The Hard-Working History of the Flannel Shirt

From the rugged Welsh coast to the American forests to the front lines of both World Wars, flannels have one hell of a history.

When the leaves start to fall and the temperatures start to drop, there’s no article of clothing that’s as ubiquitous and versatile as a proper flannel shirt. They're warm, rugged, soft, and comfortable all at once, which is why a few of 'em can be found in almost every guy's wardrobe, whether or not they can swing an axe.

And speaking of that lumberjack stereotype: flannel shirts weren’t always a go-to for guys looking to add some warmth and color to their cold weather look. There’s a rich style history to be explored here; the many ways the flannel shirt has been worn over time speak to its timelessness and adaptability as a tried-and-true menswear staple. Surprisingly, this history begins an ocean away from our country in 17th century Wales.

The Origins

To fight the country’s cloudy, wet, and windy climate, Welsh textile workers in the late 1600s took advantage of their surplus of sheep’s wool to create a new kind of soft, durable fabric through a process called carding. This new method of treatment served to disentangle and soften woolen yarns so they could be sewn into thinner, softer fabric that retained the toughness of thick wool. Since it could be done quickly and cheaply in simple Welsh textile mills, flannel shirts started seeing use as the sturdy uniform of Welsh farmers, and soon, the entire working class.

The revolutionary fabric soon spread, thanks to English businessmen and textile traders, to England and France where the newer, more sophisticated textile mills could produce the material more quickly and cheaply than ever before. During Britain’s industrial manufacturing boom, this meant more mass-produced flannel garments, and more blue-collar workers to take advantage of their warmth and toughness as they toiled away in factories producing textiles, refining coal, blowing glass, and hammering iron.

The American Evolution

While there’s no one solely responsible for bringing flannel fabrics to the United States, American entrepreneur Hamilton Carhartt (yes, that Carhartt) is most credited with popularizing flannel garments in the USA; he cut the ceremonial ribbon at his flannel-focused textile plant, the first of its kind, in Detroit in 1889. It was during the years following this introduction that the American middle class adopted the flannel shirt as a workwear staple. It wouldn’t be long before most American working men started to reach their calloused hands for shirts made of flannel, instead of plain cotton, each morning as they prepared for the day.

Because the flannel shirt was mainly seen pulled over the broad shoulders of construction workers, loggers, and frontiersmen, the fabric became associated with rugged American men as a symbol of masculinity and toughness. It was only fitting that the dedicated workers constructing American infrastructure during the early 1900’s be seen wearing a fabric as tough and resilient as they needed to be to endure their taxing labor.

During both World Wars, flannel shirts were issued by the U.S. army as an extra layer of warmth to be worn underneath uniforms, but were mostly used as off-duty casual wear because of the fabric’s softness and comfort. Since the flannel shirts that war veterans returned home with featured two buttoned chest pockets in army cargo-centric fashion, American manufacturers began to embrace the new utility detail in their own designs. These new extra pockets proved useful for nature lovers looking to keep even more outdoors-centric gear – pocket knives, compasses, lip balm, and bug spray – within reach, which meant a slow, steady rise in the shirt’s popularity among everyday outdoorsmen over the next few decades.

Despite the garment’s popularity among middle-class workers, hikers, and war veterans, the American everyman didn’t necessarily own a trusty flannel shirt until the garment was popularized as a non-conformist style piece during the 90’s grunge movement. This repurposing came courtesy of grunge musicians, most notably Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, wearing loose, sloppy flannels on stage. Teenagers and young adults began dressing themselves in flannel in support of the music and culture they identified with, which shifted the fabric’s purpose from pure utility to style and self-expression.

Soon enough, menswear buffs during the early 2000’s would adopt the flannel shirt, cleaned up and tailored, as part of an Americana-centric wardrobe alongside sturdy raw denim, leather lace-up boots, and thick wool cardigans. It was from this style niche that associations between the flannel shirt and hipster culture began to arise, just as inspired by traditional American workwear as they were by the anti-conformist 90’s rock culture.

These days, the flannel shirt maintains its ubiquitous presence as both a modern style essential and a vintage callback to American history, thanks to both small-batch, detail-obsessed heritage manufacturers who combine old-world sewing techniques with updated patterns and cuts, and large-scale textile producers who make it possible for regular guys everywhere to have a few handsome flannel options to choose from when the mercury drops. And whether you're buttoning one up to split a pile of firewood or just to amble down the block for a cup of coffee, you're joining a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. That's pretty cool, no matter what kind of guy you are.

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