Published on September 4th, 2015 | by Daniel Pendleton2
Transcending trends: Tacoma and the flannel shirt
More than two decades post-Nirvana, GQ magazine quipped that Seattle is one of the worst dressed cities in the US, due to its fondness for fronting the plaid flannel shirt “in a rainy haze of anti-fashion nostalgia.”
Tacoma could certainly fall under that critique as well since the flannel shirt can be spotted on any of the local university campuses, at a coffee shop on 6th Ave or over a beer at the Parkway. However, back in the early 90s with the explosion of Grunge, the world latched on to the plaid flannel shirt as a symbol for not only the music scene, but also for the Northwest, garnering the attention of Vogue and inspiring designers in the high fashion industry in New York.
Certainly, the flannel shirt has a long history in Tacoma beginning with the first settlers in the region through to the present day, but statements about flannel being “anti-fashion” juxtaposed with $1,400 plaid flannel clothing sold at high-end fashion boutiques suggest both statements fail to comprehend this fabric.
What is the history of flannel in Tacoma? How did it become such a ubiquitous symbol of the Northwest?
Back in the Day: 1870-1970
In the late 1860s Morton McCarver developed Tacoma with the hope of persuading the Northern Pacific Railroad to locate its terminus of the transcontinental railroad at Commencement Bay. With jubilation, the small town welcomed the announcement of being selected as the terminus, and with it, the promise of becoming the City of Destiny as a major timber exporter.
Thomas Ripley, who arrived in Tacoma in 1890 from the East coast, saw the land around Tacoma “was rich in sweeping stands of timber” which was then hauled to Commencement Bay to be processed by “a maelstrom of whirring machinery.” The St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company moved to the budding city and settled an area of the tidal flats called “the boot.” The company built two mills, which were larger than any yet constructed in the country.
There is truth to the Northwest’s clichéd “lumberjack look.” Our weather makes flannel an ideal choice. Traditionally flannel is woven from wool, creating a fabric renowned for its durability and warmth even when wet.
Logging the old growth forest in the age before chainsaws and heavy machinery was rough and demanded equally tough clothing. Period photos show the distinctive plaid flannel being worn by bearded men grouped around giant fallen trees. Rather than being a matter of style, the flannel shirt was prized for its functionality.
Local Tacoma clothing and outfitting companies such as Dege and Milner, Rhodes Brothers, and Ballou and Wright sprung up in the city, creating a small textile industry. These companies supplied the loggers with outdoor gear including the flannel shirt and dressed the local populace in the styles of the time.
In the 1890s Tacoma Woolen Mills sold their flannel shirts for 95 cents a piece, undercutting Seattle prices as they marketed to prospectors, who wore their Tacoma-made flannel shirts in Alaska during the Klondike gold rush.
The dawn of the 20th century saw the birth of mountaineering, propelled by local clubs such as the Mountaineers and Mazamas. In photos from outings and in the Mountaineers’ journal published for the members, flannel shirts are cited as clothing required for trips to climb Mt. Adams, Glacier Peak, and other prominent mountains in the Cascades.
Even before the founding of REI by Jim Whittaker, the C.C. Filson Co. (in Seattle) and the Kimball Gun Store in Tacoma were already specifically marketing flannel to hikers, giving it a certain stylish status for the first time.
The April 1921 issue of the Mountaineers journal included an article detailing observations of participants in a Mountaineers’ outing from an outsider’s perspective: “there was a look about the crowd noticeably superior, if not actually condescending, to the other people at the station who did not have a good time, a mountainous time, so conspicuously advertised all over them.”
The article goes on to say that, “individuality is shown in the costumes,” meaning the outdoor clothing worn by the climbers.
The flannel shirt played an integral role in outdoor gear from the turn of the century through to the development of high-tech polymer materials over 60 years later and thus established itself as a symbol of the lifestyle associated with being in the outdoors. In his book Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac refined this image of the flannel-clad, socially-aware outdoorsman as he recounts his physical and spiritual explorations in the Northwest while wearing his “new flannel shirt” with his tightly packed rucksack slung on his back.
The Modern Reincarnation: 1975 to the present
And then Grunge exploded across the Northwest in what Cody Bay described as a “gritty menagerie of disaffected losers screaming out dark, powerful rock.” The opening shot from the video for “Smells like Teen Spirit” captures what became a defining style of the era: “they looked like lumberjacks” with their long Johns, T-shirts and plaid flannel.
The “Grunge look” grabbed the attention of the world with Vogue sending renowned fashion photograph Steven Miesl to shoot supermodels draped over fallen logs in the woods wearing plaid (cashmere or silk instead of woolen flannel) for Vogue’s December 1992 article, “Grunge and Glory.”
Designer Marc Jacobs created a flannel line, the failure of which cost him his job at Perry Ellis. The New York Times devoted a long article in the Style section to the Grunge aesthetic, noting that “thrifting is a verb in Seattle.” However, the style of the Grunge era was neither fashion nor anti-fashion. As Cody Bay argues, loggers and fisherman wore flannel because it kept them warm in the winter and starving artists bought it because it cost a dollar at Goodwill.
When the fashion industry identified plaid flannel in the 90’s as the symbol of the Grunge era and explained its seeming stylistic popularity as a means of “showing off…what you’re trying to express,” as one designer stated, the perception that flannel was the “new thing” propelled designer flannel apparel to ridiculous prices, but failed to fundamentally alter the history and use of this iconic Northwest clothing. Today, Tacomans approach flannel in much the same way they always have.
When asked about what they love about their flannel shirt or jacket, Tacomans frequently told me it is “comfy” and that it’s “like wearing a hug.” A major part of its appeal is that plaid flannel is a true “classic” that “stands against time” and exists outside the confines of any fad that might roll across the fashion world this season.
One woman told me that in the fall she buys a burly men’s heavyweight flannel jacket from Costco. When she puts it on, she says, “I feel like I’m going to accomplish my nitty-gritty household stuff.” Others said that they acquired their flannel as hand-me-downs from parents, grandparents or friends.
Stylistically, the flannel shirt or jacket “goes with anything… and doesn’t draw attention to itself because it is relaxed and casual.
Today in Tacoma, the plaid flannel shirt hangs from the racks of Value Village, hugs the shoulders of hipsters at coffee shops, warms construction workers in November, and anchors the casual aesthetic of college students. So throw on a plaid flannel shirt, knowing you’re continuing a long tradition rooted in the history of Tacoma that transcends the whimsical trends of fashion.
Originally published September 13, 2011