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Warmth is for the Birds

Written by Max Blagg

12 2 2011



Warmth is for the Birds

Growing up in northern England, where indoor heating was a thing of the future long after the future had arrived, I spent my childhood winters wearing heavy hand-me- down wool garments. I remember delivering the news before school, frost riming my knuckles, the rough melton of my pants chafing my thighs, as I pedaled through January in Nottinghamshire. Years later, after barely surviving several harsh New York winters, the miracle of down was revealed to me when a friend, tired of massaging my blue parts, presented me with an enormous lightweight coat. I may have resembled the Michelin man, but I was suddenly warm, enveloped in a cloud of feathers.

Along the eastern seaboard in the fall, when hunters prowl for unwary fowl, the potential suppliers of this largesse are out on the chilly waves, testing the limits of their natural-hatched down. The game birds fly just out of range of the twelve-gauge guns and alight upon a sunlit sea, colder than a witch’s kneecap. How do they tolerate that freezing ocean?

With waterproof wing feathers and the magically soft covering on their breasts, which also ironically lines the coats of the hunters, waiting onshore for their eventual return. Anyone who has held a bird in hand is familiar with the exquisite softness of its breast feathers, composed of delicate barbules and plumules, much smaller and softer than ordinary feathers. Their unique three- dimensional shape creates tiny air pockets that retain the body’s heat while forming a barrier against the raging elements.

Although Native Americans and Victorian milliners made great artistic and even religious use of birds’ outer feathers, man was slow to employ them in a garment. The eiderdown quilt preceded feather-stuffed outerwear by centuries, and although some fashionable 18th-century burghers did go about swaddled in duvets, none apparently thought of turning quilt into coat, and the populace suffered on in heavyweight togs, perspiring inside, frozen without.

Ernest Shackleton, the great explorer, deserved the miracle of down. Film of his ill-fated 1913 Antarctic voyage, shot by crew member Frank Hurley as their ship, The Endurance, was crushed to matchwood by ice, resembles a contemporary menswear campaign with black reefer jackets, heavy sweaters, strong chins and hawklike profiles against the stark whiteness. Wool worn wet in cold will give you a stiff upper lip. These men were clueless about extreme weather and yet eider ducks and snow geese were all about. A coat of feathers would have spared both myself and Shackleton’s crew, yet this simple device, hailed by the great outdoors- man Bill Cunningham as one of the greatest developments in fashionable clothing, took eons to invent and years to gain traction.

In 1937, Charles James, the great American couturier, created a short evening jacket, designed to be worn over a gown, for society beauty Mrs. Oliver Burr Jennings. James based his design on the standard eiderdown quilt but solved the bulky look by varying the amount of filling in different parts of the garment. It caused a stir at the opera, and James sensed its commercial potential, yet no one else saw its viability for sportswear. Mrs. Jennings’s jacket, which looks utterly modern seven decades later, now occupies a prominent place in the vast clothing collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A few years later, another inventive American also came up with a lightweight winter jacket after almost freezing to death in the Northwest woods on a hunting trip. His heavy wool garments had become sodden with rain and snow, and after he managed to crawl to safety, he was determined to find an alternative to gear that weighed more than a four-point buck.

Eddie Bauer fashioned a sharp little bomber jacket (Patent # 119,122, 1940) and used quilting to manage the volume of the down. The Skyliner, as he called it, was later modified for use by the U.S. Air Force, and fifty thousand cozy high-altitude coats were manufactured for the young Americans who flew explosively over Germany. Yet after the war, it seemed the only people in down were ex-bomber pilots and mountaineers. It was these latter explorers of the highest and coldest realms who eventually brought down down to the people.

As I shivered on my paper route, across the Channel, French kids danced in the snow, immune to the temperatures in ski gear. In Chamonix, Lionel Terray, an accomplished mountaineer, collaborated with master ski designer René Ramillon, field-testing a dozen prototypes of lightweight outdoor down clothing that would withstand the temperatures of the high Alps. The venerable Moncler brand, now in its sixtieth year, evolved from their engineering skill and hands-on application.

The inflated silhouette of early down outer- wear was rejected by the fashion public. The slender French especially decried this lack of svelte, but when Olympic athletes began to sport down in the seventies, a few fashion aficionados saw the possibilities. Illustrator Antonio Lopez tried to relaunch Charles James’s design, but failed to convince the trade. By the early eighties, some designers had begun to mold down into form-fitting shapes. Chantal Thomass transformed Moncler’s ski outfits into jackets chic enough for Le Marais, while Norma Kamali created a tubular coat inspired by the humble sleeping bag.

This year, American iconoclast Thom Browne has redefined Moncler’s sportswear yet again, blending down with the sleek forms of competitive cycling gear, making us look skinny while keeping us warm. And so as winter kicks in again, I am down with it. Through the French window, the ice is glittering on the pond, and the ducks skid by, their barbules functioning perfectly as I walk out, bold as Shackleton, into the snow. BG


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View more of our November Magazine