Donning the raincoat may rub us the wrong way. It sure beats getting soaked, though. If your workwear closet includes rainwear, you have many reasons to feel grateful.
Someone, somewhere, cares enough about your wellbeing to insist that you have protection from the elements. Also, you’re wearing the most advanced textiles on the open market.
It has only been recent history that we’ve had the brains to outsmart mother nature with human-made materials which perform better and longer in the rain (or other wet work environments).
Today’s rainwear not only keeps water off our backs, it breathes enough to let us perspire, In some cases, it protects us from fire.
Way Back Waterproof
The problem with reaching far enough back into history is all we have left are stones and bones, all calcified of course. That’s why we call it The Stone Age.
Anything that could degrade, like wood or fabric, did. The first waterproof clothing was likely the furry skins of an animal.
Like humans, animals produce oils, which makes their coats darn water resistant, almost waterproof, at least until the oils wear off and the coat degrades.
If treated correctly, animal skins work well to keep water off. Humans would still use them if those same skins didn’t create other problems.
Fur is warm, cumbersome, and not fireproof. In fact, for many reasons, fur is the last thing one wants to wear when there’s a fire anywhere nearby.
These factors make it no good for activities like mountaineering, and fire-fighting. Even whaling could grow laborious in a perfectly sewn but warm fur coat.
To overcome some of these limitations, the Inuit people (native people spread across Siberia into Alaska) found another part of the animal to work quite well for waterproofing.
They fashioned together pieces of whale or seal intestines to make raincoats so effective, even Charles River would be envious. For Inuit purposes, like spearfishing in the open ocean (in weather cold enough to freeze your saliva before it hits the ground), it worked.
Intestines breathe, allowing steam to wick off, but it also keeps out large droplets of water. That’s not to say anything about how one smelled after a day of hunting in said gear. (I’m guessing it was something like onion-soaked hot dogs.)
On the other hemisphere of the planet, early humans in South America learned how to extract rubber from the rubber tree, then used it to impregnate fabrics.
It had to be some of the heaviest, immobile fabric, like wearing retreads. But, when one wants to stay dry, whatever works, right?
In other parts of the world, since about 2,000 before the common era, woven wools proved efficient for keeping off the rain, even if those garments were itchy as all get out.
While functional to varying degrees, those first rainwear fabrics did not lend themselves much to fashion. The best we could devise in the 19th century was to rub waxes or oils on linen or cotton garments.
The result was a weird waxy fabric, which didn’t move well, and did not allow sweat to wick off the body. Those garments also required re-oiling from time to time. There were at the time, alternatives, albeit they were slow to gain popular usage.
In Scotland, in 1823, there was a chemist by the name of Charles Macintosh. He invented the Mackintosh Raincoat. Yes, they goofed up the spelling of his name. He made the first technologically advanced fabric for managing water.
Macintosh fused two fabrics together with a layer of chemically altered natural rubber, which produced a flexible but waterproof fabric. It was great for keeping out rain, except where he stitched it together.
Over time, Macintosh’s new textile degraded with use. It also did not stand up to the elements, stiffening in cold weather, melting in hot temps.
In 1839, a man named Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, which when applied to the Macintosh Raincoat, made it a much better product.
Still, it didn’t breathe. None of them did.
The word was an antiquated word to describe the long cassocks of Shakespeare’s time, but Burberry repurposed and popularized the word as the name of his new fabric.
Burberry’s fabric was everything Macintosh’s was and more. It kept out water, but moved and allowed perspiration to wick away from the body.
Built on a base of wool or cotton, it was a twill not unlike the weave in modern denim, but Burberry waterproofed his twill (at least back then he did).
Burberry Gaberdine was so effective, the British Army contracted him to build coats for servicemen. The version he fashioned for them was longer, suitable for fighting in trenches. They called them trench coats.
Gaberdine wasn’t 100 percent waterproof, though. Over time it would require treatment to retain its effectiveness.
It sure looked good, though.
It wasn’t until after World War II, in the sixties, we saw the inventions of Gore-Tex and vinyl. The latter made for a good cheap rain jacket, still available as a disposable option.
In time we developed vinyl for use as an augmentation to higher end rainwear and other waterproof need like tents. The category killer, however, was Gore-Tex.
Invented in 1969, Gore-Tex changed everything. It’s layered from the tough outer shell to the soft inner liner. Gore-Tex kept out water but breathed better than whale’s intestine.
Not only that, in time we figured out how to make it fireproof, even high vis with Gore-Tex variants like Nomex. From there, the rain wear industry grew more specific.
And, of course, if you’re looking for kid’s rainwear, All Seasons Uniforms covers them too.
Today’s rainwear uniforms apply different technologies like variants of nylon and Gore-Tex to utilize the best features for the right job.
The landscape of brand-specific (trademarked) variations is too broad in scope to cover them all. Each builds on the lessons learned from the ideas pioneered by Macintosh and Burberry.
We should all be grateful we’re not running around in whale intestines to keep dry.