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How clothes became waterproof

How clothes became waterproof

It’s no surprise that the greatest innovations in rain-repellent fabric came from Britain

It’s no surprise that the greatest innovations in rain-repellent fabric came from Britain

Josie Delap | August/September 2019

Think of a drip of rain running down your neck, or water seeping into your shoes as you walk, and you’ll appreciate why the search for waterproof fabric has been long and determined. Once upon a time, your choice was to stay at home or get wet. You’d get drenched if you ventured into a downpour. Then, in your poorly ventilated home, your clothes would remain damp and eventually rot.

Nature has provided both inspiration and solutions. To protect themselves from the elements, Inuits traditionally used seal and whale intestines, which were both waterproof and breathable – as befitted their original purpose. Fur is surprisingly water repellent too. The structure helps water to run off it and natural oils prevent it from soaking through.

For truly impervious options, you need something man-made. Britons, who live under unpredictable, often drizzly, dismal skies, have been particularly dogged in their efforts to keep dry. In 1823 Charles Macintosh bound two pieces of fabric together with rubber dissolved in naphtha, which is a by-product of tar. Others had tried something similar but the scale and ease of his production (and his nous in filing a patent) gave him the edge, as well as the legacy of generic raincoats being known as a Mackintosh or Mac.

In the late 19th century Burberry, another British firm, turned to gabardine for its now-famous trench coat, which was first designed for soldiers during the first world war. The fabric is so tightly woven that it repels water – up to a point – but still allows some ventilation. Since it is often made of cotton, the material also looks more fetching than the fisherman style of oily macs. The famous rain gear was put to the test as Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard kissed in torrential rain in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961. But even Burberry admits their coats are not entirely waterproof.

Fantastic plastic was an alternative. Mary Quant’s rainbow-bright glistening raincoats were among the first garments to be made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC; her “Wet Look” collection launched in 1963. Thin and totally impermeable, they seemed like the ideal marriage of fashion and function, but rain seeped in through the seams and wearing plastic for long stretches turned out to be rather sweaty.

The invention of Gore-Tex in 1976 was revolutionary. Waterproof, windproof and breathable, it is essentially Teflon, a polymer stretched whisper-thin and layered with other fabrics to keep wearers dry. The Gore family’s firm has sold millions of coats made of the stuff, and in recent years other companies have emulated their technology. Others have returned to something closer to Macintosh’s coats. Stutterheim, a Swedish company that uses rubberised cotton for its stylish raincoats, is wildly in vogue. Now we can all go out singing in the rain.