Mister Boomer has chronicled the many changes that Baby Boomers have witnessed across their lifespan, and now here is another: winter outerwear. The winter coats and jackets boomers wore as children are, in many instances, still available today, but now redesigned with fabrics and insulators that we could not even dream of fifty years ago.
People have lived in all sorts of cold-weather climates for millennia, and as such, each created their own method of keeping warm. Most did so with a combination of animal skin and wool. A young United States, mainly inhabited by Europeans at that point, brought the outerwear of their home region to the new country. Regional differences were the norm, as Scandinavian and Irish sweaters became prevalent in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest, while English and German wool and shearling coats spread across much of the other cold regions of the country as well. Increased trade routes, bolstered by advances in transportation and delivery via steamboat, the Erie Canal and the cross-country railroads, coupled with power looms adopted during the Industrial Revolution, helped homogenize the types of fabrics and clothing available.
Once the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, people found that even though factory work was incredibly demanding and difficult, for the first time, freed from the rigors of managing a farm, they had leisure time. This was time they might want to spend outdoors. To meet this rising “leisure class,” outerwear garments for winter leisure appeared around the late 1890s, and were made of wool. The Woolrich Company was a pioneer in this effort. By the early 1900s, L.L. Bean was making boots for the outdoors. Eddie Bauer introduced the first commercial cold-weather parka in the 1930s.
A decade later, men and women fighting during World War II were issued outerwear primarily made of wool, which hadn’t changed much since the previous war to end all wars. At the start of the Baby Boom, coats and jackets for men, women and children were made more attractive based on the fashion of the day, but were still mainly wool, leather or suede. By the 1960s, faux fur for women was becoming an in thing as man-made fabrics entered the picture.
Mister Boomer can recall all of the outerwear he wore during his boomer years. In his family, winter outerwear was especially intended to last as many years as the garment would fit, which for Mister B, was three to five years early on in the 1950s, and replaced more like every seven to ten years in the 1960s and into the ’70s. Consequently, his timeline of outerwear closely echoed what was commonly available in those years. Mister Boomer recalls he had wool coats in the 1950s and early ’60s. Then both he and Brother Boomer got shorter suede jackets with man-made pile lining in the mid-1960s. That was replaced with a longer corduroy coat in his high school years. Mister B did not own a parka until the 1970s.
Looking back, one of the striking memories for Mister B is how cold it was, inside as well as out. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, people generally wore sweaters indoors all day, every day. Mister Boomer still has the knit sweater a friend gave him for his eighteenth birthday in his possession, as well as the fisherman’s knit turtleneck that was a Christmas present a couple of years before that. The story goes that the Irish band, The Clancy Bothers, were to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961 during a particularly cold spell. The mother of the band members sent them Aran sweaters, which they wore on the stage. The sweaters became their signature look after that. It just happened at the same time that the most famous Irishman in the United States was the President: John Kennedy, who was also photographed wearing these types of knit sweaters from Ireland. The sweater, though available for years, gained a new level of popularity.
In recent times, Mister B finds them too warm to wear except on the coldest days. This makes sense when you remember that houses built as late as the 1930s had little to no insulation, and double-paned windows were yet to be invented. Today’s advances in insulation, window technology and heating systems has eliminated the necessity of daily indoor sweater wearing for most people. Modern outerwear fabrics and insulators have also reduced the need for the extra layer of warmth a sweater would provide. Nonetheless, sweaters remain one of the most popular Christmas gifts.
How about you, boomers? Did your outerwear reflect the era or the country of origin of your parents or grandparents?