Stylist Mary Mullally accessorises our bog standard fleece
The synthetic fleece is 30 years old and can be found in almost every walk of life - except the world of high fashion. We took this humble, workaday garment to London Fashion Week to see what the style tribe made of it.
By Megan Lane and Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
They are in leggings and stompy heels. We, however, stand out in a red fleece. A bobbly, basic, and decidedly unironic fleece. Its one possible claim to fashion fame is that it looks a little like the red fleece Rageh Omaar wore in his "Scud Stud" days of reporting from Baghdad.
Despite its near total absence from the catwalks of this week's London Fashion Week, the fashionistas who populate this biannual style bash can't help but cosy up to this ever so humble garment. Perhaps it's the chance to wrap up warm...
Polarfleece first went on sale in 1979, trademarked by New Hampshire's Malden Mills. Made from polyester microfibre, it drew moisture away from the skin, freeing ramblers and climbers from the prickly discomfort of waterlogged woolly jumpers. Today polar fleece is a generic term for the fabric, rather than a brand, and is the nation's outerwear of choice, whether for pottering in the garden or out on a bracing walk.
It is practical. Cheap. Lightweight. It's dry almost as soon as it emerges from the washing machine, and is made from the plastic bottles we toss into recycling bins. It adds warmth, but is less bulky than a coat.
But stylish it is not - a fact conceded by those whose dress sense is carefully scrutinised.
"The gratifying thing about a fleece - aside from the warmth - is that it never has to look good," says BBC newsreader Emily Maitlis, whose favourite off-camera outfit is a fleece with jeans and ballet pumps. "It is a declaration you simply don't mind. Hence the joy. Anything aesthetic is an unaccustomed bonus."
Unaccustomed indeed. For despite its slimming shades of grey, navy or black, the fleece is boxy of silhouette and zips tend to woggle unflatteringly over one's torso.
But don't yet rule it out as a style statement, says Professor Penny Martin, of the London College of Fashion.
"The fleece jacket has been designed with practicality in mind, but with a tweak of the proportions, perhaps across the hip, and a rethink on the fastenings, I can imagine it being used by a menswear designer.
"After all, where did jeans come from? Nineteenth century workwear, given a little bit of a twist in the 1950s to become a contemporary choice."
As if to prove the point, on Wednesday, the last day of London Fashion Week, designer Christopher Shannon used fleece in his sportswear-themed collection.
Professor Martin says an unfashionable fabric will suddenly hit the catwalk and then be picked up by the High Street when an entrepreneurial manufacturer targets an up and coming designer, offering sponsorship to use their cloth.
"It's not going to happen that we all suddenly decide it'll be nice to be warm and the fleece will become fashionable. That's not how it works."
As is so often the case these days, the High Street is there first. Retailers of "yoof" favourites such as wet-look leggings and tube dresses - American Apparel and Uniqlo in particular - already sell tight, bright incarnations of the fleece, the perfect top layer for their clubby, casual, urban wares.
Which is apt, as what originally helped propel the fleece out of its outdoorsy niche was the acid house scene, says Rosemary Harden, curator of the Fashion Museum in Bath.
Clubbers dressed for comfort in trainers, backpacks, baggy T-shirts and trousers - and donned fleeces to head home in the thin light of dawn.
"There was the mountaineering Berghaus crowd, obviously, but fleeces were being worn in clubs in the 1980s and made by brands such as Duffer of St George. That propelled them into the mainstream, and then, awful awful, the fleece became the sort of thing your mum would wear."
Those who once threw shapes on the dancefloor now indulge in pastimes such as rambling and gardening. And what do they wear? Fleece jackets. Fleece hats. Fleece scarves. Fleece gloves. No wonder outdoor shops proliferate on High Streets and shopping centres up and down this land.
The Ramblers' Association Walk magazine is almost entirely illustrated with people in fleeces, young and old.
The fleece has helped lure us outside in our leisure time, says Minnie Burlton, the magazine's gear editor.
"Its warmth to weight ratio has simplified packing for a weekend away walking. Once you'd need loads of cotton and wool layers, now you just need a fleece and an outer layer to keep the wind out."
And gone are the days of pulling on still-sodden socks and jumpers the day after a drenching.
"If your fleece gets wet, it will dry if you put it on a hanger behind the door. So if you go on a walking holiday to the Lake District, for instance, you can stay at a B&B. A walkers' lodge with a drying room is no longer essential."
The fleece jacket has also helped democratise the school uniform, offering a more casual choice for head teachers keen to foster collegiate pride and nip competitive dressing in the bud, without asking parents to shell out for blazers and ties.
From baby blankets to kit for polar expeditions, the fleece keeps us snuggly.
A selection of your comments appears below.
Yep, we love our fleece. When it's -50F and 5 foot snow drifts it's what we put on to slog out and get the mail. We are slaves to fashion in Maine!
Langston, Maine USA
I can't abide fleece - the texture and the odd burnt smell it develops after about half an hour of wearing sets my teeth on edge. I stay just as warm by layering cotton and cashmere, with a windproof outer layer.
Victoria, London, UK
Fleeces are great if you're into a sporty look, but what I hate about them is the amount of static electricity they cause!
Tina, Patras, Greece
I would love to find a fleece that I felt comfortable wearing in public. It's one thing on a countryside trek, but it's another when you want a post-walk cuppa and can't bear to be seen in the cafe. My boyfriend swears by them but I would like to see more flattering fits and attractive styling. If they're to truly compete with traditional jumpers they need to take on the stylish qualities of those jumpers. Cable fleece with contrasting piping, anyone?
Shannon, Sheffield, England
Let's get this straight - fleeces are ideal for hill walking, but no more appropriate for the high street than a tutu or a deep sea diver's suit. Wearing a fleece in town doesn't necessarily make you a bad person though, just a badly dressed one.
I own the ultimate crime-against-fashion piece of comfort clothing: fleecey tracksuit bottoms. Only seen inside the confines of my own home, but the most comforting thing in the world to wear. In terms of fashion and style, they're second worst only to those fleece jackets featuring wolves and mountain scenes.
I rate practicality and warmth higher than looking fashionable. The added bonus is that they use up plastic bottles which would otherwise go to landfill. Right now I'm snuggled up in a draughty room, in my very cosy fleece which I triumphantly bought in a charity shop for £2 but which I know originally cost £75 because of the label. I remember seeing it in a catalogue and wondering who would spend £75!
From leaving dance clubs in London when I was 18 in the early hours, to dog walking or power-kiting on the Northumberland beaches in my mid-30s, I wouldn't be without. They are the predominant item in my wardrobe and, although I don't consider myself trendy, I go for the slightly hipper brands and never feel like the worst dressed person on the beach... and even if I am, I am warm and I don't care.
Tony Baeza, Northumberland, UK
I love fleeces! I own a couple, some slim-fitting ones to wear out, and my favourite one - a grizzly bear huge grey one. There's nothing better that snuggling inside an oversized fleece with a cup of chocolate in the depth of winter. Or when you're ill. There's something comforting about the softness of them...
Fleece may not be fashionable, but then neither am I. It's comfortable and easy to wash, but not that great outdoors in the cold unless used for layering; a cold wind goes straight through a fleece, but with a water/windproof on top - warm as toast.
Helen, Kent, UK
What's this about 1979? I still have my Javlin Jacket fleece from 1976. This was a fleece made by Javlin the wetsuit manufacturers and was sold as a sailing jacket. Blimey, I have been using fleeces for 33 years now, and the 1976 version is still hanging in my back bedroom.
It's a pretty horrible material, really. The secret to its success is the same as the reason that many of us aren't fans: it's a soft, warm material than is firm enough to retain its shape when used as a jacket etc. And it does so incredibly cheaply. In this way it straddles the worlds of pyjama, tracksuit and pub, breaking all of our senses of decorum and appropriateness. Plus, for me, I can't touch the stuff - like cotton wool it sets my teeth on edge.
I think the fleece has to be merited as one of the greatest designs for cloth. It is light, warm, easy to wash, and is made from recycled plastic bottles. I love the feeling of a fleece, it reminds me of being in a blanket when I was a child.
Billy Fitzgerald, Liverpool, England
I have a fleece for walking and for when I'm working outdoors. Personally I find a man in a fleece very attractive because it makes me think that they are outdoorsy and rugged and in the same mould as a gung-ho Ray Mears type. Lovely.
I love fleece - I have a huge variety of weights and colours: from light pullover tops to my waterproof and windproof coat. I spend a lot of time birdwatching and volunteering for the RSPB outdoors and they are a dream. I wear them everyday. To keep your fabrics looking good despite many washes, always wash on delicate and remove from the machine as soon as it it finished. If a top, put on a hanger. Hopefully you'll avoid the dreaded piling for a bit longer. When your garment reaches it natural lifespan, consider donating it to your local animal shelter: I cut mine up to keep the feral cats warm in their little winter huts.
As the legendary Lincolnshire singer/songwriter John Shuttleworth so rightly says: "God bless the fleece, it brings you inner peace".
Phil Jones, London
I love my fleece, especially when I am in the UK. I bought a lovely one in Glasgow, lighter than a coat and a lot warmer. Don't care if it's not really fashionable, as long as I am warm.
Jane Fisher, Melbourne, Australia
My advice would be to get a decent one - not necessarily a "designer" label but not a generic supermarket job either, they just look terrible and lose shape after one wash.
Matt Munro, Bristol, UK
The problem with fleece is how fast it burns, or rather melts if it catches light. I had a fleece zip-up which caught light as I was cooking breakfast. I managed to get out of it in time, thankfully but I will never wear the stuff again... I don't find it that warm either (when not on fire, that is!). Give me cotton and wool any day.
Susan Hunt, Leidschendam, The Netherlands
I too had a problem with polar fleece melting. A spark flew from a camp fire one night and melted a hole in my fleece shirt. That was the last time I wore the stuff. Having said that, I do remember thinking it was very cool to wear my first turquoise fleece jacket when I was about 10 years old, back in Canada.
Erica, Bremen, Germany
Yes, ramblers may wear chunky fleeces, but they also walk around with their trousers tucked in their socks. Serious outdoor enthusiasts wear lighter base and mid-layers and then complement this with a soft-shell windproof. Far less bulky and gives more layering options. You may find a fleece at the bottom of my rucksack but that's only for emergencies and is more often used as a pillow when camping.
Wayne Cook, Iver, Bucks