Below a complete overview of the Norwegian brand Helly Hansen. Although the brand is now best known for outdoor clothing and professional sports clothing, the origins are firmly grounded in rainwear. The focus of this writing will therefore be on their rainwear products, while other ranges of products are mostly left out.
Since this is quite a long write-up, I have split it in chapters so you can skip directly to the parts you are interested in. I would recommend reading it all though, as I think that understanding the history of this brand will make you appreciate the current range more.
As always, feel free to leave comments or suggestions for changes by either adding a comment below or sending me a message by email or on social media. Enjoy the read.
Oil-impregnated clothing for sailors, to keep dry during bad weather, started to become commonplace from halfway the middle of the 19th century onwards. Long coats, pants, and hats were sewn from cotton canvas and treated with thick layers of oils to make them completely waterproof. While this rainwear protected the sailors from the rain and cold, it also had some serious downsides. For example the material was generally unpleasant to wear as it was sticky, smelly, heavy, and stiff. The picture below shows a fisherman in the early 1900’s wearing typical rainwear for that time: a long and dark raincoat made waterproof with linseed oil and a southwester hat in similar style. The wrinkling of the material is probably due to a combination of the stiffness and it sticking to itself when stored away. (picture source)
Most sailors created their own rainwear during times they were on shore and they all had their own secret mixtures of oils for the best results. But in no way it was an easy process: cotton canvas cloth was cut and then sewn into clothing items, after which they were placed in a tub of oil to get completely soaked. Next the access oil had to be drained and squeezed out, after which the garments were hung to dry. Finally oil was applied to the outside of the garments in two rounds, with time to dry in between. This was quite a dangerous process as the risk of self-ignition was high. Below a picture of a pair of Helly Hansen workwear rainpants from the early 1900’s, showing a moderate shiny dark yellow color from the linseed oils used to impregnate the cotton canvas cloth. (source picture)
The process to produce rainwear this way took about 9-10 weeks from start to finish, a process that could not easily be sped up as the natural drying and oxidation of the oil took time after being applied. Most commercial sailors would happily leave this dangerous and time-consuming process to others, and this is where Helly Juell Hansen, a merchant ship captain living in the Norwegian port town of Moss, recognized the opportunity to set up a thriving business. Portrait of Helly Juell Hansen shown below. (source picture)
Together with his wife he started in the winter of 1876 with setting up a production facility for producing rainwear in the basement of their house. And the following year they officially registered their company: Helly J. Hensen’s Oilcloth Factory, where they started out with unbleached canvas, impregnated it with their special mixture of linseed oil, and produced oilcloths rainwear. And while his production methods and use of materials was not revolutionary, it took only a year for him to get recognition at the Paris World Exposition for the excellent quality of his rainwear. In the picture below the raincoat send to the exposition and a document confirming the honorable mention it had received. (source picture)
The years following sales skyrocketed with nearly 10,000 products sold in a timespan of only 5 years and an ever extending range of products which included rainwear, tarpaulins, aprons, fire buckets, agricultural products, and life jackets made out of cork. The company started exporting merchandise to other countries while building up the production facilities back home in Norway to meet demand. In short, it was an extremely fast industrial adventure consisting mostly out of highlights. As there are barely pictures available of the production facilities of that time, below some pictures of the Helly Hansen factory around the 1950’s, showing first a group of ladies using sowing machines to put together rainwear (source picture – Av Jan Stage/NTB Scanpix) and second a look into the warehouse with hundreds of raincoats being ready for shipping (source picture – Av Jan Stage/NTB Scanpix).
By today’s standards the oil-impregnated raincoats are incredibly basic and uncomfortable. Even for that time rainwear did not receive a lot of love, but there was simply nothing better available at the moment. This was a fact also recognized by the Helly Hansen company, and it took till 1924 before a great step forward was set regarding materials used with the introduction of the “LINOX” material. Unlike the traditional oilskin, LINOX had no strong smell, was non-sticky, relatively light-weight, completely waterproof, and even had an elegant luster or shine. The name “Linox” referred to the oxidized linseed oil (Lin-Ox) used to impregnate the thin cotton canvas. The material was dried after impregnation, sanded, then re-treated with oil, sanded again, etc, to give a smooth and shiny surface. Below a picture of a Helly Hansen raincoat produced in the period 1940-1950, showing the Linox material (source picture). What immediately stands out is the overall look of the material and how closely it resembles modern PVC rainwear with a beautiful elegant luster. The coat looks relatively thick, or heavy-duty, and was probably used as workwear based on the model.
The timing of the invention of LINOX could not be better: during the twenties and thirties people started to have more free time and the popularity of leisure activities like sailing, fishing, and camping was on a rise. Access to affordable and comfortable rainwear contributed to the enjoyment of these activities and Helly Hensen did good business being at the forefront of rainwear development. The LINOX material became the main material for rainwear for the next 30 years for the Helly Hansen brand. The picture below (source) shows a yellow Helly Hansen raincoat from around 1930-1940 impregnated with linseed oil – Linox. Unlike the previous raincoat pictured the material here is much more reflective giving it almost a greasy look. Due to the tiny wrinkles the Linox material also looks thinner for this raincoat, but that can also be due to its age and use in the past.
By the Second World War production fell sharply due to a shortage of labor and raw materials, but the years after the war brought renewed opportunities. The production of plastics had improved tremendously in the USA over the past years which quickly became the material of choice for rainwear. And thanks to the Marshall Plan, where America sponsored the rebuild of Europe, a group of management and engineers were able to have a study trip to the USA and bring back new techniques and materials to Europe. In 1949 Helly Hansen introduced “Helox”, a PVC mixture which was rolled out into thin plastic foil through calendering machines, resulting in a thin, lightweight, and completely waterproof material. Around that time also “Plarex” was introduced as a material, which was very similar to Helox but intended for workwear and therefore thicker and stronger as it was backed by fabric. Below a picture of the line-up of Helly Hansen rainwear in 1953 (source picture) on a promotional stand. In the middle a long women’s semi-transparent raincoat, on the left a stylish traditional looking raincoat which were extremely popular with both men and women in that time, and on the left a children’s rainsuit in bright yellow combined with a cute southwester rainhat, a combination which would be most popular as workwear or for kids.
Next an original early years transparent long raincoat for women (source picture).
Transparent rainwear was something new around that time and its main feature was that women were still able to show off their beautiful regular coats under their raincoat, as shown in the advertisement below (source picture).
Below another picture of the PVC (semi-) transparent raincoats, this time in a range of colors (source).
The new materials could be colored in almost any possible color imaginable, but most importantly, the material was versatile enough to be used for rainwear combining fashion and functionality, making them tremendously popular. Below an old advertisement picture, dated somewhere between 1950 and 1970 (source), for their Linox raincoats made from PVC. Besides that the yellow raincoat looks absolutely stunning in this picture, I think it is remarkable how closely the overall design of the rainwear still resembles fisherman’s workwear of the past decades. The yellow color, the length and cut of the raincoat, and especially the southwester rainhat keep this outfit very close to its roots. What clearly is a fashionable touch is the small size of the rain hat and the belt around the waist, with contrasting black buckle, that accentuates the feminine shape of the model. As expected the male rainwear is a lot more conservative with the black color.
The old range of Linox rainwear, previously based on linseed oil, was replaced by PVC rainwear as well as this was clearly the material of the future, and once the quality of the new PVC raingear surpassed the old Linox quality, the old-fashioned rainwear material production was cancelled and the new Plarex rainwear adopted the name Linox from 1952 onwards. Pictured below a black Helly Hansen raincoat for males with the tag still attached (source). Notice how the tag mentions both Plarex and Linox, as the materials are very closely related and share the same features and care instructions.
Besides relatively conservative rainwear for both men and women, as shown in the picture below taken in front of the production facilties in Moss (source), several more stylish and fashionable coats were introduced during the 50’s and thereafter mainly targeted at the female population.
Prime example would be the Kelly coat which reached the market in 1956. While the overall model of the coat still resembled a fisherman’s long raincoat, these coats were shorter, available in a wider range of colors, and had some fashionable twists. Pictured below an advertisement picture of the Kelly coat in black and white, followed by one in color (source) (source). The target audience is clearly the younger and trendier female population that wants to combine the durability of PVC rainwear with the stylish features of modern rainwear.
PVC rainwear from this early post war period can still be available in vintage stores these days, as the material barely deteriorates over time giving you rainwear you can enjoy for decades. Below an advertisement photo from SaundersMilitaria showing a vintage Helly Hansen raincoat produced somewhere between 1958 and 1970 (L-335 model). The draw strings give this raincoat a clearly dated look turning it more into an interesting piece of rainwear history than a very fashionable raincoat you can still wear today.
And a similar raincoat in yellow, this time with a more prevalent shine, but still quite dated due to the draw strings.
Contrast those raincoats to the L-338 models, as shown below in the colors orange, white, and blue, which would still be an extremely cool looking vintage raincoat today, even though they are several decades old already. The picture below comes from an advertisement from a Norwegian online market, which can be found here. More pictures of these coats are available there as well.
And another modeled picture from the now defunct website 123rubberboots.com, showing an orange L-338 raincoat. This picture nicely shows the overall cut of the raincoat: while the material and inspiration clearly come from heavy-duty workwear, the tighter cut makes it a fashionable piece of rainwear that would still be sought-after today.
The relatively fashionable cut of the PVC rainwear is also shown below in two pictures from the, now also defunct, vintage clothing shop anyas.se. In the first picture the high attachment point of the sleeves, combined with their slender cut, show the fashionable style of this raincoat, setting it apart from bulky workwear. In the second picture this seems less the case, but that is probably due to the raincoat being oversized for the model.
Over the years to come Helly Hansen kept improving on its rainwear by both innovating materials as well as adding smaller features making the rainwear more practical and stylish. This all culminated in the Nyfil jacket introduced in 1966, for which the company received the Norwegian Design Council’s Design Prize, made out of plastic-coated nylon. It was again an improvement over previous rainwear by offering a lighter material that was even more flexible. The intended use was outdoor life and mountain hikes, but the rainsuit did also particularly well in bicycle-rich countries as an “easy-to-take-along” rainsuit for on the bike. In the monthly magazine of the Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB magazine “De Kampioen”) the Helly Hensen nylon rainsuit is mentioned with the remark it delivered the best overall experience without suffering in waterproofness. While the results are not really ground-breaking, it is interesting to see the Nyfil rainsuit was taken into account by a Dutch magazine meaning the rainsuits had to be generally available in The Netherlands. Pictured below a green Nyfil raincoat followed by an advertisement picture showing the whole range of available colors of these nylon rainsuits (source) (source). Unlike the previous PVC raincoats that would still be fashionable today, these raincoats had a period of heightened popularity but disappeared slowly out of the street scene afterwards.
The final large step in material improvements came in 1980, when the brand introduced the waterproof and breathable material HellyTech. This opened the door for fading the line between regular outdoor clothing and rainwear, meaning the possibility to create a complete range of waterproof coats that were just as suitable for a rainy day as for a regular day. While at first the breathable materials had limited “breathability” and were relatively expensive, these problems were slowly solved over time. More recently a similar material was introduced with the name Helox+, which is again breathable and refers back to the heritage of the brand. Below a picture of the Helly Hansen Copenhagen raincoat, based on the classical fisherman’s raincoat, but with a modern twist.
Established almost 150 years ago, and having been at the center of rainwear fashion and development in Norway, the brand has become so commonplace that Tokyo-based artist Ikeuchi has integrated Helly Hansen rainwear in his May 2020 art project, as shown below. It is pretty cool to see rainwear coming back in art this way.
An interesting sidestep for Helly Hansen, worth mentioning but not directly related to rainwear, is a range of gasmasks they produced during the sixties and early seventies. With the threat of a cold war in the air, the Helly Hansen company approached the Norwegian government with the idea to produce gasmasks in-country for protection of its citizenry in case a war with biological or chemicals weapons erupted. The mask was designed in a collaboration between Helly Hansen and Jon Norman, and had a completely open visor to give the wearer optimal visibility. All parts of the gasmasks had to be produced within the country’s borders, for once a war started imports might be halted and production would grind to a halt at a time the need was highest. The replaceable filters for example, were made out of Norwegian produced sardine cans. Below a picture of gas mask model A-62, aimed for sale to the civilian population (source).
With heavy subsidies from the Norwegian government the production ended up to be very lucrative for Helly Hansen, but sales to the general public lacked heavily even though the sales price was set at a low of NOK 53.50. By January 1st, 1970, the Norwegian civil defense had 300,000 masks in storage and there were 500,000 civilian masks stored as well. The production was halted in 1975 as stored units kept increasing with barely any demand from the public. Below a picture of civilian gas masks for the whole family (source). Together with the rainwear they are wearing, this picture gives a strange post-apocalyptic vibe.
RECENT RANGE OF GEAR
While the current range of rainwear available from Helly Hansen mostly consists of breathable and fashionable rain jackets that can easily double as regular clothing, my focus will first be on the heavier range of raingear from their workwear lines as this is closest to their historical roots of rainwear production, and is simply more to my liking.
Unfortunately the range of rainwear they have on offer in this category is quite limited nowadays. There are basically 3 ranges still being produced: the Gale range at 240gr per square meter PU, the Mandal range with 400gr/m PVC, and the Stavanger range at 500gr/m PVC. Below a picture of the Gale raincoat in green.
While the overall cut is quite fashionable, and you can add a pair of rainpants or bib pants from the same range and in the same color to come to a rainsuit, the fact they used PU and the relative light weight of the material does not make this very attractive to me. I can vision this suit for bike riding or activities, as it looks comfortable and functional, but from a fashion perspective it has not much going for it in my opinion. The overall shine on the green raincoat is attractive, but the other 3 colors available (orange, blue, and black) miss this luster which hints it might just be due to the picture or limited to the green rainwear only. With nothing special going for it, I would pass the Gale range by.
Next is the Mandal range made out of PVC with a fabric weight of 400 grams per square meter. This thickness will guarantee the raincoat will last you a lifetime with normal use, but the overall look doesn’t want me to wear this even for a short period of time. The raincoat looks extremely dull with the matt finish and lack of detail. For purely functional workwear, which is what this raincoat is intended for, it will be fine, but for a more fashionable look this coat is absolutely not advisable. Besides in yellow you can also purchase this coat in orange and green, but they all lack to attract any positive attention.
Finally there is the Helly Hansen Stavanger range of workwear: the heaviest PVC raincoat at 500 grams of weight per square meter. And here the shine, or luster, of the material immediately stands out compared to the Mandal raincoats. It is hard to go by pictures alone, but this raincoat would certainly be worth looking deeper into. It only pains to see that this range is only available in one color: orange. Don’t get me wrong, orange is a great color for rainwear but compared to previous workwear ranges from Helly Hansen it is quite disappointing they are limiting the available range of colors to just one color only.
To give an indication of heavy-duty rainwear that really stands out, let’s dive a bit deeper into a previous range Helly Hansen used to produce. Till only very recently they had the Nusfjord range which might still be available in limited colors and sizes at certain spots. Below a screenprint of the Helly Hansen catalogue showing the Nusfjord range.
At first the Nusfjord range look pretty similar to the Stavanger range, but besides it was available in 4 colors in the past it also had a material weight of 600gr/m, making it quite heavy and extremely durable. But the most attractive feature of the Nusfjord range, which may or not be still available with the Stavanger rainwear, was the absolutely breathtaking shine of the material in the right light. Below a picture of a bright yellow Nusfjord raincoat reflecting light, making it look absolutely stunning.
Even in a color as dark green the overall look of the Nusfjord range is impressive, with the depth of color and the thickness of the material sucking you in. Picture below is from naturalrubber on Flickr showing a complete Helly Hansen Nusfjord rainsuit in green combined with dark green Hunter rainboots. While I would generally recommend not overdoing a certain color, this combination of green on green seems to work extremely well.
The Nusfjord range seem to be the most popular range of workwear from the Helly Hansen brand by far, based on the number of pictures published of Nusfjord rainwear in either oker yellow, birght yellow, green, or orange. But as mentioned, production of this range has stopped and in case you are still interested you need to be very lucky finding the right size and color for you.
Instead of leaving it here, let’s also take a look at the fashion range of Helly Hansen rainwear to see if there is anything closely resembling more traditional rainwear instead of the waterproof outdoor jackets the brand now mostly sells.
One unlikely spot to find a rather unique piece of Helly Hansen rainwear is Japan, where they seem to have a limited edition raincoats recently that is only being sold there. Below a picture of the yellow version of the Helly Hansen x Beams raincoat in breathable Linox+ material.
The color of this coat, combined with the length, make this coat clearly inspired by the traditional Helly Hansen workwear raincoats from the past. And to my surprise, the material used, Linox+, actually looks quite interesting with a nice shine to it. My main issue with this raincoat would be twofold though: first of all the regular selling price of this coat is just over 200 euro’s (27,500 JPY), and on the back they thought it was a good idea to put the Helly Hansen logo in oversized fashion as shown below (source picture).
A similar coat also exclusively introduced in Japan, as shown below (source), did it better in my view. Here they left the large font logo away from the back and they used the old Helly Hansen logo from the seventies on the sleeve, making this an interesting piece of rainwear bridging vintage and modern.
Fashion changes all the time and differs per region, but there are some general trends visible encompassing most western countries. During the seventies and eighties there was a move towards thin nylon rainwear, often with shiny coating and bright colors, followed by a trend during the nineties and 2000s towards rainwear becoming much less visible as the line between rainwear and regular waterproof coats blurred. But recently fashion is coming back to a style last seem in the fifties and sixties, as shown in the picture below (source) of a young Scandinavian kid wearing rubber rainboots, a half-long to long shiny raincoat, and a southwester rainhat.
With the recent popularity of Hunter rainboots, since 2005, and Stutterheim raincoats, since 2010, the trend is clearly back to the more heavy-duty PVC raingear as seen in the historical timeline of Helly Hansen. Closest resembling this trend would be the workwear raingear they have, most notably the Nusfjord range. Below a picture of a beautiful yellow Helly Hansen Nusfjord raincoat worn as trendy raingear.
This combination works especially well due to the stylish regular denim jeans worn and the correct sizing of the rainwear. Keep in mind that workwear is normally oversized as it is supposed to be worn over a regular work outfit; if you want to wear it instead of a coat you better stay on the smaller side of sizes. The hood will be oversized regardless, as it is intended to be worn over a hard hat, but that only adds to the overall style and attractiveness of this outfit. For women the combination is just as easy to make: combine the commercial type workwear with contrasting tighter fitting jeans or pants and possibly a pair of bulky rainboots to finish it off.
Availability of Helly Hansen workwear differs per region, but best chances are by simply finding a workwear store online and ordering online. Obvious downside is that you cannot put the gear on for a fitting, but in many cases you will be able to order some rainwear in several sizes, try them on at home, and send back all except the one that fits best (make sure to check if this is an option as workwear stores sometimes have different conditions than regular clothing stores). Finding some rainwear from the Nusfjord range will be more difficult as this line has been discontinued, but on ebay you might still get lucky.