Why are we so addicted to new gear? We asked an outdoor gear historian 


Adventure.com: Early on in the book, you share a story about a window display at an Oregon shop in 1929. They wanted to showcase the true capabilities of Hirsch-Weis waterproof coats, so they set one up on a frame with a depression in the middle, and filled it with water and live goldfish. They left them swimming like this, in the window, for days. 

Rachel Gross: That’s an effective display, right? I would have stood there and watched it for hours. Like, I would remember, ‘Oh, this is the stuff you need if you want to keep dry.’ Of course, it doesn’t answer that other perennial problem of rain jackets, which is, what happens if it’s on your body and you get sweaty underneath?

But were enough people really hiking through bad weather back then, for the purpose of recreation, to need a waterproof jacket that performed that well?

The recreation stuff really only dates back to the post-Civil War era, but working outdoors has a much longer history, and that’s part of why we see such a strong overlap between workwear brands and outdoor recreation brands.

Certainly, some brands have made the transition from one to the other, but they have the same kind of resonance in today’s culture because they represent this functionality out of doors that people have needed in the past. I think about the loggers or miners who might have worn Filson in the late 19th century, or early 20th century, up in Seattle, as a way of outfitting themselves before heading to the gold mines in Alaska. Do they need that waterproof functionality? Yeah, for sure, just like if you’re gonna step into a pond, you need boots that go up to your knees.

The cooler this stuff gets, though, the more it’s about the look of it, about the aesthetic of the outdoors, as opposed to just being useful. When is it about necessity, and when is it not? In a lot of the conversations that I captured from consumers, they were very insistent that they were buying things for functionality, even though it was clear to me, from the historical perspective, that that wasn’t entirely true. They were partially embracing this notion, in the 1920s, that they were buying things because they were functional and they needed them, not because they were popular or stylish. And yet, people were wearing outdoor clothing on city streets at that point.



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