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Fashion or Function?

Rachel S. Gross

In the 1970s, outdoor clothing and equipment catalogs were full of products that might have seemed completely unrelated to the outdoors a decade earlier. One old-school REI (Recreational Equipment, Incorporated) fan was annoyed that people were wearing chic outdoor clothing beyond the trail. “A full page of walking shoes. For walking on trails?” he asked in 1979. “No, to walk to Pioneer Square or Fisherman’s Wharf or Greenwich Village, attired in the REI Fashion Line, for quiche and a glass of white wine.”1 For this customer, wearing REI shoes to an upscale neighborhood for an upscale meal diminished his idea of the authentic origins of the climbing equipment company. In previous decades, he might have thought, outdoorsmen in lederhosen and boots would never have thought to don their hiking outfits while out for a quiche and white wine. But outdoor stores such as REI and their clientele had changed, and not everyone thought the change was for the better.

New product offerings reflected the shift toward stylish items for a non-expert consumer base. In 1978 outdoor company Sierra Designs introduced a Panamint Jacket with trim styling for “town or country wear” to complement its best-selling mountain parka.2 Catalog copy like that prompted soul-searching among outdoor consumers and industry professionals alike: Was outdoor clothing and gear popular because of fashion or function? Iconic outdoor equipment such as L.L. Bean boots and Eddie Bauer down jackets had been around for decades, but in the 1970s this new question plagued company executives. Outdoor companies started to ask themselves how to benefit from the rising popularity of outdoor wear as everyday wear while not risking the authentic brand identity that so many American consumers were looking for. 

The boom in outdoor clothing in the 1970s was not simply a result of more people going hiking—and indeed, that was not what the Sierra Designs Panamint jacket was for. Sport-inspired clothing grew in popularity because of larger shifts in expectations about American bodies. New fitness trends like jogging—and the accompanying sweatsuits—reflected the idea that fit, muscled bodies were a marker of social capital. Americans wanted comfortable casual clothing even if they were not about to climb a mountain. Outdoor companies quickly recognized that they had new customers: non-hikers, especially women looking to buy footwear and clothing. The North Face owner explained in 1984 that “alot of people want to wear clothing that emulates a sport and makes them look as though they’re active. The Ralph Lauren polo shirt is a classic example. How many people do you know who really play polo?”3

As outdoor companies expanded their lifestyle product offerings in the decades that followed, the debate about whether gear was about fashion or function only grew.

Rachel S. Gross is a historian of the outdoor gear and apparel industry and an outdoor enthusiast. She is assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver, a history tour guide, and a curator of museum exhibits. She lives in Denver, CO. 

[1] Harvey Manning, REI: 50 Years of Climbing Together (Seattle: Recreational Equipment, Inc., 1988), 127.

[2] Kelty Pack/Sierra Designs, catalog, Spring/Summer 1978, back cover. American Recreation Archival Collection.

[3] Elizabeth McGowan, “Behind the Label: The North Face,” Backpacker, July 1984, 102.

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