Few pieces of apparel provide as compelling a chapter in the history of British tailoring as the story of the waterproof overcoat or ‘mac’. The back story for what long ago became a quintessential piece for autumn and winter brings together pioneers from the fields of science, exploration, art and entertainment. And, of course, style. It is a story that ventures to the ends of the earth, bears witness to the horrors of war but also includes a significant contribution from the City gents of the Square Mile.
But, we hear you say, isn’t it just a coat? On the contrary. Early attempts at waterproofing fabric may well date back to the 13th century. Research suggests that one of the reasons the indigenous peoples of Central America harvested a sticky tree sap known as caoutchouc (pronounced ‘cowchook’) was precisely for this purpose. In the modern era it became best known for another application, rubbing pencil lead from paper, and hence it became known as ‘rubber’.
The man credited with its successful introduction to apparel was a Glasgow chemist. It was Charles Macintosh who revived the idea of applying rubber to fabric to make it waterproof. Often working late into the night, Macintosh’s experiments involved painting a dissolved rubber preparation on to a wool cloth before adding another layer of cloth on top.
When the composite fabric stood up to large volumes of water being poured on it, the result seemed a great success and he began selling his first overcoats in 1824. But it was far from a perfect product. That the fabric had a tendency to puncture when seams were introduced was the least of his problems: in cold weather the fabric became stiff; in hot weather it became sticky; and in seriously hot weather it melted altogether leaving a gooey, foul-smelling mess.
Macintosh was far from the only inventor trying to bend rubber to his will. In America, an equally entrepreneurial young man named Charles Goodyear was also seeking a solution to rubber’s lack of stability. Like every other recently founded company hoping to tap the great US rubber boom of the 1830s, Goodyear’s operation had run into similarly sticky troubles. So costly did his early attempts prove that he routinely landed himself and his family in a debtor’s prison.
Then, in 1839, the Eureka moment. Goodyear discovered that by adding sulphur to melted rubber and heating it, the resulting leather-like fabric retained its elasticity year-round. The process, named vulcanization, lifted Goodyear out of commercial penury and gave Macintosh his solution. Pressing the vulcanized rubber between two pieces of material created not just a waterproof and durable barrier but a stable one and thus the first truly rubberized Macintosh overcoat was born. The rubberized fabric would become the signature component of the original Macintosh but as the style began to draw inevitable imitators, the influence of other early 20th century apparel companies would have just as important a role to play in shaping the modern – and eventually generic – ‘mac’.
Thomas Burberry’s solution to keeping out the elements was a tightly woven twill or ‘gabardine’, a utilitarian (and crucially, breathable) fabric which would prove itself in some of the most testing environments on Earth. First patented in 1888, Burberry’s gabardine was empire-building stuff: it was the principal fabric in Ernest Shackleton’s smock during his forays in Antarctica (Jaeger, admittedly, provided the long johns); and it was worn by the Roald Amundsen-led team that was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. During World War I, gabardine coats offered soldiers at the Front at least some respite from the horrors of the trenches.
After the war, the wind and waterproofing qualities of this ‘trench coat’ made it a must-have for performance- (and style-) conscious civilians. It retained many of the features of its military predecessor, with shoulder epaulettes, a storm flap on one shoulder and belted cuffs with metal fittings. The waist belt and D-ring, used by soldiers for attaching equipment, again proved popular. Burberry’s contribution to the mac story also includes another of its most recognisable characteristics, a geometric check-print lining.
After a second tour of duty in World War II, Burberry’s version of the mac began to earn its celebrity stripes. Popularised by screen stars such as George C. Scott and Robert Mitchum, the backing of Hollywood big guns proved great for sales. Representing the conservative end of the celebrity spectrum, the endorsement of such unreconstructed matinee idols ensured the mac soon became de rigueur among accountants and City types. Later adopters were more bohemian in their leanings, including artists such as Andy Warhol and David Hockney.
Fashion is, by definition, a fickle beast and after years in the doldrums in the late 20th century, the traditional Mackintosh has enjoyed something of a revival in recent decades, one which includes the addition of ‘k’ to Macintosh’s original k-free surname. And yet it is the abbreviated form that remains most recognisable, simply the ‘mac’.
Which brings us neatly to the Rapha Mac Softshell, a limited edition piece of high-performance outerwear that incorporates influences from the broad spectrum of mac pioneers down the years. In keeping with Charles Macintosh’s pioneering spirit, the fabric sets new standards in performance. Based on Schoeller’s C-Change® technology, it has an intelligent, self-adapting polymer. This means that when the body warms up, the structure of the fabric ‘opens’ to release excessive body heat. When the body cools down, the structure seals once again to retain warmth. In fact, the C-Change® membrane is so effective at temperature regulation that it eliminates the need for underarm zips.
The styling of the Mac Softshell, meanwhile, offers more than a nod to its fashion forebears. In addition to the large back vents, the jacket has stitched waistband with a metal buckle, as well as ‘cuff belts’, horn-effect buttons and a button-down storm flap. The story continues inside, with Rapha’s own take on the iconic check lining. With this latest interpretation created for all-day city riding, the trusty mac has endured quite a journey from its origins in a Victorian Glaswegian laboratory.