Shock of the new – Adventures in Gore Tex!

Guest post by Dave Scratch

Eh? What is this rubbish I hear you wail. Gore tex? GORE…TEX?

I visit this joint to read about artisan selvedge denim and tweed jackets, not dayglow jackets what train spotters wear. Indeed you do, but bear with me dear reader.

I raise my hand and say I like a Cabourn Mallory coat as much as the next man and yes, I wear Iron Heart jeans and Red Wing boots and have several pairs of Yuketens but I have also had a long and unashamed love affair with Gore Tex technical jackets too.  It is no guilty pleasure. I love ‘em.

In my view there is plenty of room for hi-tech alongside “heritage” & lo-fi in every man’s wardrobe without contradiction – indeed, they often serve as splendid counterpoints to one another.

Let me begin with saying I am very fond of the great outdoors and can think of nothing better than striding manfully through the fells and up the mountains of this green and pleasant land.

So while this land is green and pleasant it is also wet, rainy, windy and sometimes jolly cold. To venture onto a mountain without the requisite clothing will reward you with extreme discomfort, misery and perhaps hyperthermia. It is a fools game and it is this reasoning that brought me to love a gore tex technical coat.

Celebrated mountaineer Chris Bonington age 15, when tweed was climbing gear du jour

Celebrated mountaineer Chris Bonington age 15, when tweed was climbing gear du jour

In the days of yore men used to do bravely stupid things like climb Everest wearing tweed jackets which while looking dapper are draughty, not water resistant, not thornproof and more designed for taking tea somewhere rather than strenuous activities like mountain climbing.

While there is substantial romance to be mined from such people and garments there is a very good reason people don’t use tweed jackets to seriously go climbing or walking anymore, it’s because they are rubbish.

A dull potted history of gore tex follows. Gore Tex came about in a happy accident created by American father and son chemist duo Wilbert & Robert Gore in 1969. A synthetic membrane or fabric was eventually produced that was microscopically porous so it didn’t allow water in but did allow water vapour out. It was reasonably light, quick drying, windproof and very easy to work with. It didn’t take long for a mountaineer to say “fuck me, I want a jacket made from this gear, the next time I climb a mountain I will not die of exposure”.

chris

An older and hairier Chris Bonington accepting that up a mountain, tweed can be bettered

 

And Lo, the gore tex jacket was born. In the 70’s there were a small handful of companies producing gore tex coats – the likes of The North Face, Berghaus, Patagonia and so forth. They were expensive and sold to a highly niche audience with deep pockets.

The years passed and Gore Tex became more advanced. Thinner, harder wearing, more waterproof, more breathable and the trickle down technology meant it became cheaper. People who weren’t mountaineers started to wear gore tex coats and more companies sprang up. Innovation was key and companies vied to produce more and more ergonomic garments that were more and more fit for purpose. Longer styled jackets for fell walkers, shorter cut coats that were designed not to rise from your waist when your arms were outstretched for climbers and so forth.

This plethora of styles and companies lead to a boom in gore tex jackets among normal folk who just wanted a coat to keep them warm and dry on the way to work or walking the dog. They were still always designed with their heritage of the outdoors in mind and featured lots of vecro, draw strings and poppers (read – buttons are for losers old man)  but this new “domestic” market lead to a departure in pure function and style began to have an influence. A lot of the jackets produced by the likes of Phoenix and Berghaus in the 80’s are real capsules of the 80’s. Gaudy colours striped and panelled the coats. They were very eyecatching –  the function for this really being you’d be easily spotted on a mountainside or in a crevasse if you were in trouble – and while gore tex was more attainable than it once was, it was still pretty expensive.

Bonington & Co at the summit of Everest

Bonington & Co at the summit of Everest

These coats caught on in a big way in the one upmanship of the British youth of the day. A jacket that said look at me! It also said Look at me and now you’ve looked, see how expensive my coat is! On top of this it had the benefits of keeping you warm and dry on the terraces during that Tuesday night FA Cup replay in pissing freezing January rain.

These old coats are now quite collectable among a certain crowd and a 25 year old Berghaus parka in decent condition can command good prices on the likes of eBay. While I have little time for these retro items I quite like the fact that a brand new, super innovative garment that was only invented 40 years ago or so already has it’s vintage market & collectors.

vintage goretex berghaus

Collectable vintage Berghaus with attention-grabbing colours and design

I have gone through many phases in my life of what I want to wear but I’ve ALWAYS had a gore tex shell of some sort and it is as integrated into my wardrobe as much as everything else.

I see nothing wrong at all with wearing a pair of good selvedge jeans, a pair of Paraboots, shirt and sweater with a gore tex shell over the top if it’s raining. It’s sensible and totally utilitarian. There is a deep vein of practicality in my dress and I like the idea of wearing a high end jacket that has been designed with the ascent of K2 in mind, down to the pub or shops.

It’s like having a professional range in your kitchen or owning a car that can go 190mph or a watch that is waterproof to 200M … chances are you’ll never be able to use it to its full potential but it’s a fine feeling knowing that it actually has that potential.

Another collectable vintage Berghaus in a subtle colourway

Another collectable vintage Berghaus in a subtle colourway

I mentioned I was not too keen on the retro gore tex coats – to me, it has to be as modern as possible. It is not a fetish item but a purely utilitarian garment. I want it because of how it performs and not as a vintage nod to the past.

Current day Gore tex shells are sleek, light and incredibly ergonomic. The amount of R&D and design that has gone into its tailoring and fabric would put many on Saville Row to shame. What you get is a garment that will keep you warm and dry and cosy in the foulest of weather anywhere in the world and at more or less any terrestrial altitude.

Essentially, the more you pay for a coat, the more feature rich it will be and the lighter, harder wearing and breathable the gore tex will be. The current top of the heap in Gore Tex land is the three layer Gore Tex Pro Shell. You can crawl through a thorn bush in a typhoon and still remain watertight.

83647_CNY

Patagonia Super Alpine

 

Patagonia describe their flagship pro shell Super Alpine jacket as “a modern day suit of armour”. I have one and it’s a wonderful thing. Fits like a glove and remains steadfastly reliable in a deluge or force 10 gale. You’ll also never get knocked over by a car wearing it.

I must admit these days, part of the appeal of such a coat to me is it is super modern and heavily engineered in a world of retro “heritage” and it stands out because of this. The quality will kick more or less everything you’ll find in a high fashion boutique into a well cocked hat. This thing is built not to fail and with the idea that if it did, it could potentially risk the life of its occupant.

As an ilk they are unashamedly utilitarian, rugged and anti-fashion – for me the more so the better. The more advanced the better. The more the shock of the new… the better.

ArcTeryx Alpha

ArcTeryx Alpha

 

You like this bold statement or you don’t. You like them because they do the job they were built for. You like them because they are the antithesis of being “on point”. You like them because compared to your tweed Mallory jacket they are like things from outer space. You like them for what they can do for you rather than what other people will think of you wearing one… in my experience such folk are sometimes the wet ones in the street while I am the dry one.

There are good parallels between a gore tex jacket and clothing fashion and say Clarks Ramblers or Mephisto’s and footwear. Both styles of shoe are built for comfort and not fashion. Similarly they are anti fashion… they care not what the untrained eye see’s and thinks for they have the last laugh being supremely comfortable and have an esoteric ugliness that a small handful of people find very appealing.

There are more outdoor brands these days than ever and the choice of gore tex outer wear is mind boggling. You can get just about any style in just about any colour. I personally always gravitate to bright red, royal blues and oranges… such a coat is a great excuse to introduce some bold colours into ones uniform if nothing else.

Field-LT-Jacket-Fjord-Blue

Veilance Field Jacket

 

They somehow seem to be gathering a small degree of acceptance in what’s trendy and/ or cool these days too. Patagonia, once the strict reserve of niche climbing stores is a brand that is cropping up in all sorts of high end clothes shops and you see Arc’Teryx, the premium Canadian climbing brand is also there with it’s hysterically priced Veilance range. The latter is currently being  shamelessly copied in essence by Adidas and  is an interesting exercise in using muted top end gore tex shell fabric to produce “smart” jackets that are also highly functional and have a technical back bone.

While I like this idea, I am not really much of a fan of the resulting jackets to tell the truth but it’s just a surprise that no one has really done it before.

Chris Bonington still swears by the Gore-tex

Chris Bonington still swears by the Gore-tex

So, will high end technical mountaineering jackets be the next big thing? It has potential that’s for sure but do I care? No, not really. Fashion or anti fashion they are a beautifully constructed thing. The very essence of toughness that is designed for hard wearing and protecting their owner in man vs nature. While it still rains and I still live in the North of England I will always have one.

You see, staying dry and having loads of practically placed pockets to hand is not just the preserve of the train spotter & notebook wielding beardy weirdy real ale enthusiast who buys his trainers from Marks & Spencers. I’d unashamedly like a bit of that dryness action too thanks pal.

Give a thought to this next time if you’re wearing a smart cotton & unspeakably ironically named “mountain parka” and it starts to piss it down. If you’re passing a good Outdoor shop, get yourself in and try a couple of PROPER big bomber mountain jackets on. You may surprise yourself, the anti-fashion brigade is always recruiting.

 

GUEST POST BY DAVE SCRATCH

If you enjoyed this, you might like to read Dave’s other posts!

3 Responses to “Shock of the new – Adventures in Gore Tex!”

  1. Brian in Alberta

    Hear hear Dave!
    When does a material become heritage anyways? Cordura, another excellent technical fabric and a favourite of mine, was developed in the late 20s at about the same time as Ventile. And in the blue-sky adventuring crowd Ventile is up there with tweed for its heritage factor.

    Reply
  2. Scratch

    Hey Brian. It’s a good question – Cordura for example is a fabric I know nothing about really.
    Ventile has been very celebrated as you say – it’s had a wonderful marketing job what with the old RAF connections and is reassuringly expensive.
    I suppose that Gore tex will only make heritage status when it is outmoded by a newer more modern fabric – does heritage implicitly mean outdated? Maybe it does….

    Reply
  3. cooke kenneth

    Vintage is one thing but not in Gore tex. Standard 3 layer Gore tex is only guaranteed for 3 years. Early 3 layer Gore tex de-laminates and fails to function. My recommendation, as someone who tested Gore tex in The Alps in the late 70’s is to buy Gore tex-Pro which has a lifetime guarantee and will not degrade like standard 3 layer

    Reply

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