Oilskin (oilies) and waxed cotton clothing owe their origins to the great age of the sailing ship and the age of navigation. Its hard to pin point exactly when oilskin techniques began but, its probably a safe bet that, in some form or another, that some rudimentary version has existed as long as sea travel. With the invention of the compass and increasingly better maps in the late middle ages, the beginning of long distance exploration all around the world was begun.
Italianate Harbour Scene with the Monument of Ferdinand I de’ Medici at Leghorn
Sailing ships were traditionally rigged with linen sails and so, with the fabric in such abundance fishermen and sailors used it for everything. From clothes to wadding. At some point these professional sea folk found that by applying boiling linseed oil (from flax seed) to the linen and letting it set the linen was rendered waterproof and was excellent material for making waterproof capes. However, the linen was heavy and the linseed oil turned yellow and stiffened over time. Oilskin proved to be a great way to keep yourself, as well as anything else, dry in very wet environments such as the deck of a ship but, it was also difficult proved to be dangerous to make and restrictive to wear. All the same, cloaks, chests, and document folds were all made from this versitle (and compared to leather or fur, light weight) material to protect their contents from the elements.
High-Tech Modern Oilskins in the midst of a squall
Cotton sails eventually replaced linen. Cotton was lighter and could be woven into a tighter and stronger fabric. It also led to lighter and stronger clothing such as oiled cotton jackets, coats and trousers. The jackets became especially popular among fishermen who would paint them bright colors with ordinary house paint to make themselves more visible if and when they went over board. The next major evolution came in the mid-19th century when linseed oil was replaced by parafin wax. Parafin wax treated garments maintained their flexibility and were also breathable so condensation wouldn’t build up. This led to more sophisticated garments providing the wearer with significantly more movement and utility. Although the cut, style, and technology in waterproofing changed over the centuries the need for men of the sea to be easily seen in a squall stayed consistent throughout.
(L) Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post with a fisherman in a slicker
(R) the Gorton’s Fisherman in his Sou-Wester
When plastics and synthetic fabrics were invented in the mid-20th century traditional oilskins became obsolete. ”Space age” technology made slickers better, lighter, easier to make, more comfortable, and infinitely customizable. Everyone in American has the classic image of the Gordon’s fisherman from the fish sticks box or the Norman Rockwell-esk idea of the stalwart seaman battling the ocean in his bright yellow slicker. Another advantage of modern technology is that man “professional” slickers these days include floatation devices, GPS location, built in harness, and in some cases a small tool kit.
If he can rock it so, can you
Now, of course these professional level outfits are extreme for the average person but, in the cold wet grey months ahead having a good coat to keep you dry is a must. Having some color to brighten up your day is also never a bad thing plus, the sunshine yellow acts the same for you in the city as it does for the fishermen in the sea. It will get you noticed. Don’t wait to long, get out there and enjoy in the rain in style.