A Brief Adventurous History of Flannel
The journey of a fabric enjoyed by everyone from Welsh shepherds to grunge Seattleites
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This is part of #OutsideFlannelWeek, a celebration of the fabric we all know and love.
The story of flannel begins with sheep. History tells us that some of the earliest flannel-like clothes come from Wales. As I imagine it: one day, a Welsh shepherd, fed up with coming home each night to a scratchy woolen undershirt, had a vision for a new kind of material that would fend off the North Atlantic mist and not leave him itching that one tricky spot between his shoulder blades. The result of that vision was flannel, a soft, hardy fabric first made of wool. (In fact, flannel is a type of weave, rather than a specific pattern.) Here, we’re going to take a look at some of its greatest hits.
In the Museum of English Rural Life’s digital archives, flannel appears in everything from petticoats to blankets to children’s smocks. While the oldest items are made of wool, flannel can also be made from fibers like cotton and even pine. The thread used to weave flannel is tightly spun and water resistant, and often brushed on one side, resulting in a fabric that’s durable and softens with age.
In the U.S., flannel has gone through a series of incarnations. Some of the earliest documented flannel garments were a kind of two-part long underwear known as emancipation suits, patented in the decades after the Civil War as a replacement for whalebone corsets. Those reportedly morphed into union suits, the full-body long underwear (with bum flap) worn by Yosemite Sam or your uncle in Wisconsin. Union suits became the standard base layer for those working in lumber or on railroads, while flannel jackets were used as heavy, water-resistant outerwear.
Flannel spiked in popularity during the folk-revival movement of the seventies, then achieved iconic fame with the rise of grunge in the nineties. As Clara Berg, a textile specialist and curator at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, told me, Seattle’s grunge scene embraced flannel and tattered jeans as anti-fashion. The clothes were functional and cheap—in a 1992 photo from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a man shows off a plaid jacket that he coyly says had been “left behind,” a remnant of the region’s lumber workers. The look appealed to those who didn’t feel represented by the glitz of hair metal. When Nirvana’s Nevermind exploded to the top of the Billboard charts in 1992, ratty thrift-store flannels came along for the ride. (It was around this time, Berg thinks, that plaid and flannel fused into synonyms, as the grunge scene didn’t distinguish between different plaid shirts—after all, they got them out of dumpsters and secondhand stores.)
With the popularity came a backlash. When Marc Jacobs, then a designer at Perry Ellis, released a grunge-inspired collection in 1993 (strips of flannel and long tartan skirts abounded), he was panned by both pearl clutchers in the fashion world and professional musicians who chafed as their anarchist sensibility was co-opted and commercialized.
But flannel’s popularity didn’t die down: think Jerry Seinfeld’s early-decade baggy highwater jeans and loose flannel shirts, the angsty teens and vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even the anti-grunge crusader played by Alicia Silverstone in 1995’s Clueless wears a tartan blazer and miniskirt. And last year, Marc Jacobs revived his grunge looks for Gen Z.
The current flannel trend, which has its roots in the post-millenium lumbersexual look, doesn’t follow directly from the heady, dumpster-diving days of grunge—it’s more like seventies Americana remixed by the gentrification set—but Berg says there are similarly admirable qualities. Brands like Filson, a Seattle-based company founded during the Alaskan Gold Rush, she notes, have experienced a revival by placing a premium on durability and function. That’s flannel at its best, I think. Stylish? Sure, sometimes. But a really good flannel will last long enough to be passed down to the next generation of hipsters.