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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.

Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pop Culture
Glove Story: The Freezy Freakies Phenomenon of the 1980s
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Kids who grew up in the northeast in the 1980s were pretty invested in a fad that might have gone unnoticed in warmer parts of the country. Cajoling their parents at department stores during shopping trips, hundreds of thousands of them came home sporting a pair of Freezy Freakies—thick winter gloves that came with a built-in parlor trick. When the temperature dipped below 40°F, an image would suddenly appear on the back part of the material.

Swany America Corporation, which made, marketed, and distributed the gloves, released more than 30 original designs beginning in 1980. There was a robot, a unicorn, rocket ships, ballerinas, rainbows, snowflakes, and various sports themes, though the “I Love Snow” image (below) may have been the most popular overall. At the height of Freezy mania, Swany was moving 300,000 pairs of gloves per year, which accounted for about 20 percent of their overall sales.

A Freezy Freakies glove before and after the temperature change
Freezy Freakies

“Boys loved the robot design,” Bruce Weinberg, Swany’s vice president and a former sales director for Freezy Freakies, tells Mental Floss. “Above 40 degrees, the image would disappear.”

The secret to the $13 Freakies was thermochromic ink, a temperature-sensitive dye that's been used in mood rings and heat-sensitive food labels and can appear translucent until it's exposed to warmer temperatures. Swany licensed the ink from Pilot, the Japanese-based pen company, after Swany CEO Etsuo Miyoshi saw the technology and thought it would be a good fit for his glove-focused operation. (Though they experimented with making luggage in the 1990s, Swany has predominantly been a manufacturer of higher-end ski gloves.)

Weinberg isn’t sure how Miyoshi settled on the “Freezy Freakies” name—the president is now retired—but says Miyoshi knew they had a hit early on. “After a few seasons, they could tell they had a winner product,” he says. Swany even put advertising dollars into TV commercials, a rare strategy for glove-makers not named Isotoner.

Pilot was able to adjust the temperature at which the ink would become transparent, or vice versa. If kids were impatient, or if it happened to be during the summer, Weinberg says it wasn’t uncommon to find Freezy Freakies stuck in the freezer so they could materialize their art design. “At trade shows, we’d do something similar with some ice or a cold soda,” he says. “All of a sudden, some ice cubes would make it change, and buyers would think that was really cool.”

The Freakies were such a hit that Swany licensed jackets and considered changing the name of the company to the same name as the glove. It’s probably just as well they didn’t: While Freakies lasted well over a decade, by the 1990s, things had cooled. In the new millennium, Swany was down to selling just a few hundred pairs a year. Color-changing ink for coffee mugs or beer cans was more pervasive, wearing down the novelty; knock-offs had also grabbed licensed cartoon characters, which Swany was never interested in pursuing.

The brand was dormant when a company named Buffoonery approached Swany in 2013 to license Freezy Freakies for a crowdfunded revival. This time, the gloves came in adult sizes for $34. The partnership has been successful, and Weinberg says Buffoonery has just signed an extension to start producing kids’ gloves.

“Parents will probably want matching ones for their kids,” Weinberg says. And both might still wind up in the freezer.

Live Smarter
The Very Disgusting Reason You Should Always Wash New Clothes Before Wearing Them

It’s sometimes assumed that clothing with a price tag still dangling from the sleeve can skip an initial wash. Someone else may have tried it on, sure, but they didn’t run a marathon in it. Why not just throw it in the closet as soon as you get home?

One big reason: lice. As The Independent reports, Donald Belsito, a professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, told NBC's Today show recently that clothing fresh off store racks can harbor infestations of lice, scabies, or fungus.

You might be familiar with head lice as the dreaded insects that occupy the scalp and give school health monitors cause for concern. Head lice can be transmitted via clothing and other fabrics, and anyone who tried on a shirt or dress before you did can be a carrier. While they only live for one or two days without a blood meal, that’s still enough time to cause problems if something is being tried on frequently.

Scabies is far more insidious. The mites are too small to see, but the allergic reaction they cause by burrowing into your skin to lay eggs will be obvious.

Both scabies and lice can be treated with topical solutions, but it’s better to kill them by washing new clothes in hot water. A good soak can also get rid of formaldehyde, a common chemical used in fabrics to help ward off mold in case stock gets wet in transit. Formaldehyde can cause allergic skin reactions. For all of these reasons, it’s best to hit the washing machine before those new pants ever hit your hanger.

[h/t Independent]


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