women ‘managed’ with last year’s plastic mac through the winter, and bought a new one for the holidays (9s.lld at C.&A. Modes in 1960); the picture of people in plastic macs plodding around a rainwashed seaside resort, killing time until the next meal, may have helped the trend to holidays abroad. ‘A slick chick in a plastic mac looks like a pre-packed, plastic-wrapped, oven-ready chicken’ said some wag about 1963, and the plastic mac joined the cheap single texture fawn mac in the limbo of frumpishness.
Nylon gained ground rapidly for better quality lightweights, being smarter than cotton and stronger than silk.
In 1947 both rubberised and oiled nylon coats were available, and later nylon was proofed with synthetic oil, silicones and plastic. In France, ‘Cracknyl’ with a waffled surface was used by Balmain in 1951, and subsequently enjoyed enormous popularity. Tourists all over Europe have at one time or another carried oiled or rubberised nylon coats. They were usually loosely cut and belted, and often looked like the original trenchcoat, although blue (from slate to navy) was the most popular colour. The fact that it couldn’t be mistaken for the passe fawn Indiana seems insufficient cause of the choice of colour. So does the fact that blue goes well with the blonde hair of Scandinavians, who are particular about rainwear. Perhaps the answer lies in the choice of the darker blues by men, coupled with the frequency of’ matched ‘his and hers’ nylon coats? Certainly, the lightweight nylon, down to 9oz. by 1960 and folding to a small package seems here to stay.
In 1947 rubberised macs were made in bright colours as well as the classic shades, together with a range of checks, plaids, stripes; cotton or rayon, in satin or plain weaves, were the staple materials.
The particular draping qualities of rubberised fabrics suited the loose tentlike coat silhouette which followed the universal lengthening of skirts, and ‘fashion appeal’ allowed better quality and finish without undue cost as manufactures took advantage of mass production economies. Half lining to prevent clamminess from condensation, and full lining to improve drape and comfort, also permitted lighter rubber layers by reducing wear at “contact points”. Expensive macintoshes were lined before 1939, and some plaid-lined warm macintoshes were made, but it was during 1950-60 that the full benefit of warm linings was felt as pile lining and foam interlining, often detachable, became popular.
Raincoats were made in a wide range of colours, pale and bright, but patterns were rare, apart from the plaids. Tweeds and poplins were used, as well as the traditional wool, cotton or mixture gabardines. Grenfell cloth, and Byrd cloth in U.S.A., both named after explorers and previously used mainly for specialised clothing were used for high quality coats, and Byrd cloth even appeared in an ankle-length fitted evening coat. The coat or suit which might (or might not) be proofed was common by 1949, and many coat and suit manufacturers offered proofed models at prices fractionally higher than prices for their normal unproofed versions.
The Story Of Rainwear (Part 3)
Experiment was in the air in 1949. British designers showed their paces with models ranging from styled-up trenchcoats in fashionable fabrics to hand-made macintoshes in rubberised pure silk. One velvet-collared rayon tie-silk model used 7’/z yards (7 metres) of material, while among French couturiers Balmain, Bruyere, Griffe and Balenciaga showed rainwear of imaginative design and generous use of material.
Since 1950 rainwear has been news. Fashion writers have not tired of pointing out how fine the new rainwear is – usually beginning their articles with a backward glance at the dull, drab macs of yesteryear. Photographs of the Queen and Princess Margaret wearing capes at race meetings gave macs a social cachet they had never had before, while on a different plane The Times and The Daily Telegraph published illustrated articles on the latest rainwear on the same day in 1955. And Greta Garbo continued to wear her classic raincoat.
In Paris, Balmain designed coats for Alligator (of London), and Givenchy designed for Bucol – at a price in France which an English reporter hesitated to quote. In London, John Cavanagh designed for Burberry’s and Michael Sherard designed for Mandelberg (in Manchester – the Valstar range), while Sally Tuffin, still a student, designed a rainhat for a Harper’s Bazaar feature. To point the international mood, Sears Roebuck of U.S.A. advertised four.coats at one time, designed by Giovanelli (Italy), Kogan (Paris), Rodriguez (Spain) and Fontana (Italy) respectively. British trade names for rainwear have always carried weight abroad. During the 1950s Lawrence of London coats were sold in the U.S.A. at prices to suit the wealthy – (185 dollars for one model) and “London Fog” raincoats were advertised in the New Yorker. “Croydon”, another unlikely name to British eyes, was publicised as the trade name of a Swiss firm, and Anglomac, a Danish firm, exported raincoats to Britain. One writer, puzzled by this ‘coals to Newcastle’ activity, pointed out that while we were importing raincoats and employing French designers for our own products, the Swiss were praising British classic designs for their practicality. But this illogicality is part of fashion, and shows the status rainwear had acquired.
From the beginning of the 1950-60 decade Paul Blanche led the trend towards massive advertising campaigns for rainwear; taking full advantage of the new silicone proofing which could be applied to almost any closely woven material, the firm established a reputation for style – there were no bread and butter lines to spoil the image. Weathergay arrived as a ‘bright new firm’ in 1955, while Martin Ghilchick offered waterproofs in 37 varieties of tweed – stripes, checks and other patterns – in a range of straight forward designs giving a fair choice to the woman who sought a smart but serviceable macintosh.
Serviceable is a word that must not be forgotten. Silicone proofing led to disaster for some firms who climbed on to the rainwear bandwaggon in the 1950s and forgot that rainwear is first and foremost functional clothing. While rainwear shared the gradual narrowing and shortening of the coat silhouette, coats took a share in the benefits of proofing and ‘showerproofs’ r linked the two. Basically a showerproof is designed as a coat and then proofed both in yarn and in the piece. Poplin was very popular in the second half of the decade, having a brighter surface and a softer ‘handle’ than gabardine, and washable raincoats which did not need reproofing after washing were intoduced in 1952. Previously, a re-proofing compound was available to women who washed at home, but this had not caught on outside Germany (where hausfraus had washed cotton rain-coats regularly between the wars). Pale ‘impractical’ colours – white, cream and pastels – were practical if the coats could be washed, and pale poplin coats, often styled-up trenchcoats or belted straight coats with detachable warm linings and fur collars, made what was probably the most popular rain-fashion ever in Britain; in 1958 the trade was asking “What follows poplin?” and the answer was more poplin.
But complaints were mounting, and, at the end of 1955, a critical consumer report stated that many coats were neither safely washable nor really rainproof when new; and a reaction set in. While the wave of poplin was at its height, the next wave was gathering force. The first sign, treated as a gimmick at the time, was a short (hip length) shiny, belted, satin macintosh shown to the trade by Alligator in 1951. This seems to have been the first ‘high fashion’ macintosh short enough to be worn with trousers, and although short rainwear did not become common until the 1960s this one coat forecast a trend.
Pictures from reader P.L. from his collection of fashion magazines. These and the cuttings behind our heading evoke a period when the Drapery and Fashion Weekly wrote (November 1969): “There is no doubt that the gleaming, wet-look has arrived with a tremendous surge for coats, trouser suits and separates. And so far as many girls are concerned it won’t matter whether the rains come, they will be just as happy wearing these styles in fine weather …. Among the outstanding high-gloss finishes is the shiny, liquorice PVC, a supple, coated Nairn fabric that is popular with young designers”. A trouser suit “in yellow, green, blue, red, black or white PVC,” sold for “£S.15s.”
From a different direction, the popularity of leather influenced rainwear during the 1950s. Tough leather coats had been prized for motor-cycling, and open-car motoring, for half a century. Softer leather coats which had been expensive and fragile, became cheaper and almost a symbol of prosperity for younger women. Imitations followed – Duxkin in the United States in 1953 – and the first scooter coat shown in London in 1957, was made from a waterproof PVC designed to imitate leather. The coat, like its many successors, was three-quarter length, and designed to allow the increasing number of women riding scooters to dress for bad weather without looking frumpish when they parked their machines. The imitation leathers, in PVC and PVC/rubber mixtures, were not very successful. Most of them discoloured badly, while the grain was too regular and the drape was not right. It took the garment industry, the designers and the public a long time to recognise that plastics failed as imitations of other materials and succeeded only when used as plastics. The difficulty was in changing a concept: plastics had been developed by the chemist as a cheap substitute and the period of most rapid development was in war time when the real thing it replaced had not been available. The very word ‘plastic’ was considered synonymous with ‘inferior’.
Digressing a little, fur makes a luxurious lining for rainwear, with mink-lined macs representing a pinnacle of comfort. The palm for exclusiveness must go to an otter fur coat by Greenhut offered in 1950 as ‘completely at home in the rain’ and worn with rubber wellington boots! A simple tie-belted coat of short-haired fur with long-haired collar and cuffs, it was price at $1275 dollars plus tax; one could hardly ask for more in rainwear.
In France, oilskin and variants were prominent alongside the conventional macintoshes and raincoats: Schiaparelli use oiled organza in 1950 for a coat with matching proofed gloves, and Balmain’s use of ‘Cracknyl’ in 1951 has already been mentioned. In 1952 Elle illustrated a shiny black cire coat, and later, in the same year, featured a short yellow jacket in colour on the cover, treating it as a fashion ‘find’. It was, in fact, an ordinary fisherman’s jacket, bought for less than 1000 (old) francs in a little shop in Trouville (the equivalent of picking it up for £1 in St. Ives). Elle was pioneering the trend towards “macs that look like macs and are not ashamed”, as well as following the lead of the short macintosh mentioned above. On the other hand, the zip-fastened black cire rainwear was elegant as well as practical, and during the rest of the decade French designers developed a wide range of shiny cires and waxy ‘laque’ coats with a duller gleam.
To complete the picture of the decade, in the middle 1950s cocktail raincoats were popular enough in Britain to be widely worn in the daytime. Black opera satin with gold lining was probably kept for evening wear, but a coat of black/gold reversible siliconed rayon poult was not too elaborate to be offered in a mail order catalogue for £6.15s. Rubberised velvet, with a special rubber mix to suit the drape of velvet, appeared along with marocain, crepe and tinselled rayons; in 1955 lurex thread added to the variety of texture and brightness; then in 1956 the swing to plainer finishes – and the washable poplins – began.
It was 1960 – a providentially wet year in Britain – that marked what might be described as a watershed. That year showerproofs were found to be fit for showers only; dressy styles began to be reserved for dressy occasions (where they continued to flourish); scooters and sports cars emphasised the need for practical day styles with fashion interest – and rainwear was news. The rainwear trade was now equipped for mass production, technical developments and frequent fashion changes. A new mood was appearing in fashion as a whole and it extended into rainwear. This new mood had its roots in the vast increase in the number of students leading independent lives on grants, and the equally vast increases in the purchasing power of young wage-earners. These young people had only the haziest memories of the war, and the lean years which followed it, and were not inclined to follow their elders’ leads and the ideas of Savile Row and the Avenue Matignon. They did not draw a sharp distinction between work clothes and leisure clothes, nor between men’s clothes and women’s clothes. Shocking the conventional-minded appealed to them, and the first space journeys influenced their attitudes, if not their clothes.
Balenciaga, ahead as usual, had shown a hooded coat in black ‘cuir plastique’ with a liquorice gleam in 1957; more important than the material was its loose cut and the fact that it was worn casually over a pink wool dress – a forecast of a way adopted by students so that a short, tough, shiny mac very quickly became almost part of college uniform. In, 1959 the British edition of Harper s Bazaar had illustrated a black ‘leatherette’ trenchcoat which looked very like a traditional motorcycle coat of polished rubber-surface material; high fashion but as uncompromisingly tough as a garment can be.
Then in 1960 an advertisement by Fennel & Flipo of Roubaix showed a shiny trenchcoat with the legend: “after cire, after laque, a new material: Plastylon Cirelaque – plastic on textile, shiny, supple, waterproof, hardwearing.”
This was the version of PVC which has made the running in rainfashion since, providing designers with a new material in bright colours with finishes from ‘wet’ to matt, and unique ‘handle’ and making-up qualities.
In January 1961 Katharine Whitehorn mentioned in The Observer that a current fad in Paris was to wear a shiny black oilskin – often with black stockings and white boots. Before the end of the year French shiny cires were imported into Britain and illustrated by Vogue in a ‘Super-Macs’ feature. In 1962 shiny black trench coats, slickers, peajackets and ponchos were shown in the United States with ‘sensational’ effect, while Elle illustrated a shiny black hooded cape with a white pile lining, for country wear. Then in 1963 a German magazine illustrated a range of rainwear under the title ‘Wasser-unempfindliche Garderobe’ – a real ‘Never-mind-the-weather Wardrobe’.
Capes were enjoying a revival in general fashion and there was nothing unconventional about the style of these 1961-63 clothes; but a shiny yellow ‘rainshirt’, cut like a man’s shirt, which appeared in March 1963, on the cover of Ingenue, an American magazine for girls, was a different matter. Rainshirts and raindresses shown since 1959 had been chemical-proofed in gabardine (France), poplin (U.S.A.) and sailcloth (Gt. Britain) and could be worn as ordinary dresses, while this shiny garment would stand out anywhere.
American teenage fashion is a fruitful source of innovation, but it was Mary Quant who showed the possibilities of PVC as high fashion with her “Wet Collection”. This collection, intended for retailing in Autumn 1963, was shown as a substitute in Paris in March 1963, and had more impact than her main (general) collection, held up by Customs, would have had. Such models as a white tunic with a deep V-neck, a black and white dress, and a dress buttoning down the back, all with definite ‘vinyl’ surfaces, represented fashion development in their own right; and though these clothes were seen more in the press than in the streets, they re-established the British lead in rainwear.
PENGUINS AND PASTELS
Then came the 1964 collection of V de V (Vetements de Vacances) of Paris, with it ‘penguins’ and the pastels with transparent panels. The styles were rapidly copied and one British firm quickly exported nearly 40,000 cheap imitations. Drapery and Fashion Weekly commented on the swing to styles that ‘positively shriek that they are raincoats’. The article went on to observe that it “seemed evident that young women were buying them for wear as coats whether it rained or not”.
In September 1964 L’Aurore of Paris noticed that there were raincoats in practically all the Haute Couture collections – Dior, Cardin and Givenchy as well as many others. Balenciago continued to show rainwear; usually understated in style and coming near to the classic styles (and even the plastic mac) but with his customary subtle touches.
Vinyl was accepted. The tortoiseshell trouser suit was shown by V de V in 1964 and there was even a vinyl Jaeger knickerbocker suit in red or navy (what would Dr. Jaeger himself have said). The vinyl boots, bags, hats and helmets; floral prints and op art; gold and now silver, with copper, brass, and lead followed.
Although vinyl looked as if it were here to take over, other materials had not been abandoned. Quilted cotton poplin jackets were shown in Britain in 1958, and quilted nylon in the United States in 1962. This material was, and is, suitable for fitted, formal styles; and double-breasted coats, some with zip fastenings in place of buttons, were popular where warm proofed coats were wanted. Neutral colours, white and black predominated. Lately some coats have been made in quilted nylon with a gleaming surface similar to the laque finish. Gannex cloth, also having built-in warmth, was developed for service use during the 1939-45 war, and has been used for men’s coats since; in 1959 a lighter ‘woman’s weight’ was introduced and has been used for plain heavy duty coats in quiet colours. Finally, foam backing or inter-lining became normal for warm rainwear in lighter materials.
Silk taffeta, terylene, tricel and multiplicity of blends have been used for formal and dressy rainwear; plain colours, iridescent and shot effects, simple prints, jungle patterns and floral prints have all appeared as fancy and fashion changed. In general, manufacturers are now able to select textiles which have been ‘designed’ – yarn, weave, dyes, proofing and finish – for making up into rainwear that is equally ‘designed’ in style, detail and price for a particular market. With macintoshes and raincoats fully accepted socially, a rising standard of living has enabled women to pay for quality in rainwear; and if ‘my old mac’ is still there for really foul weather, ‘my new mac’ is worn with pride.
The classics – trenchcoats, riding macs and walking styles, in muted colours – are still favoured for country wear and for those who aim at understatement.
Sunglasses and a classic British raincoat had become almost a uniform for the ‘international rich’ when travelling, according to one writer in 1965; perhaps it is worth mentioning that Brigitte Bardot walked incognito in London a few years back wearing sunglasses, a dark wig and a trenchcoat.
A LOOK AHEAD
This was the history of rainwear up to 1966 when I prepared this material from my collection of fashion magazines at the request of the late John Dalton of ‘Aqua Sprite’. The next decade brought more changes. Shiny vinyl disappeared to be replaced by the new softer, lighter plastics. There are other changes, too, but this would require further research and a further article.
Back in 1966 I wrote this as my personal view of what I saw as the future of rainwear.
Controlled climates, cities built under transparent domes, family life in space – these will be so different from what we might predict now as to make prophecy foolish; but we can guess at what is likely in the near future while the rain still ‘falls equally on the just, the only just, and the not quite’, as fashion journalist Katherine Whitehorn wrote in 1960. That hasn’t changed, and one might still agree as she goes on: ‘Science having provided us with a variety of finishes which are water repellent, grease repellent, crease repellent, and just plain repellent, we now have a situation in which almost anything can be made moderately resistant to wet, and entirely waterproof garments present much the same problems as ever.’ Vinyl has improved matters, but it isn’t everybody’s choice, and universal vinyl would be as boring as universal sackcloth; we should hope for variety.
The problem is not one of materials anyway. The umbrella gives protection, but is unmanageable in a high wind; the long cape with a deep hood is an excellent rain-shedder but isn’t ideal for strap-hanging in a crowded train; a ‘sealed’ suit like a space suit would give complete protection but would need a sound system and a ventilation system, and employers are not likely to approve of girls steaming around the office in wet ‘sealed’ suits.
‘Function first’ is fully established for sportswear, and the space-suit style is already in use for sports such as water skiing; it is likely to spread (as the winter sports anorak has spread) for foul weather. Clothes for informal occasions are tending towards a simple inner layer – sweater and tights – with decorative or protective additions as need or fancy dictate; if the trend continues, women (and men) may climb into sealed suits for a wet day in the country, and then forget the weather; if they are dressing up, they may wear long cloaks in brilliant vinyl; if the weather merely threatens rain they may tuck transparent ultra-light macs into their pockets; and their everyday clothes may be proofed ‘in case’.
Whatever happens it won’t please everybody; in the Daily Telegraph ‘Fashion Dictator’ competition in 1965, some competitors wanted all clothes waterproofed -’and so avoid the inevitable mac’, while others wanted a matching mac to be sold with every single dress.
Or, of course, perhaps one day man might learn to control the climate – what then?