It was 1823 when Charles Macintosh produced his first piece of waterproof material that would form the basis for all modern rainwear. The saps from the rubber tree were mixed with coal-tar naphtha resulting in a sticky, smelly, but waterproof, tar-like, substance which could be sandwiched between two layers of fabric to make it waterproof. Not long after a method for vulcanization, after which rubber is better able to withstand cold and heat, was discovered and rubber quickly became popular for producing waterproof boots and shoes. Rubber has long been the main ingredient for rainwear, with some brands only ending the use of this beautiful material in the past few decades. Below a picture by Simon Avery showing a rubber Kaufman rainsuit combined with rubber boots and rubber gloves: complete protection from rain and mud.
The modern alternative to rubber is PolyVinyl Chloride or PVC for short. A man-made material consisting of two main ingredients: ethylene and chlorine. Ethylene is a derivative of crude oil and chlorine is basically salt. PVC has been discovered “several times” in history, but it took till the 1920s before an application for the material was found. PVC can be presented in many different forms, from hard PVC pipes used for sewage to thin and flexible materials like raincoats or shower curtains. Its chemical resistance against acids, salts, bases, fats, and alcohols make it the perfect material for rainboots and protective gear in the clothing sector, while also doing service as waste-water pipes or window frames in the construction sector. Currently about 40 million tons of PVC are produced per year, with a small part finding its way into rainwear and boots. Below a pair of Dunlop Acifort work wellies, made from PVC, combined with Guy Cotten PVC Pouldo trousers in bright yellow.
Within the clothing industry the description PVC is used interchangeably with vinyl or polyurethane (PU). In general all these plastic-coated materials are relatively similar, although 100% PVC often results in a stiff fabric with a glossy shine and 100% PU produces a stretchy fabric with a silky shine.
Like so many great inventions, PVC was discovered by accident. All the way back in 1838 it was a French chemist named Regnault who left a flask in daylight only to notice a hard white substance had formed in it. As he could not see any practical use for it, he never registered a patent or researched it much further. A good 34 years later the material was “discovered” again, this time by Professor Eugen Baumann from Germany, who had left a flask of vinyl chloride standing in sunlight to notice the hard, solid white lump that had formed. Again, without any practical use for the polymer, no patent was registered and the discovery was forgotten again. Another German chemist, by the name of Friedrich Klatte, came across the same material in 1913 and patented it. But he also had trouble finding a practical application for PVC, as the material was brittle and difficult to work with.
It took till 1926 till a research chemist named Waldo Semon (pictured above), who worked at the American B.F. Goodrich Company in Akron, started experimenting with PVC in the hopes of finding an alternative for rubber. B.F. Goodrich manufactures tires and is dependent on imports of natural rubber for producing them; having an alternative synthetic replacement could potentially save the company tons of money. It takes several years of experimentation, mostly done in his free time, to come with a product that can be easily produced and used. While the stock market crash of 1929 takes the wind out of his sails, Semon keeps thinking of new applications and is able to convince his bosses in the early 30’s to start production of shower curtains, raincoats, and umbrellas with his novel PVC material. In 1933 the first products are launched in the American market under the tradename Koroseal. PVC rainwear is produced with transparent materials as well as in colorful and stylish designs in different levels of thickness. Especially the thicker PVC raincoats compete directly with rubber rainwear and wins hands down in durability. But prices are still high making it difficult to take over market share in other product categories. Below an advertisement poster from 1947 explaining the advantages of Coroseal over other materials for rainwear. With a shake the raincoat is dry, and it can even be stored wet without sticking or cracking. Notice how visually similar the black raincoat is to rubber rainwear, while the text explains how PVC is superior to the more delicate rubber.
Below another advertisement of the green Coroseal raincoat already shown above. The raincoat is quite stylish with the clearly defined waistline and tight cuffs. As PVC is a non-breathable material the overlapping material around the chest was probably used as a vent to not let the wearer sweat too much in the coat. The rainhat seems inspired by military hats for desert warfare where the material at the back would normally keep the sun out of the neck of the wearer. The look of the hat is quite interesting but must have disappeared from fashion at some time as no rainhats in this style are available anymore nowadays.
Below one picture of the vintage packaging of a Coroseal raincoat. Unlike rubber rainwear it was possible to produce PVC in almost every shade imaginable bringing more color to a rainy day.
Research and development surrounding PVCs were intensified at the start of the Second World War when the Japanese Imperial Army started invading South-East Asian countries where most of the world’s rubber production takes place. With the American military ramping up the production of military goods the demand for rubber increases and alternatives have to be found to cover for the loss of supply from SE Asia. With demand high and supply low, relatively expensive alternatives are used and further developed which brings their costs down over time.
After the war PVC quickly starts taking over other materials in both Europe and America. The extra investments during wartime result in synthetic materials becoming more cost-effective for mass-production. As part of the Marshall plan technology is exported from America to Europe to help recover Europe from the Second World War. Brands like the Norwegian Helly Hansen start using the modern PVC material for their rainwear, as opposed to fabrics impregnated with linseed oil. Below a picture (source) from 1953 showing the Helox-range of Helly Hansen which is made from PVC. The adult size coat in the middle is semi-transparent which is simply PVC without a backing.
Also the fashion industry sees the benefits of synthetic fibers over more traditional material. With high-speed knitting machines it becomes possible to produce synthetic fibers cost-effective in almost completely automated mass-production settings. The most popular type of synthetic fiber is nylon, which is used at first mostly for women’s stocking. Below a picture of San Francisco, 1946, when nylon stockings bcame available in large quantities as the material was not needed for the war effort anymore (source).
Nylon and PVC also find their way into rainwear in the fifties and early sixties, for example with the brand Peter Storm starting to produce raincoats and cagoules made from nylon with polyurethane (PU) to guarantee it is waterproof. PU is often used interchangeably with PVC by producers, both referring to the shiny plastic-coated fabrics.
It would take till the sixties before the stiff and glossy 100% PVC fabrics, now mostly used exclusively as workwear, are able to move to the fashion realm.
In the early sixties the synthetic fibers revolution takes off in the fashion industry. Under influence of the Space Race and the Cold War designers start designing garments in bold shapes and with plastic textures. The most influential fashion designers of the early sixties working with PVC are André Courrèges and Mary Quant. Below a raincoat designed by André Courrèges in the seventies, nicely showing the shiny red PVC.
André Courrèges is credited with popularizing the “space look”, which includes box-shaped dresses, goggles, and go-go boots, while Mary Quant pioneers the miniskirt. Rainwear is also included in many designs, as PVC perfectly lends itself for this role. Mary Quant introduces her “Wet Collection” in April 1963 which leads to her first magazine cover for the British Vogue.
The production of her collection runs into trouble though, as working with the relatively new materials results in problems with ripping and splitting fabrics. Only a small part of the ordered items can be delivered during the 2 years after introduction after which Mary Quant calls in the help of the British company Alligator Rainwear to produce her range of PVC raincoats. Below a black-and-white picture of model Jacky Bowyer showing a Mary Quant PVC raincoat from the “wet collection” in 1963. Notice the full dedication to the reflective black PVC which comes back in both the rain hat and the high-heeled boots.
The PVC fabric makes such an impression on Mary Quant that she does not limit herself to just rainwear or even just coats in her designs. Whole outfits are produced in PVC, including shoes, trousers, shirts, and jackets. Her love for PVC quickly becomes obvious (Quant by Quant – 1966): “this super shiny man-made stuff and its shrieking colours… its gleaming liquorice black, white and ginger”. Her initial range of PVC raincoats might not have been a commercial success due to the production problems, the experience did give her the knowledge to successfully launch thousands of designs in hundreds of different colors and permutations. At some point she even tried to launch a range of footwear with the work-boot manufacturer G.B. Britton, but the resulting “Quant afoot” range never gained much popularity as it was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer to wear. Pictured below a pair of PVC shoes from the “Quant afoot” collection (source).
Mary Quant is not the only producer of fashionable PVC raincoats and other PVC based clothing. The French brand Guy Cotten launched its own range of fashionable PVC raincoats around this time as well as the Finnish brand Rukka. This rainwear was maybe not on the same level “fashion wise”, it did gain a lot of popularity and made PVC a common sighting on a rainy day. Below a blue long raincoat in PVC: practical and stylish.
During the seventies PVC loses its popularity and the plastic materials get associated with cheapness, trash, or extravagance. At this point PVC has been used for almost everything it can be used for, including flooring and upholstery, things you do not associate with high-fashion. And while PVC is still used for rainwear and rainboots, the most consistent use of PVC as “regular” garment is in (futuristic) series and movies. Below Dianna Rigg as “Emma Peel” in the series “The Avengers” from the sixties, wearing a PVC coat combined with matching PVC hat.
While it is not clear where a fetish exactly originates, the most compelling explanation I have come across are innocent early-childhood multi-sensory experiences that trigger emotional responses. At a later age these memories can be recreated during sexual stimulation forging a strong link between a subject, body part, or material and the mental and bodily responses associated with the stimulation. Think of it as a Pavlov effect.
Especially a material like PVC can easily become a trigger for sexual arousal due to the smooth texture of the material and its reflective nature. From a young age onwards people come in contact with PVC, be it the smooth shower curtain that is unavoidable to not come in contact with during a shower, the plastic pants to stay dry at a very young age, or simply in the form of PVC rainboots or a PVC raincoat. But also at a later age there are many moments PVC garments will be displayed in a hyper-sexual way giving ample opportunity to create a lasting memory in the minds of teenagers being terrorized by hormones. Think about dancers at the club, women holding signs during sporting events like car races, or artists being the center of attention on the main stage in a PVC outfit. Below pictured Ariana Grande and Britney Spears showing PVC clothing on stage.
Even when one does not have a fetish for PVC, the overall attractiveness of the material must be obvious. Promotional ladies at events are regularly donned in PVC clothing (as shown below) and that one lady at the club wearing a pair of PVC coated leggings will get a lot of extra attention.
The community surround PVC clothing is quite large, with not only multiple sites offering videos and photos, but also online shops selling almost every possible type of clothing made out of PVC. Besides simple tops, pants, and skirts, there are “complete hazardous material suits” for play available, adult PVC protective pants normally meant for kids who cannot stay dry at night yet, uniforms, inflatable gear, catsuits, and almost anything else you can think of. Several active online communities are available for communications, with some having such a large number of users that the discussions need to be separated by type of clothing people are interested in. Below an image of special PVC suit being sold by PVC-U-Like showing PVC clothing can be taken any direction you would want it to go.
With the size of the PVC fetish scene being quite large, the association with regular PVC garments and the kink community is obviously there. PVC in general already attracts a lot of attention due to the tightness of most PVC clothing as well as the smooth and reflective material, but the link with the kink community creates an even higher threshold to put on some PVC clothing for a night of clubbing, let alone for regular daily activities. Especially in this day of age when unwanted sexual advances are already problematic. Spotting someone wearing an outfit with PVC is not common these days, and this is probably not going to change anytime soon.
The exception here is obviously rainwear. The material that was initially mostly used for rainwear is making a comeback as the fabric of choice for unapologetic stylish raincoats. Especially the Swedish Stutterheim brand has brought back heavier PVC as a stylish material with their range of classic raincoats regularly worn by celebrities. Below Selena Gomez wearing a burgundy Stutterheim raincoat with a casual outfit.
Recently they also added a range of long raincoats creating an inspiring feminine look with the protective shiny material keeping the wearer dry. Especially the color shown below, khaki green, brings back the look of rubberized long Klepper coats that were extremely popular in Germany in the past.
Another brand that is producing beautiful “heavier” but stylish PVC rainwear is Farmerrain. Besides their regular length coats they also have a long raincoat in a range of colors which seem inspired by the long Rukka PVC raincoats produced decades ago.
Most interestingly Farmerrain has introduced PVC rainjeans, which is maybe best described as rainpants with the fit of regular jeans. This is one of the few stylish rainpants available on the market now, and could very well double as regular PVC pants that are not as tight as most other pants available in PVC.
Another brand producing beautiful PVC raincoats is Elements Rainwear with classic designs perfectly highlighting the femininity and offering many different designs and colors. The variety of what they have on offer is so wide it really pays to go visit their website and check out the different designs available.
For rainboots PVC is the material of choice for most kids rainboots as well as professional boots. The low costs of making PVC boots and the ease of producing them in different colors or with colored patterns makes them perfect for waterproof boots a kid might grow out off in a year or less. For professional boots PVC is especially suited due to the material’s chemical resistance against acids, salts, bases, fats, and alcohols. If you need to wear a pair of boots around animals or in an industrial setting, PVC will stand out head over shoulders over rubber boots. Below the ease of cleaning a pair of PVC boots.
Variants of “100% PVC” raincoats are available from many different brands, offering rainwear coated with PU which is stretchier and has a silky shine as opposed to the stiffer and more reflective pure PVC raincoats. Brands like Rukka and Rains mostly have PU coated gear which really requires getting wet before it comes alive.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
When you do a search about possible health and safety risks of PVC you will come across a lot of articles linking PVC to cancer, infertility, and other health problems. The material PVC is normally a very stiff material; think PVC piping. To make it useable for clothing or shower curtains plasticizers are added that make and keep it flexible. These plasticizers can be harmful for humans. The problem here is that there is no clear research linking normal contact with PVC to the occurrence of health problems; the research done is often performed on mice and the levels of exposure is many times higher than what seems likely. Even if you enjoy wearing PVC against your bare skin you will not reach the levels of exposure these mice were subjected to. With PVC having been in use for such a long time one would expect government agencies having taken action by now in case a link can be established, but PVC products are still widely available. A word of warning could be justifiable though: while the US and the EU have strict regulations regarding plasticizers in PVC clothing, these rules are less strict in countries like China where a lot of PVC products are produced. In case you are thinking of ordering any items it would be advisable to order it from reputable western sites and avoid buying directly from Chinese manufacturers as is possible online these days.
- Vinyl Institute about the history of vinyl
- SNAC website on Semon Waldo
- Wikipedia on Waldo Semon
- Wikipedia on PVC
- Wikipedia on PVC clothing
- Frshcustoms on the invention of PVC
- Debyclark blogspot on the history of rainwear
- NSS Magazine on PVC in the fashion industry
- Book “Fashion in the 1960s” by Daniel Milford-Cottam
- Medium article on fashion in the 1960s by Namanpal Singh
- Wikipedia on Alligator rainwear
- Modernmooch on Alligator rainwear
- The history of vinyl fashion by the vinyl fashion site
- V&A about the Revolutionary Designs by Mary Quant
- Mary Quant raincoat in the collection of V&A
- Fashiontextile museum blog about Mary Quant
- Treehugger about PVC
- Businessinsider on the dangers of PVC
- Motherearth news about the vinyl debate