Couture A-Go-Go

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Hardware and Software, February 1997

Couture A-Go-Go

Functional yet snappy travel garb for a haul of any length
By Bob Howells

Stifling heat is no excuse when you appear bare-legged at Cairo's Mohammed Ali Mosque. You either rent a ratty wraparound or remain outside. Unless, perchance, you're able to produce your own leggings, zip them to your shorts, and proceed fully garbed, and thus in proper observance of Islamic protocol, into the shrine--as I did one muggy day last fall. Afterward, the leggings came off and stayed off until the pyramids at Giza loomed just a short camel ride away. Then it was a matter not of deferring to mores but of protecting my gams from chafing against a rough saddle.

Convertible trousers are but one of the happy innovations in travel wear, which melds elements of casual clothing and technical outerwear. The story is as much about the virtues of synthetic fabrics--you'll find no all-cotton garb herein--as it is about useful designs.

If you're wont to snicker at such sartorial utility, consider the advantages: These clothes weigh little and gobble minimal pack space, yet they emerge from duffel-stuffings with nary a need for ironing. Synthetics and blends are durable and wash easily; rinse out your pants one day and they're dry for duty the next. (Ever try sink-washing a pair of Levi's?) The result is that you need to stow only a couple changes of clothes, even for an extended trip.

I've been wearing clothes like those recommended here for years now--flying, trekking, fly-fishing, bicycle touring, dining, and yes, visiting mosques and riding camels--and have found their true measure to be versatility. Indeed, I've come to rely on a travel wardrobe that metamorphoses as my itinerary does. But what I admire most about travel wear these days is that unlike their safari-couture progenitors, which seemed best suited for field scientists and banana-latitude overlords, these clothes look sharp. Wear them wherever the road takes you.

Pants, Shorts, Skirts
Bonefish Scrub Pants ($59) from Orvis are as sheer as they come. Constructed of quick-drying Supplex nylon, these trousers are ideal for striding through streams or tidal flats, or for protecting your legs on a sunny raft run. The gusseted cuffs adjust with snaps to fit easily over boots. The pants also feature comfy built-in briefs, like swim trunks, so you don't have to endure soggy skivvies. Amphibious features aside, the Scrubs are suitable for the street.

Gramicci pants,
Patagonia jacket, TNF shirt
Gramicci's Tidal Wave Sport Pants ($60) are made of medium-weight, quick-drying nylon with the loose cut and looks to make the grade in your rotation of jeans. But they're considerably more comfortable, thanks to a feature Gramicci introduced 15 years ago: the gusseted crotch. It means extra material for freedom of movement, with no bulky seam to bind or gouge. The Tidal Wave is also mindful of convenience, with its built-in nylon belt.

I used to wear army-surplus wool pants for heavy-duty bushwhacking, but the Tibetan Hiking Pant ($79; men's and women's styles) from The North Face has them beat. The coarse material is a blend of Cordura and Supplex nylons, doubled in the seat and knees, and likely to outlast Social Security. The crotch is gusseted, and the cuffs have internal gaiters to prevent dust or snow from billowing up your legs.

RR pants,
L.L. Bean shirt,
TNF vest
The medium-weight three-ply Supplex Royal Robbins Zip 'n' Go Pant ($68; men's and women's styles) is simply the best of the many convertible designs I've worn. Sure, you can turn them into shorts, but once you do, the limbs stow conveniently in a pouch built into one of the legs, which can then be hung, via hook-and-loop straps, from a belt loop, pack strap, or what have you. And the gusseted cuffs mean you don't have to remove your boots to convert shorts to pants.

The roomy, classically stylish Ex Officio Ultimate Travel Skirt ($58) is also practical and comfortable, according to a source close to the author. Made of a soft nylon twill

WR shorts,
Gramicci shirt,
Moonstone top
that scarcely shows wrinkles, the three-quarter-length skirt features two hand pockets, a key pocket, an inside passport pocket, and a full-button front.

Not merely a knockoff of a man's hiking shorts, the Wild Roses Short Rose ($50), made of Supplex, are cut fuller at the hips and narrower in the waist for women. They feature slider buckles on the side to cinch the waist snug and at the hem to adjust the leg length.

Helly-Hansen's Hiker Shorts ($50) are a worthy choice for trail and street alike. So soft is the Cordura in the Hiker that wearing them gives you that unencumbered feeling of silky running shorts. They feature two rear zippered pockets, one hook-and-loop pocket in front, standard side pockets, and a pleated front that give a smart look as well as a nice fit.

Shirts and Tops
Sleeveless and supple, the women's Gramicci Outback ($38) is designed to help you contend with stifling heat when anything more would make you wilt. The sanded Supplex fabric dutifully wicks away moisture so you never feel or look drenched. And should you tamp it into a four-inch square packet, it'll still look presentable when you fish it from your duffel.

Even a fabric as soft as the Supplex used in L.L. Bean's SPF Tropic Wear Shirt ($48; men's and women's styles) needs help in the breathability department. Thus the mesh back vent. The fabric is also chemically treated to repel 95 to 99 percent of UVB rays, making this a great all-day-in-the-sun shirt.

I bought an Ex Officio Baja Plus Long-Sleeve Shirt ($79; men's and women's styles) years ago for sun protection, and now it's the first thing I pack for any excursion. The soft material, treated to repel both UVA and UVB rays, is woven so that cotton against the skin draws out moisture while nylon outside disperses it. Mesh ducts along the sides siphon air through, and the pleated back has an elastic band sewn inside, enabling the shirt to move with the body. Finally, there's a tab above the left pocket that's intended to stabilize a fly rod while switching from a caddis to a nymph, though I found it works even better as a conversation piece.

The Royal Robbins Go Everywhere Henley ($42), made of a polyester piqué knit with subtly positioned mesh vents under the arms, is deceptively functional. It has the natty look of casual cotton, but its wicking-enhanced chemical finish makes it as airy and quick-drying as any good travel garb.

Helly-Hanson shorts,
TravelSmith polo,
Zota Gear belt
The CoolMax Piqué Polo ($34) from TravelSmith has a similarly suburban look-with a collar. It's at home in any civilized setting, but I also like it as a layering piece for hiking. It blends cotton and CoolMax, the softest and airiest of polyesters, in a comfortable combination that's adept at wicking moisture.

At the dressy end of the spectrum, The North Face's Fez Striped Banded Collarless Shirt ($74) has the sheen and feel of linen, although it's actually a woven blend of rugged nylon and polyester, treated to aid in evaporation. It might look too good to take trekking, but it'll perform great on the trail--and then serve as a sharp shirt for when you go urban again.

Outer Layers
The women's Wild Roses Ayers Rose Vest ($75) is made from a Cordura-Supplex blend that's practically indestructible. And it has just enough pockets to suffice--two outside, one inside--without imposing that professional-photographer look.

When an airy travel top becomes too airy, The North Face's Quilted Windproof Vest ($108; men's and women's styles) can seal out a chest-chilling breeze. It sandwiches lightweight polyester insulation between tough Cordura Plus on the outside and W. L. Gore's Windstopper fleece on the inside.

TravelSmith's Microfleece Henley ($69) is the pièce de résistance of cool-weather layering. Button it up over another shirt as a jacket or slip it under a windbreaker as insulation. But feel the cashmere-meets-chamois texture and you'll be tempted to wear the Microfleece Henley all by itself, against your skin. My, how far polyester has come.

It may not be waterproof-breathable, and it may not be loaded with technical features, but neither does Patagonia's Baggies Jacket ($135) make you look like a Messner wannabe en route to Nanga Parbat. Instead, its compressible Supplex, treated for water-resistance, affords you moderately rugged yet sharp simplicity wherever else you might venture.

TNF pants,
Ex Officio shirt,
TravelSmith jacket

Ex Officio's Traveling Convertible Jacket ($138) is a coat or vest--by virtue of zip-off sleeves--for the traveler who simply must stay organized: It has more pockets than you'd ever use (15 in all), some hidden, some zippered, and some hook-and-looped for fast access. The water-resistant, nylon twill shell features a snap-off hood and a back-panel vent, and it all stuffs into its own small lumbar pack when the weather turns.

The most urbane application of waterproof-breathable technology I've yet seen, TravelSmith's City Light Jacket ($199; men's and women's styles) is a coated microfiber Supplex shell dressed up in faux-Burberry's styling. Wearing it, you could walk Uptown and keep right on going to the Adirondacks without missing a beat.

Necessities A few personal favorites round out a practical traveler's wardrobe. The Tilley Endurables T3 hat ($45) is a subtle classic, and offers unparalleled comfort: Made of vented, water-repellent cotton duck, the T3 comes in a jillion sizes. Oh, and it harbors a pocket, suitable for stashing cash, inside the crown. Zota Gear belts ($25) from Rooster Sports are made of nylon webbing rather than leather, which can stain trousers when wet, yet they feature conventional buckles--and an array of patterns--to preserve a streetworthy look. Of course, all the synthetics ever whipped up won't "do" much with cotton underneath. Hence Duofold CoolMax Briefs (for men and women, $13), antidote to soggy-shorts syndrome: They simply won't absorb moisture. Ditto for Moonstone Mountaineering's Women's Support Top ($35), made with a stretchy CoolMax-Lycra blend where it needs to be opaque; the rest is a comfy polyester mesh. As for footwear, my latest casual travel favorite is Rockport's HydroSport XCS water shoe ($100). The airy upper is constructed of quick-drying nylon mesh and synthetic leather, the Vibram sole keeps you surefooted on wet surfaces, and given the colorful package, your travel partner will never lose you in a crowd.
-- Bob Howells
Where To Find It
Duofold, 800-448-8240; Ex Officio, 800-644-7303; Gramicci, 800-814-5000; Helly-Hansen, 800-435-5901; L.L. Bean, 800-809-7057; Moonstone, 800-822-2985; Orvis, 800-548-9548; Patagonia, 800-638-6464; Rockport, 800-762-5767; Rooster Sports, 888-777-3596; Royal Robbins, 800-587-9044; The North Face, 800-447-2333; Tilley, 800-387-0272; TravelSmith, 800-950-1600; Wild Roses, 888-889-5900

Bob Howells compiled the Outside Holiday Gift Guide, "Better Get A Big Sleigh," for the December 1996 issue.

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