All over the world, puffy winter coats have conquered cities with cold climates while also proving very useful for legitimate outdoor activities. It is one of the few favorite garments of hunters and models.
A few decades after the very first down jacket, there were more options than you can count. Cheap puffers, camping puffers, luxury puffers, thousand dollar puffers.
Quartz Obsession podcast host Kira Bindrim spoke with Membership Editor Alex Ossola about the history, people and brands that have made puffer jackets a status symbol.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
When and where did the very first pump appear in history?
Alex Ossola: So it’s, appropriately, actually a bit contested. I thought I had a very clear answer after doing my research that there was a beautiful satin down jacket by the famous female fashion designer Charles James. And that emerged in 1937. He called it the pneumatic coat – it’s swirly, it’s meant to go over a ball gown, so you know it’s next level. And he used those kind of quilting techniques that he would have used on a quilt. And you can really tell – it’s like this swirling satin jewel, this confection.
However, on doing more research, I discovered that there was undoubtedly a pump that predated this, created by the chemist George Finch in 1922. It was a coat – so fitting – for climbing Everest. So unlike everyone else on his English gentleman’s expedition to climb Everest in 1922 – everyone wears woolen coats – he wore a quilt-filled coat. So in kind of a typical fashion, or an adjusted fashion, the first puff, it’s disputed whether it’s for utility or for fashion.
So, was this Everest coat the kind of breakout down jacket?
Alex Ossola: Definitely not. I would say the first escape pump was made by Eddie Bauer in 1936. So Eddie Bauer was that outdoorsman. He also owned a modest clothing store in Seattle. And he was on a fishing trip with a friend in the Olympic Peninsula. And they had 100 pounds of fish, which is the most 1936 thing I’ve ever heard. And they were coming up the side of a canyon and they started to get real hot, wearing their wool shirts and wool coats. And Eddie’s friend went a little ahead of him and Eddie realized he was taking breaks and he was a little sleepy. It became pretty clear that he was hypothermic with this damp wool coat, or an insufficient wool coat. And so he came out of that experience, being the kind of fearless person he was, thinking, ‘Well, we can do better than that.’ So 1940 he gets a patent for what he called the Blizzard-Proof Jacket. It has this kind of quilted pattern on it, it looks quite modern, actually, when you see it, almost like a bomber jacket with like a criss-cross diamond pattern, this kind of green color. So he got that patent in 1940. But the real great luck, I would say, for him was that a few years later he got a contract from the Air Force to make those coats for Air Force pilots. Strength. So at this point he calls it the Skyliner, because you have to. And it’s supposed to keep pilots warm at high altitudes when they’re flying because it’s really cold up there.
What is a puffer made of? Should it be broken? Has this evolved over time?
Alex Ossola: Ok, I couldn’t find a technical definition of a down jacket, but I did. And he has three main qualities.
Okay, one: it has an outer layer and an inner layer. And these can be made of many different things. The outer layer of the Eddie Bauer coat was high thread count cotton; obviously the other fashion coat was satin. These days you’ll find polyester, nylon, a combination of the two, Seinfeld’s famous GoreTex. Like you can get that outer layer made up of a lot of different things. But the inner layer is supposed to be at least a little insulating.
So number two: these two layers between them, you have a kind of filling intended to insulate. So traditionally it was down, that is, goose or duck feathers. There is now something called a Responsible down standard if you’re worried about the ethics of how duck or goose feathers are… found.
We have synthetic polyester fillings, made from recycled plastic. And generally with this stuff, the bulkier the coat, the warmer it gets.
And the third quality of a down jacket is that you need to have some sort of seam to hold the insulation in place. Because nobody likes it when all the down is somehow gathered and bunched together at the bottom of the coat. It’s a disappointment.
There is a technical term and formula for this called fill the power. And if we want to get corny about it, how many cubic inches an ounce of down takes up with a standard weight resting on it.
Where are down jackets more or less ubiquitous?
Alex Ossola: Tthis is where it gets interesting. So I would say the next step and the evolution of the down jacket is the 1973 Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat.
And the origin story is also quite interesting. Norma Kamali was a designer living in New York. She got divorced, she went camping with her friend. It was August, but it was a little cold at night. And she had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. So she kind of draped her sleeping bag over her and went out into the woods to go to the bathroom. She’s like, ‘Oh, that’s quite comfortable. I would like to wear this all the time. And so she came back from that trip, and I think she cut up a sleeping bag, or like sewed two coats together, and did some kind of magic. And so the stylish and extremely comfortable sleeping bag coat was born. And I want one.
What is the next important step?
Alex Ossola: Alright, so fast forward another 20 or so years, we’ve got the next big milestone: we’ve got the Nuptse North Face. And you know that coat even though you haven’t seen it in a while, I guess. It’s kind of like black on top, and then there’s, I think maybe the traditional has like blue, and they have black, and they’re all different colors now. When you kind of imagine the platonic ideal of a waist-length puffer jacket, it’s probably what you imagine. But what you might not remember is that was a big deal for the early days of streetwear in the 90s. It was a really big deal with rappers and it sort of happened echoed from there. It’s been seen in many music videos, I believe Biggie in at least one song – in one song he calls his down jacket his bubblegoose in 1993. And in 1999 in a different song he literally refers to North Face. So it’s a big problem.
What are the big brands in the “kingdom of pumps”? Are they the same companies, different companies?
Alex Ossola: I mean, literally everyone. I couldn’t identify a single clothing brand that doesn’t make down jackets, which is really saying something I think. But you know, depending on your price range, you can buy, you know, a Moncler or Canada Goose coat for $1,000 or more. The Prada down jacket is also very present in fashion circles. It has a waistband, which is actually a very different silhouette than many different down jackets. There is the ubiquitous 2016 Balenciaga trapeze coatwhich is an interesting off-the-shoulder situation, which, utility aside, was everywhere.
So people like to buy certain coats, often buy big name brands, because they say something about them – they’re colorful, they like the fabric, they’re kind of assured that it’s well made. And if you buy a good pump, you know, it can last a very long time. They are very sturdy if you buy a well made one. But in terms of signaling the value between a few hundred dollars and several thousand, the markers are very, very subtle. And I think that’s actually a pretty strong indicator of this movement towards minimalist luxury, that really, the little patches, which can be the color of the zipper – like those tiny little things on your coat only show to other people people who know you are one of them. And, you know, it’s always attracted people. There are people who want to wear like the Louis Vuitton logo all over them, and these are people who just want to wear something that they know is high quality, which is a much more subtle indicator of richness. So I think it falls very well into that category. Because, of course, at the end of the day, it has to keep you warm.
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