The Evolution of Outdoor Clothing

In the 20th century, clothing technology developed considerably. What we know about heat transfer and how to optimize a human’s core temperature has developed along with it. It’s easy to take modern clothing for granted. Most of us will fortunately never experience an alternative in challenging weather conditions.

The Body

In order to function, the human body must maintain a balanced temperature. Maintaining this is called ‘Homeostasis’.

When we get too hot, we perspire. Perspiration is the body releasing water to the skin’s surface. This water then evaporates, taking heat away from the body. Our blood vessels also dilate, increasing the flow of blood around the body. This process known as ‘vasodilation’ is another way the body stays cool.

When we get too cold, we begin to shiver. This exertion produces heat. We also conserve heat through the process of ‘vasoconstriction’, the opposite of vasodilation. The hairs on our body stand on end when we get cold as well. This traps a layer of warm air around the body. It’s this process that we emulate when we wear clothes.

The Origins of Clothing

A reproduction of clothes worn by mummified ‘iceman’ Ötzi. image attributed to Wolfgang Sauber

When exactly humans began wearing clothing is not known. Since clothing doesn’t fossilize, researchers have to look at indirect evidence of clothing. Anthropologists estimate people started wearing clothes somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 years ago.

The earliest date we have evidence of clothing is between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. This is due to the existence of a type of louse. This louse, called the ‘body louse’ or ‘Pediculus humanus corporis’ lives specifically in clothes. It is related to the head louse, and it’s origins were dated via genetic analysis. Clothing may well predate this time.

Its likely Neanderthals wore clothing due to the cold environments in which they lived. Animal hides, leather and fur are thought to have been used in early clothing. This would then be followed by the more sophisticated weaving of fibres to make cloth.

While sheep were domesticated around 9000 to 7000BC, sheep had to be selected and bred to be more woolly. The first evidence of wool as a textile dates from 400 to 300BC. The 27th century BC saw the use of silk in textiles in China. With the creation of the famous Silk road, silk spread around the world. The date when cotton was domesticated is not known. It was in use as early as 5000BC at least. The industrial revolution mechanized fabric production, but clothing remained hand made until the emergence of sewing machines in the 19th century.

Jumping forward

Captain Robert Scott

The age of Antarctic exploration brought with it problems and solutions in terms of effective clothing. Polar explorers wore clothes made from natural materials. These materials soaked up sweat and moisture which froze in the Antarctic conditions. Jackets had widely spaced buttons and no hoods. Clothing lacked ventilation.

The trial and error of these explorers lead to the development of the layering system. Rather than wearing as many clothes as possible, each layer needed to have different properties. This layering system is what we still use today, albeit with different items of clothing. The base layer needed to trap warm air around the body and wick sweat away from the skin. This was achieved for many years by the cotton string vest. The mid layer served to provide insulation and was provided by wool jumpers or sweaters. The outer layer which serves to protect you from the wind and rain, was achieved via waxed jackets.

The Synthetic Revolution

Gore-Tex: Image attributed to ‘wart dark’

The first fully synthetic material, Nylon, was developed by Wallace Carothers. While Nylon was used to produce women’s stockings and military equipment, it was not used much in other clothes until later. The first Polyester fibre is owed to two British chemists: John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson. Polyester surpassed Nylon in terms of toughness and durability, and it began to be used in clothes.

Gore-Tex was invented in 1969 and has since become a staple material for waterproof clothing. Its popularity is owed to its ability to repel water, while letting water vapor pass through it. This allows sweat from the wearer’s body to escape while rain is kept out. Another plus is it’s incredibly lightweight.


The durability of synthetic materials means they are better at withstanding exposure to sunlight, moisture and oils from human skin. They’re also far more efficient at being waterproof and dry quickly due to their water repellent qualities. Innovations like zips and Velcro offer greater ease of use. The simple addition of a hood to a rain coat keeps our head dry.  The comfort and safety we find in modern outdoor clothing is owed to technological advancements and the trial and error of others. To learn about layering clothes click here.