Recycle of an old piece — I wrote this for my friend Frank Rivera a couple of years ago for the old BTC site. It misses out on a ton of important stuff, but it was only ever intended as an overview.
1. EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE (1800s—1960s)
There’s an intrinsic joy in owning something that could perform. It’s that potential that amplifies appeal — nobody wants something that’s made to get by. from the apartment to the workplace and back again, perhaps created to withstand the rigours of public transport. We want product that’s built to last — should, god forbid, we end up on a mountain or in extreme wet weather (we’re talking a Noah’s Ark situation here), we want that thing that allows us to smirk in the face of adversity. Can’t have that super car? At least a bag or coat that performs at a peak is almost within our means.
After all, who isn’t drawn in by the notion of a lifetime guarantee? The appeal of the day-to-day baggage that was built to last is founded on multiple movements and technical breakthroughs, but ultimately it’s fueled by the love of the very best. Witness Eastpak’s pledge for eternal life for a rucksack or Filson’s “Might As Well Have the Best” tagline and testimonies. The holy trinity of working, fighting and climbing has taken product on a voyage from life-saving necessity to a must-have accessory. Three different routes based on occupation, but a final destination on the backs and shoulders of a casual wearer. Before records began — we’re talking B.C. era — baggage and functional apparel was being developed out of necessity and the back as a key spot for load-bearing had been noted and experiments in insulation had taken place using natural materials.
Centuries later, outerwear began its true development on the back of wealthy adventurers during the mid to late 1800s — some had already begun to experiment, often using inspiration from Inuit methods of survival. Those traditions even extended to include early experiments in taped seams, an application generally believed to be a quintessentially late 20th century outerwear breakthrough. Sheer existence in Nordic regions (with oils and skins providing natural solutions) fired imaginations too and when a preoccupation with polar exploration occurred among the wealthy by the end of the century, the seeds were well and truly sown.
In the early 1800s, the knapsack was part of the soldier’s uniform during the Napoleonic War. The French wore animal skin variations, and single strap haversacks were worn around this era to carry rations. Trotters of London made an uncomfortable wood and canvas backpack for British troops, but Napoleon is generally considered to be a godfather of the two-shoulder design as we know it, extolling its virtues as the perfect vessel to survive a week. John Merriam’s 1886 patent on a frame pack is significant, with that design’s inspiration reportedly harking back to Native American basket creations.
With the accessibility of the train and later, the plane. uncharted areas became a challenge for explorers and mountaineers. Today’s problem of breathable waterproofing was still posed back in the Victorian period, where Thomas Burberry’s (the man behind Burberry) Gaberdine, a tightly woven worsted/cotton offered a more comfortable wear that uncomfortable rubberized fabrics like Macintosh’s patented material. A combination of wealth and necessity continued to push forward the development of baggage with an emphasis on light weight. Alpine excursions became increasingly popular for pleasure and for the purpose of recognition as the first to conquer a perilous peak or region. The outcome? Business built on providing Alpine apparel and accessories.
Elsewhere, functional workwear was being developed for railroad workers, builders and miners, with the development of denim during the California gold rush around the 1850s, as well as duck canvas. Patented a couple of decades later, resilience took precedence over the performance that climbers required, but affordable pants, bibs and jackets built to last would inform later outerwear. In 1894 J. Barbour & Sons, located in the north of England set up shop, with their branded oilskins proving particularly popular. The later introduction of a poacher’s pocket across the rear of a field jacket offered a solution to carrying a separate bag altogether for those looking to stay grounded.
The quest to conquer Everest between the 1920s and 1950s would fuel global imaginations, with the high mortality rate necessitating some of the most advanced materials to date. here, experiments in moisture wicking, vapour barrier linings and stretch fabrics would birth the next wave of outdoors gear. Casual climbers and hikers with disposable income could treat themselves to a top-of-the-line Bergen rucksack from the Norwegian brand (those designs would ultimately inspire the contemporary Bergen British SAS Paratrooper rucksack), resulting in an early example of coveted baggage of this kind. Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s commission of Grenfell cloth — a material that debuted in 1923 — from a Burnley manufacturer, offered waterproof and breathable properties through a tightly woven Egyptian cotton to supersede Gaberdine.
On the American side, LL Bean’s 1921 patent of the duck boot design and Eddie Bauer’s 1940 patent of the down coat were key developments. Lloyd F. “Trapper” Nelson’s 1920s reinforced packboard creation was a notable patent too, inspired by a Native American sealskin and willow stick design emphasised ventilation for the back and was manufactured by George Trager. During the Everest preoccupation, two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) played their part too. The model 42 WW2 rectangular Swiss infantry haversack made from pony fur and calfskin set a precedent for natural materials and their performance benefits that evolved the style of militaristic creations from over a century earlier.
The U.S. Army’s 1941 Specification File No. 2971 was the first of their rucksacks, made from duck canvas, the J.Q.D. 88 design from 1942, made in line with arctic storage breakthroughs. U.S. manufacturers like Baker-Lockwood Manufacturing and Morrow & Douglass had the contracts to create these classic-looking designs. Duck canvas would be the regular material for these bags, until the introduction of lighter nylon takes on the canvas M-1956 Load Carrying Equipment (or which the field pack was just a component) in 1962. After further iterations, that led to the ALICE (All-Purpose Individual Carrying Equipment) system’s introduction in 1973 during the Vietnam War, a system only phased out fairly recently.
DuPont’s development of nylon in 1935 was significant, with the material adopted early as a replacement for hemp or silk in parachutes as WWII commenced. By twisting two threads together at quarter-inch intervals, a fabric was made that could take the blows without tearing and distribute stress over a large area while remaining relatively light — ripstop nylon. That developed, with the thicker Ballistic nylon made with a basket weave that minimized debris penetration, making it perfect for WWII flak jackets. It was never a bulletproof fabric — that was the job of unwieldy fiberglass laminated creations, but the development of Kevlar into clothing in the mid 1970s (though the compound was discovered a decade earlier) was a life-saving introduction.
The Shirley Institute in Manchester’s development of Ventile in the 1940s for pilot’s suits that kept out water and wind via a woven cotton method offered something quiet and hard-to-tear too, ensuring that it’s still a fan favourite to the present day, kitting out generations of explorers and saving the lives of countless servicemen unlucky enough to be downed at sea.
Cordura appeared in a silkier rayon form to aid pilots and soldiers during WWII. Though it was developed in 1929, it wasn’t until 1966 that the nylon version superseded that fabrication. After developing dying techniques for the soft-sided version of Cordura in 1977, it became a favourite of Eastpak and Jansport for daypack use, with higher denier variations still the protective fabric of choice elsewhere. Cordura’s texturized yarns offered a fuzzier, more natural feel than the smoother ballistic nylon yarn, making it a tougher cousin to canvas in terms of look and feel. Ballistic nylon doesn’t take to dyeing like Cordura, so it’s frequently only offered in black.
2. CHECK DA BACK PACK (1960s—the present day)
The explosion of popularity in backpacking during the 1960s and 1970s, via a certain hippie idealism as well as a baby boomer generation who would fuel the industry for years to come, created some iconic brands and equipment. The UK’s Karrimor and Berghaus (whose Cyclops internal frame rucksack broke new ground) competed in developing baggage for serious climbers. Stateside, Gerry Cunningham’s GERRY brand created a controlled weight distribution backpack in 1968 as well as several pioneering down experiments in the years that followed, Skip Yowell, Murray Pletz and Jan Lewis’s Jansport debuted in 1967, bringing us the external frame D3 rucksack, Greg, Jeff and Mike Lowe’s Lowe Alpine produced the Lowe Alpine Expedition rucksack in 1967 — the first with an internal frame and length-adjustable back, and they changed the game again by debuting plastic buckles the following decade.
The breathable and waterproof 60/40 cotton/nylon mix was popularized by the underrated Holubar (also pioneers in their use of Vibram soles and goose down) with their Everest-type nylon pima around 1961, but more commonly associated with Sierra Designs and their 60/40 parka that first appeared in 1968, offering a new resilient fabric option to rival Ventile. GORE-TEX’s debut on outerwear around 1977 provided a costly take on the breathability conundrum that was immediately adopted by Berghaus (the Mistral is a classic), Sierra Designs and the North Face.
Into the 1980s, sport footwear designs like the adidas SL 72 and the Nike LD-1000 had a significant impact on a lighter approach to rugged footwear — the former was the inspiration for a new kind of boot from Karrimor, and the latter on John Roskelley’s feet on K2 helped birth All Conditions Gear. Long distance running inspired targeted designs for vertical distances. In the GORE-TEX era, colors became more lurid for visibility, but in the era of the yuppie, the boom in skiwear as both the Aspen holiday apparel choice and style statement of the day, it was inevitable that outdoor gear would explode in popularity..
Sierra Designs cameoed in 1978’s The Deer Hunter and the North Face packs in 1984’s Red Dawn were interesting product placement. In Europe, the UK’s casuals fetishised the costly coats, Italy’s young, monied Paninaro broke out the Monclers and in New York, boosting crews like the Lo-Lifes terrorized Paragon Sports and, beyond Ralphy’s world, popularized ultra-tech creations like the North Face’s Steep-Tech ski collection, designed alongside Scott Schmidt. Thus new aesthetics were born and the day pack’s popularity soared too as an everyday essential. The New York, Chicago and Boston winters fueled a certain sartorial, goose-down, GORE-TEX one-upmanship. Jake Burton Carpenter founding Burton in 1977 set a precedent for a new wave of winter sports enthusiast. Helly Hansen and Patagonia‘s breakthroughs with the lightweight fleece created an effective but more affordable wing of performance outerwear that became part of the everyman and woman uniform. Outdoor-wear spilled into every street in the western world.
It would be remiss to omit the wave of “everyday performance” lines, designed for city living but made with absolute function in mind — the Mandarina Duck Utility line from 1977, Stone Island’s 1982 debut and Kosuke Tsumara’s Final Home collection that commenced in 1992. All three took that pure spirit of innovation to the streets and catwalks. In terms of real mountain performance, Arc’teryx’s seven-bag collection in 1995 was a serious statement of intent.
While we took the vintage 1970s creations for granted at this point, Japanese collectors — monied and hungry for Americana — were snapping up iconic pieces. The eventuality was their own lines with the North Face, Gregory and Sierra Designs. Hip-hop’s early 1990s camo-clad notions of urban warfare blended with Hardy Blechman’s maharishi and his dedication to army aesthetics and DPM, Japanese takes on east coast streetwear styles evolved far beyond cotton to bring back the archive outdoor wear looks with Otaku-style lines like Setsumasa Kobayashi’s General Research and Mountain Research, Tetsu Nishiyama’s miltaristic WTAPS and Hiroki Nakamara’s visvim. Were these costly pieces ever going to ascend a steeper gradient than slight angle in an urban environment? Unlikely.
The rucksack’s use for nefarious reasons — be it weapons, stashed ill-gotten gains or paint and markers — made it an unobtrusive carrier that entered hip-hop lore. Black Moon’s Buckshot might have had one strapped to his back to accompany the talk of being strapped, but in interviews he insisted his back pack wielding was all in the name of goonery. Key rap folk who watched what they wore like Grand Puba, Erick Sermon and MC Serch (watch the Yo! MTV Raps finale freestyle cypher for proof) rocked them too. A rise in camo-clad MCs in the early 1990s wearing fatigues as well as workwear brands like Carhartt meant the neutral coloured army issue bags became a common sight — Roughhouse Survivors released Check Da Backpack in 1992, with the titular bags depicted as rhyme receptacles.
By 1997’s indie rap boom, stern-faced kids of all races with a Jansport full of markers, blackbooks soon-to-be-deceased ‘zines and vinyl filled Mike Zoot shows, fixating on Guesswyld, Fondle ‘Em and Rawkus. As the bigger-budget rap took hold as 2000 approached, “backpacker” became a dirty word. Rappers themselves were keen to publicly distance themselves of the nerdish limitations the expression evoked. But using Kanye’s post-2002 ascent as an example, his initial PR dwelled on a backpacker-with-a-Benz everyman appeal, rocking a Louis Vuitton backpack with a Polo rugby, helping to create a hip-hop atmosphere of total consumerism with a nod to the forefathers who raised artists sonically.
By the time Lupe Fiasco broke out the maharishi gear and ballistic nylon visvim baggage with elk skin (harking back to the design’s origins) trims in 2006 a convergence was even more visible. 2007’s Duffel Bag Boy by Playaz Circle proved that even the waviest individuals can benefit from a durable holdall.
Beyond the boom-bap pensioners, a boom in all things digital created a new middle class who took to the bikes and the hills that surrounded their liberal stronghold cities, making those brands built on ideals and innovation into powerhouses held under vast corporations. Even onetime rivals sit beneath the same hefty organizations. Things done changed, but that quest to own the absolute best in its field remains, whether you’re heading up a mountain or not.