Notes from a Tortured Relationship with Flannel
How can it be a wardrobe staple when nobody knows what it is?
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This is part of #OutsideFlannelWeek, a celebration of the fabric we all know and love.
I do not trust flannel. Like the concepts of meal planning and trucker hats, it is billed as an easy-breezy, one-size-fits-all, universally positive thing—but in my experience, it is not. I knew flannel’s reputation before I encountered it in any substantial way (not a lot of Floridians wear it), and when I finally tried it on, I didn’t really get the appeal. Why be suspicious of a material that claims only to be cozy, protective, and capable of making one look like a hardy westerner? Because I, personally, cannot pull it off. Or identify it. Or bother to care.
I started my research for this essay by doing a closet inventory. I own three flannels, all in dark plaid prints, all collared button-ups, all 100 percent cotton. I spent a very long time considering the flimsy handfeel of these fast-fashion shirts, and then I did a cursory Google search: “What is flannel?” Blogs with names like Plaid Lover and Outside’s very own website told me, with varying degrees of scolding, that I do not in fact own any flannel. Real flannel, I learn, is a material woven so tightly it looks a little fuzzy. A flannel shirt is not just any old shirt with a plaid pattern, it is a thick plaid shirt. But also, it doesn’t have to be plaid! I could feel a tension headache forming, so I Googled “celebrities wearing flannel” and took some deep breaths. But what’s this, the flannel shirt every celebrity owns? JUST A PLAID BUTTON-DOWN. My whole life, flannel has been sold to me as a wardrobe staple, but how can it be when nobody knows what it is?
This is not to say that I have never worn genuine flannel—this is where our relationship really starts to strain. I tried on at least one version of the real thing in my previous tenure as an Outside editor, and the effect was elfin lumberjack meets eighties power shoulders. The additional structure and heft provided by real flannel does not suit me, a five-foot-three woman who prefers to embrace her hunched shoulders and unimposing stature with gigantic, shapeless sweaters. The bright primary color combinations offered by flannel manufacturers also do not befit me, a woman who prefers her fabrics in subdued shades, such as black or jewel tones so dark they might as well be black.
I’m aware that I am supposed to feel effortlessly utilitarian in flannel, but its ax-wielding Mr. Autumn Man identity is so strong that it’s all I can see and it never feels right. What’s effortless about that?
The thing that baffles me most, though, is if I were to own real flannel, when would I wear it? I think lots of people look very cool and casual wearing it, but when I do, I feel both too dressed up and not dressed up enough. It seems like I am pretending to be a lumberjack if I wear it to the office, and I feel like I’d rather be wearing my warmest sweatshirt if I bring it on a cold-weather camping trip. I’m aware that I am supposed to feel effortlessly utilitarian in flannel, but its ax-wielding Mr. Autumn Man identity is so strong that it’s all I can see. It never feels right. What’s effortless about that?
Maybe I tell myself this because I hold the potential to be a flannel-hoarder. After admiring early-career George Clooney in a truly magnificent flannel creation, I remembered that my partner (or pardner, when wearing plaid) owns multiple real flannel shirts. I stole one and wore it atop my oversize sweater while writing, and I have to admit that while I look bulky as all hell, I have never felt cozier in my entire life.
This particular shirt, which I might never take off, hails from a famous epicenter of the form: the Vermont Flannel Company. I was there when he bought it last month, and I think back to the store’s weird new-fabric smell and wall-to-wall stacks of lightly fuzzy goodness. While I avoided trying on any flannel myself, I peered at flannel blankets and, at the cash register, a novelty offering: the flannel thong. These two items, I think, highlight flannel’s true charms. I thought flannel was a look, a dress-up session as a person who knows how to fell a tree. But I didn’t give flannel its due for being more humble than that. It’s not a showy lifestyle signaller; it’s not even necessarily plaid or Christmas colored. It is but a simple fabric, carefully woven and extremely warm (when used in large enough quantities). Even those of us who can’t stand to be seen in it can hide its careful craftsmanship beneath our less practical clothes—or better yet, we can hide our whole selves in it, as beautiful plaid blanket burritos.