Zip-front jackets, vests, and other clothing items made from polar fleece, a trademarked synthetic, or man-made, fabric with a soft pile, emerged as tremendously popular cold-weather apparel for men, women, and children in the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century. The fad for polar fleece and related fabrics reflected widespread interest in outdoor adventure sports and the rugged lifestyle.
Polar fleece was the product of a Massachusetts textile company called Malden Mills that had enjoyed some success with fake-fur products over the years. Around 1979 the company began devoting resources to creating a lightweight synthetic fabric similar to a baby blanket it made. It began a partnership with Patagonia, a California-based maker of outdoor gear for hiking enthusiasts. The result was a fabric originally called bunting, which managed to retain body heat, keep moisture away from the skin, and still be lightweight and durable. Patagonia's first pile jacket, made from the Malden Mills bunting, was its first big selling item for the hiking-gear company in the early 1980s.
Over the next decade outdoor-sports enthusiasts rose in number, taking up white-water rafting and mountain climbing in large numbers, and the outdoor apparel market blossomed to an estimated five billion dollars by the late 1990s. Fleece pullovers and other items soon emerged as a mass-market trend, advertised by companies like Old Navy. Even American designers like Donna Karan (1948–) and Tommy Hilfiger (1951–) began using polar fleece and its knockoffs in a range of items. Many of the garments seemed unisex and to denote the wearer as an outdoor-sports enthusiast. An increase in books recounting extreme-adventure exploits in the late 1990s captured the public fascination at the time, as did a marked trend toward adopting another symbol of the rugged outdoorsy life: the sport-utility vehicle.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Espen, Hal. "Fleeced." New York Times (February 15, 1998).
Forstenzer, Martin. "On and Off the Beaten Path: Outdoor Gear Isn't Just for the Adventurous Anymore." New York Times (May 16, 1998).
Mott, Patrick. "With Enough Versatility to Put Polyester to Shame, Polartec Has Become the Synthetic King of the Textile Industry." Los Angeles Times (January 28, 1997): 5.