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The Bright Lycra Nightmare… and Seven Other Eras of Climbing “Fashion”

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As technology progresses, climbing garments are constantly undergoing technological change. From wool to synthetic and back to wool again, the textiles utilized to manufacture climbing garments not only alter the efficiency of the products, but the style as well. And style is important, because there are three rules in climbing:

  1. Climb hard
  2. Be safe
  3. Look good

We’re living in a digital age, and with all the InstaClimbers and Vimeo Superstars out there, looking good has never been so important. If I know anything about fashion (which, to be honest, I don’t), it’s that old often becomes new again and style is cyclical. Therefore, let us peruse an overview of climbing fashion throughout history.

1. Pre-History (aka “Chalcolithic Chic”)

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Figure 1—A reconstruction of Ötzi in a South Tyrol museum.

When the mummified body of Ötzi was discovered at an altitude of 3,210 meters in the Austrian-Italian Alps, he was dressed in the height of Copper Age fashion.

Given that Ötzi met his maker sometime around 3200 B.C., his clothing was surprisingly sophisticated. According to a Czech academic, “The shoes are actually quite complex. I’m convinced that even 5,300 years ago, people had the equivalent of a cobbler who made shoes for other people.” Others have hypothesized that they were the upper part of a pair of snow shoes. They were so rad that a company purchased the rights to reproduce them, presumably accompanied by the slogan, “So durable, they’ll last you for millennia.”

Constructed from various animal hides, Ötzi’s garments included a coat, belt, leggings, loincloth, and a bearskin cap. When his body was found half-buried within a glacier, he was shirtless, which provides strong evidence that he may have been a boulderer.

Must-have Accessory:

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Retro axe (pictured without hammer/adze attachment).

2. The Age of Enlightenment (aka “Wherefore Art Mine Hat?”)

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Figure 2—An expedition on Mont Blanc, 1787. Note ladder over \”gaping\” chasm.

The earliest examples of true mountaineering took place following the end of the Middle Ages, with an ascent of Mont Aiguille in 1492 marking the beginning of a new era.

With the sport yet in its infancy, clothing was yet to undergo the intense development and specialization that we’re familiar with today. The few participants willing to undergo such a foolhardy endeavor simply had to make do with what was available, choosing clothes which were warm and functional.

Waistcoats, high-cut boots, and stockings were all the rage. And climbers would be damned rather than achieve the summit without a fashionable headdress. Jacues Balmat, the first ascensionist of Mont Blanc, was quoted as saying: “The lacking of a stylish hat maketh for a shit selfie.”

3. Must-have Accessory:

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A stylish hat.

4. The Golden Age of Mountaineering (aka “Military Surplus”)

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Figure 3—A recreation of 1920’s era Himalayan mountaineering gear.

At the close of the 19th century and all the way through to the heady Himalayan seasons of the 1950’s, mountaineering came along in leaps and bounds. Naturally, so did the development of clothing and equipment. This was aided immensely by the polar exploration which took place during the beginning of the 1900’s and by the wealth of technology catalyzed by some of history’s greatest wars.

Natural materials were quite prominent. The King of the Mountain was the famous Burberry, a gabardine or “worsted wool” overcoat with military-esque styling. Animal fur was also in vogue, especially given that baby seals were a dime a dozen and pretty sloppy fighters.

Hobnail boots were one of the greatest technological advancements, providing mountaineers increased grip and purchase on snow and ice slopes. Enhancements in all things cobbling meant that these boots were durable and warm—relatively speaking. A 2001 study of George Mallory’s clothing revealed that his boots were the lightest ever used on Everest.

Must-have Accessory:

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Mountaineer’s coil and pipe.

5. The ’50s Through ’70s (aka “Function Over Form”)

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Figure 4—Robbins et al. atop the North America Wall, Yosemite NP.

The Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing epitomized the “give no fucks” attitude toward climbing fashion. The trend began with an emphasis on utilitarianism in the 1950’s and gradually shifted toward the outlandish styles of the wild 1970’s.

Climbing garments of the age were judged on two characteristics: price and freedom of movement. Loose fitting clothing that could be acquired for a song was the order of the day. This sparked the predominance of painters clothing, rugby shirts, corduroy slacks, and anything else that could be found in a thrift shop.

Again, hats feature prominently. From flat caps to fedoras, headbands to bandanas, the quality of the hat determined the quality of the outfit.

Must-have Accessory:

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LSD… Really makes those paisley’s pop.

6. The ’80s Through ’90s (aka “WTF is the New Black”)

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Figure 5—Uncool.

Holy snapping duckshit, this was a weird period in climbing history. A strange dichotomy arose in attitudes towards fabric use: “less is more” in terms of amount, “more is more” in terms of fluorescent colors.

Spandex tights and shaved chests were not only common, they were the uniform. It’s easy to look back on this trend in hindsight and laugh at the absurdity of it all, but surely even climbers of the era opened their wardrobe and questioned their life choices.

This period has a lot to answer for. Not only did it create the Global Short Shorts Shortage of the mid ’90s, it prolonged the existence of hair metal. A moment of silence, please.

Must-have Accessory:

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Complete and utter lack of self respect.

7. Present Day (aka “Climbing Meets the Mainstream”)

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Figure 6—Modern climbing attire by RAB.

The modern era has seen vast improvement in terms of climbing garment technology. This is due in part to the increased availability of advanced materials such as Goretex, and also due to the acceptance of outdoor clothing in a broader context.

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Figure 7—Still photography from the first unsupported traverse of Greenwich Village, NYC.

Gone are the days when a puffy jacket was the sole preserve of mountaineers. Just as occurred in the car industry when SUV manufacturers realized they could sell an image just as easily as a product, clothing outfitters began marketing their products to low-landers as well as genuine users. Companies such as The North Face and Icebreaker now have specific lines targeted at both climbing and non-climbing demographics. After all, what good are your sweet new threads in the wilderness where no one can see them?

With the sport of climbing rapidly moving from the fringe to the mainstream, savvy advertisers are targeting this growing niche. Remember that gnarly first ascent of a billboard in Time Square? Jeebus, even Sasha DiGuilian is sponsored by Adidas. And the less written about the whole “lumbersexual” thing, the better.

With all that said, there are some great things about climbing clothing in our time. You’re totally spoiled for choice these days. Competition is fierce, and products are improving daily. Color, fit, weight, style, material; the choice is yours. Go nuts.

Must-have Accessory:

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Duct Tape. A patched jacket is still the only proven dirtbag identification method.

8. The Future?

If Hipsters have taught us anything, it’s that you can reappropriate styles from any era without any regard to context and get away with it. So mix and match. Pair a knitted scarf with your soft shell. Wear some hobnail boots for your next jaunt up Rainier. Sport a beret.

A word of caution: Some things are better left forgotten.

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Figure 8—Nope.

Thanks to Dr. Morag Stewart for the article concept.

This article originally appeared in Climbing in 2016. It is reposted here for free. Sign up with a Climbing membership, now just $2 a month for a limited time, and you get unlimited access to thousands of stories and articles by world-class authors on climbing.com plus a print subscription to Climbing and our annual coffee-table edition of Ascent.  Please join the Climbing team today.