Polar Fleece

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^Zip-front jackets, vests, and other clothing items made from polar fleece, a trademarked synthetic, or man-made, fabric with a soft pile, emerged as tremendously popular cold-weather apparel for men, women, and children in the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century. The fad for polar fleece and related fabrics reflected widespread interest in outdoor adventure sports and the rugged lifestyle.

Polar fleece was the product of a Massachusetts textile company called Malden Mills that had enjoyed some success with fake-fur products over the years. Around 1979 the company began devoting resources to creating a lightweight synthetic fabric similar to a baby blanket it made. It began a partnership with Patagonia, a California-based maker of outdoor gear for hiking enthusiasts. The result was a fabric originally called bunting, which managed to retain body heat, keep moisture away from the skin, and still be lightweight and durable. Patagonia's first pile jacket, made from the

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Maiden Mills bunting, was its first big selling item for the hiking-gear company in the early 1980s.

Over the next decade outdoor-sports enthusiasts rose in number, taking up white-water rafting and mountain climbing in large numbers, and the outdoor apparel market blossomed to an estimated five billion dollars by the late 1990s. Fleece pullovers and other items soon emerged as a mass-market trend, advertised by companies like Old Navy. Even American designers like Donna Karan (1948—) and Tommy Hilfiger (1951—) began using polar fleece and its knockoffs in a range of items. Many of the garments seemed unisex and to denote the wearer as an outdoor-sports enthusiast. An increase in books recounting extreme-adventure exploits in the late 1990s captured the public fascination at the time, as did a marked trend toward adopting another symbol of the rugged outdoorsy life: the sportutility vehicle.


Espen, Hal. "Fleeced." New York Times (February 15, 1998).

Developed to keep outdoor-sports enthusiasts warm, polar fleece became a mass-market trend.

Reproduced by permission of © Rick Gomez/CORBIS.

Forstenzer, Martin. "On and Off the Beaten Path: Outdoor Gear Isn't Just for the Adventurous Anymore." New York Times (May 16, 1998).

Mott, Patrick. "With Enough Versatility to Put Polyester to Shame, Polartec Has Become the Synthetic King of the Textile Industry." Los Angeles Times (January 28, 1997): 5.

Spandex, also known as Lycra, is a synthetic, or man-made, stretch fabric that gained immense popularity in the 1980s in a range of clothing items, beginning with biking shorts. Its formfitting properties quickly caught on with a younger, body-conscious crowd, and by the 1990s the apparel industry was using spandex and spandex blends in tights, bodysuits, T-shirts, pants, skirts, and even men's shirts. Spandex leggings, usually in black and worn with a baggy sweatshirt that covered the hips, were a popular casual style for young women throughout the 1990s.

Spandex is often known by its trade name, Lycra, which was introduced by American chemical company DuPont in 1959. Technically, Lycra is a fiber that DuPont researchers developed as an alternative to the latex-based rubber used in women's girdles and bras of that era. Lycra was a vast improvement over latex, for it could stretch to six hundred times its original length but return to its original shape, unlike rubber, which could overstretch. It was used in support pantyhose in the 1960s and then in swimwear later that decade. The French Olympic ski team wore Lycra garments for the 1968 Winter Olympic Games, and soon athletic-gear makers began using it. It proved especially popular in mid-thigh-length shorts worn by bicycle racers. By the 1980s, as the fitness trend reached a peak in the West, trendsetters began wearing the shorts on the street. French designer Azzedine Alaia (c. 1940—) and his revolutionary formfitting dresses, which often used Lycra blends, gained a following among fashion models in the mid-1980s. In 1985 American designer Donna Karan (1948-) launched her first collection, which included Lycra-constructed bodysuits and skirts that were proclaimed as the first major innovation in some years.

Spandex proved such a popular fabric in the garment industry that by 1987 DuPont had trouble meeting worldwide demand. In the 1990s a variety of other items made with Spandex proved popular, including a successful line of body-shaping foundation garments sold under the trade name Bodyslimmers. As the decade progressed shirts, pants, dresses, and even shoes were being made with spandex blends, and mass-market retailers like Banana Republic were using it for menswear.

Polar Fleece Undergarments

Originally used in women's undergarments and swimwear, spandex came to be a principal fabric for athletic-gear makers.

Reproduced by permission of © Royalty-Free/CORBIS.


Carnegy, Vicky. Fashions of a Decade: The 1980s. New York: Facts on File, 1990.

Dullea, Georgia. "The Lean Look on the Beach." New York Times (July 6, 1988): C8.

Hamilton, William L. "Lycra's New Reach: Et Tu, J. Crew?" New York Times (August 27, 2000).

"Spandex." Newsweek (Winter 1997): 24A.

Worn by athletes in the 1920s, sweatshirts got the designer treatment in the 1980s. At the turn of the twenty-first century, sweatshirts were a part of almost everyone's wardrobe. Reproduced by permission of © Jeff Curtes/CORBIS.


So oft, long-sleeved pullover garments usually made of a cotton or cotton/polyester blend knit fabric that is soft and fleecy on the inside, sweatshirts have long been worn by athletes while warming up, watching from the sidelines, or cooling off after exercising. They began to be worn by nonathletes as well during the 1960s and were actually adopted by designers as part of their collections in the 1980s. By the 2000s sweatshirts were one of the most common parts of a typical person's everyday wardrobe and came in many different fabrics and styles.

The word sweatshirt was first used during the mid-1920s to describe the simple pullover jerseys, usually gray, that athletes wore before and after workouts. During the 1930s Abe and Bill Feinbloom, who owned the Knickerbocker Knitting

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Company, came up with a technique for applying letters to the knitted sweatshirts. They also designed a sideline sweatshirt, with a hood and a zipper, intended for football players to wear while sitting out of the game. Their company eventually became Champion, one of the best-known American manufacturers of athletic wear.

Sweatshirts were still worn mainly by athletes until the 1960s, when sweatshirts displaying the names of colleges and universities became popular with students. The trend toward informal fashion during the 1960s brought sweatshirts out of the locker rooms and onto the streets, as young people began to dress for comfort instead of following formal dress codes.

It was in the 1980s, however, that sweatshirts went from casual wear to high fashion. During the 1980s fitness fads like jogging and aerobics became very popular. The layered look was also fashionable during the 1980s, and sweatshirts layered well over T-shirts and jeans or spandex leggings. The popular 1983 movie Flashdance even started a craze for ripped sweatshirts such as those worn by the movie's star, Jennifer Beals (1963—). Many people did not want to wear just any sweatshirt; in the image conscious 1980s they demanded sweatshirts with a designer brand name. Upscale designers and retailers filled that need. An extreme example of the designer sweatshirt was a silk sweatshirt, designed by French designer Hermes, which sold for $650. American designer Norma Kamali (1945—) spread the sweatshirt's appeal even further when she designed a range of women's fashions made out of soft, fleecy sweatshirt material. Loose and comfortable, sweatshirts became a basic part of almost everyone's wardrobe, and their popularity continued into the twenty-first century.


Carnegy, Vicky. Fashions of a Decade: 1990.

Feldman, Elane. Fashions of a Decade: 1992.

The 1980s. New York: Facts on File, The 1990s. New York: Facts on File,

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  • eija
    What man made resources are in polar fleeces?
    9 years ago

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