12 Fascinating Moments in Winter Clothing History

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Nowadays, people have access to all sorts of high-tech fabrics to stay warm and dry in inclement weather. But people faced the elements without the aid of nylon for thousands of years. From cloaks banned by Augustus Caesar to dog-toting hand muffs, here are some of the more interesting moments in the history of winter wear.

1. The Inuits created the parka predecessor.

Faced with a harsh Arctic climate, the Inuit were experts at creating insulating clothing. They made the original waterproof parkas using the intestines of whales or seals. According to the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, two parkas would often be worn at once to improve insulation and air circulation in subzero temperatures. Much like today’s parkas, Inuit parkas included drawstring hoods.

2. Augustus Caesar hated cloaks.

Ancient Romans wore a woolen cloak called a lacerna, made in a variety of colors, that was fastened at the shoulder using a pin or buckle. First used by soldiers, the coat gained enough popularity in the city to catch Augustus Caesar’s attention. Fed up with seeing too many citizens wearing the dark cloak in assembly, he issued an edict banning its use in the forum or circus.

3. Large fur muffs symbolized status.

Just as some of today’s starlets enjoy toting their dogs in status bags, French women during the reign of Louis XIV would stash small dogs in large hand muffs. According to the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, the hand covering gained popularity in the 16th century and originally went by many names, including “snuffkin” in English. Muffs made of fur imported from North America were popular objects used to display wealth in Europe. Some muffs were even adorned with accessories such as a bejeweled animal skull attached with a chain.

4. The Mayans made latex boots.

In CentralAmerica, the Mayans took advantage of rubber trees to create a sort of customized boot. According to Scientific American, they made cuts in the rubber trees to extract latex. Then they coated their feet in the latex several times, until the coating formed a thick covering that functioned like a waterproof boot.

5. Vulcanized rubber boots helped advance rubber technology.


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In the early 1800s, people began using rubber shoe coverings to protect their shoes from the water. But rubber at the time had a tendency to crack, and people began to lose interest. Tire manufacturer Charles Goodyear was determined to find a way to improve rubber, although his many failed experiments left him in debt. Undeterred, he continued experimenting. One day in 1839, spilled rubber, sulfur and white lead onto a hot stove. According to Scientific American, the substances, when mixed together, did not melt. He tweaked the combination of sulfur and rubber and named the process vulcanization after the Roman god of fire. The new formula was used to create waterproof boots.

6. The waterproof raincoat was invented to create a use for an industrial by-product.

Charles Macintosh invented a wearable waterproof fabric while trying to find a use for naptha, a by-product of coal-tar distillation. When he used naptha as a solvent for rubber, he was able to use the rubber solution to glue two layers of wool together. He patented his invention in 1823. Unfortunately, the fabric stiffened in cold weather and became sticky in hot weather. This problem persisted until vulcanized rubber provided a temperature tolerant solution.

7. Ushankas keep Russian heads and ears warm.

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The famous Russian fur hat’s name literally means "hat with the ears." While fur hats have been in use since the middle ages, University of Chicago professor of Russian Valentina Pichugin told the Chicago Tribune that ear flaps originated in the 19th century and became popular in Russia in the 1920s. The quality of fur used in the hat revealed social status in the Soviet Era. According to Pichugin, some people even tried to pass off cat fur as rabbit fur. In a 1994 article, the Times of London reported that some Moscow residents bought ushankas lined with steel cages to provide protection from gangsters' bullets.

8. Pashmina shawls are valued as investments.

True pashmina shawls are made from the fur of pashmina mountain goats in Nepal, India, and Tibet. The fur comes from the neck and underbelly of the goat. According to The Christian Science Monitor, a single handmade shawl takes 98 workers an entire day to complete on wooden looms. In India and Nepal, pashminas are often part of dowries and are seen as an investment like gold.

9. The down coat was created after Eddie Bauer's brush with death.

In 1936, Eddie Bauer almost died of hypothermia when his wool coat froze on a fishing trip in Washington. This experience inspired him to create a lightweight down coat. His coat, patented in 1940, utilized goose down for its warmth and breathability. To keep the down in place, he used a diamond quilting pattern.

10. Up until the 18th century, sleeved coats were strictly working class wear.

According to the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, sleeved outercoats only surpassed capes in popularity for men in the 18th and 19th centuries. The coat began to take its modern shape when the English tailored it to be worn over men’s suit coats. Jackets only gained popularity with the upper classes after they began using the coats for hunting in the late 18th century.

11. Polar fleece was invented in the 1970s.

Wool was a great source of insulation, but its tendency to absorb water and become heavy could be problematic. According to Gizmodo, Malden Mills Industries, which got its start making woolen swimsuits in 1906, began experimenting with plastic yarns. In the late 1970s the yarn was woven into a thin fabric and then brushed to separate the fibers into the thin loops that give the fabric its cozy texture without adding weight.

12. There's a poncho that doubles as a tent.

The U.S. military is equipped with a poncho that's the Swiss Army knife of outerwear. When the head hole is sealed with Velcro, the garment can be used as a sleeping bag. It can also be rigged up as a tent or worn as an anorak. The basic premise of the multi-function garment has been around since the Civil War, but today’s ponchos are lighter weight and provide better protection from the elements.

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December 12, 2012 - 2:12am
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