The bike shirt from Outlier Inc., a New York company, is made of cotton, a special blend tightly woven with fibers stitched intentionally to swell when wet. The fabric, an offshoot of a relic material from the World War II era, is nearly comparable to Gore-Tex in its waterproofness and breathability, Outlier cites. One of the cotton weave's first known uses was for "immersion suits" created for jetfighter pilots who might crash in the North Sea, ostensibly shot down by Nazis. Today, Outlier revives this anachronistic cotton to sew shirts that cost upwards of $300 and appeal to bike-commuting city office workers, fashion dabblers, as well as a certain well-off niche of the hipster set.
This is all to say the Supermarine Rain Shirt, the aforementioned $300 piece, is among the strangest apparel products I have tested all year, if not ever. In use, the collared button-up fits flatteringly close and comfortable, though still a bit restrictive like all dress shirts can be. Paradoxically, rain beads on its cotton face. Wear it outside in a storm and this tuck-in shirt can do double duty for you in lieu of a raincoat.
Bird watchers and British survivalist nuts, it is said, are longtime fans of this special cotton weave, which uses a fine, long-strand cotton fiber. One blend, the most known, is made by Ventile Fabrics at a mill in the county constituency of Chorley, England. There are a few niche outdoor brands, including West Winds (U.K.) and Wiggy's (U.S.A.), that use Ventile in jackets and clothing. Outlier, which is based in Brooklyn, gets its "magic cotton" from a Swiss mill, and the company adds on a DWR (durable water repellent) coating to further boost its propensity to shed rain.
This spring, on misty days in April and May, I put the Supermarine Rain Shirt to use. My sample from Outlier, which as noted sells for an astonishing $300 -- $326.63 with tax! -- fits nicely and feels semi-formal to wear. I got compliments each time I buttoned it up. On the bike, I felt alarmingly preppy pedaling with a wool cycling cap and knickers on.
Outlier sells the shirt in white, gray and navy blue. It is made in New York City. The material has a dense feel to it, though the company's design lets it fit just right. For biking the sleeves have a "pivot construction" for leaning over and gripping your handlebars tight.
One big caveat on color: The white shirt, which I tested, is not very compatible with road spray. Also, in the closet, the Supermarine's strange fabric is prone to wrinkling if not hung up and minded like the dress shirt that it is. (Outlier's catalog copy: "One word of warning, this shirt is a bit of bitch to take care. . .".)
For use as a "technical" piece, the Supermarine Rain Shirt does fine blocking precip. Wind bounces off its face. Indeed, the dressy top functions far more like a water-resistant windbreaker than a formal shirt.
But in reality most bike commuters would not employ the Supermarine Rain Shirt as a serious, everyday piece. Though it has some of the same functionality, you simply can't trade it out for a jacket. They are different beasts altogether. The Outlier shirt has its place, perhaps mostly in locales like San Francisco and Manhattan, where bike-pedaling urbanites want to arrive at work looking good, no matter a light rain outside.
The Ventile cotton is said to have been worn not only by British military men but by Antarctic explorers and even Edmond Hillary on the first ascent of Mount Everest. If the tight cotton weave worked for those guys, then surely it'll function for a short bike ride in a city. Are you game? Check your bank balance and get your 300 bucks ready. Now, button up, it's time to head out on a fashionable, rainproof ride.
--Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com. Connect with Regenold at Facebook.com/TheGearJunkie or on Twitter via @TheGearJunkie.