Protective Clothing

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Clothing has been used for protection since the beginning of time, shielding the human body from physical, social, emotional, and spiritual threats, real and imagined. Today, the term, protective clothing is generally used to denote apparel and apparel accessories that focus on physical protection for the body.

Protective clothing may be as simple as a sun hat or as complex as a space suit. Defined broadly, it may include items that have not traditionally been thought of as clothing, such as flotation vests or football helmets. Watkins uses the term portable environment to describe protective clothing, defining it as "a unique environment that is carried everywhere with an individual, creating its own room within a room and its own climate within the larger climate of our surroundings" (1995, p. xv).

The array of physical threats from which clothing provides protection today is endless. Most people use clothing to protect themselves from cold, heat, rain, snow, sun, and other aspects of day-to-day weather. But protective clothing also allows the body to exist in hazardous environments such as the deep sea or outer space. It is worn to protect individuals from many different hazards in war zones or in the workplace—from falling debris to toxic chemicals to bullets to insect bites. It provides protection for sports and leisure activities as diverse as hockey, cycling, and skiing. Many individuals with injuries or handicaps use protective clothing to prevent further body damage or to substitute for loss of body functions.

The concept of protection has had many connotations for various cultures in different eras. There is evidence to suggest that the bodies of early peoples acclimated to extremes of heat and cold without the use of clothing and that the earliest garments were not worn for what we might now consider to be physical protection. Instead, it is believed that the first garment was a girdle worn around the hips to protect the genital region from magic (Renbourn and Rees 1972, p. 228). While some might consider these girdles to be merely a form of spiritual protection, their wearers surely believed that it kept them from physical harm. Throughout history, even the most sophisticated forms of physically protective clothing have had to meet the social, emotional, and spiritual needs of those who wore them, or they were rejected, regardless of the protection they offered.

Weather and War

Prior to the twentieth century, protective clothing generally served one of two functions: as shelter from climatic conditions or as protective armor. The materials used to make clothing a shelter were as varied as the regions in which people lived and the natural resources found in them. For the earliest protective garments, leaves were worn in the tropics and animal furs were used in more frigid climates. Garments used for shelter from the weather were greatly influenced by the fashions of the times. Social mores, societal beliefs, and traditions may have had even more influence on their design than the actual climatic conditions from which they were purported to provide protection.

To a certain extent, the same was true of the design of protective armor. The European suits of armor and the elaborate costumes of the Japanese samurai warrior both carried with them significant symbolic meaning. However, armor evolved through the ages in large part as a response to the evolution of weapons.

The first known armor, worn by the Egyptians in 1,500 b.c.e., consisted of an unwieldy shirt-like garment to which overlapping bronze plates were sewn. In the eighth century b.c.e., the Greeks made improvements on this garment by shaping metal plates to each body part. With the development of chain mail by the Celts in the third century b.c.e., a warrior's ability to function in battle was significantly improved. Mail was lighter than earlier armor and flexed with every body movement. Since it provided protection from arrows and knives and other weapons of the times, chain mail remained as the primary protective material used in battle for many centuries.

When crossbows were developed, chain mail could no longer provide sufficient protection. Full suits of metal armor, with overlapping metal plates sewn to a flexible leather backing, came into use at the end of the thirteenth century. A full suit of armor was considerably more effective against the weapons of the times and actually provided better mobility than the early Egyptian plated shirts since the metal was shaped and distributed more evenly over the whole body.

With the development of gunpowder and firearms, metal suits of armor became a thing of the past. Soldiers in World War I and gangsters in the 1920s continued to wear garments to which metal plates were attached. Metal and ceramic coverings provided protection for airmen during World War II, but these were much too heavy for the ground soldier. It took advanced-technology developments in the mid-twentieth century to lead designers to truly suitable responses to firearms. In the mid-1960s, when Kevlar aramid fibers were patented and made into fabrics, it finally became possible to design relatively thin, lightweight, flexible shields for bullets and explosive fragments. These designs made it possible for armor to function covertly as well. Thus, the new soft armor could be used not only in battle, but also by police and undercover professionals.

The Technological Boom

The whole concept of protective clothing expanded exponentially during the second half of the twentieth century. The explosion of technological advances during this time made possible forms of protective clothing that had previously existed only in the minds of writers of science fiction. As in the case of armor, new hazards inspired new protective clothing designs. And new designs often changed the behavior of their wearers.

For example, early firefighters stood at a distance from flames wearing their everyday clothing while throwing buckets of water on burning structures. Even in larger cities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where water was pumped through hoses, no real physical protection was provided by the ornate uniforms issued, and thus firefighters moved no closer to the fire. The rubber jackets and, later, the cotton duck bunker coats that were worn in the first half of the twentieth century kept firefighters dry and warm in the constant spray of water from hoses, but also moved them no closer to the fire.

Flame and high-heat resistant aramid fibers such as Nomex and Kevlar developed in the 1960s combined with portable breathing devices to allow firefighters to actually enter burning buildings. Aluminizing the surface of

these materials in fully enclosed ensembles called proximity suits made it possible for firefighters to move still closer to the flames. Further developments in protective materials resulted in entry suits, in which firefighters could actually walk into the flames.

Thus, there is a cycle in the evolution of protective clothing that is much like one in the medical world. As organisms develop a resistance to medicines designed to defeat them, they venture forward and new medicines need to be developed. As protective clothing removes each threat, individuals venture further into danger and require newer, more powerful forms of protection.

Protection from Multiple Hazards

While some items of protective clothing are designed to protect from only one hazard, many others must solve multiple problems. A list of the modern battle-ready soldier's requirements for protection illustrates the complexity of multiple physical threats. Military documents point to a daunting list of hazards from which clothing must provide protection: climate (heat, cold, rain, solar radiation, wind, sand, snow); weapons (ballistics, chemical, biological, flame, blast, nuclear flash, directed energy such as microwaves); detection (visual, infrared); mechanical (cuts, abrasions, crushing); sensory (damage to hearing, sight); and biting insects and animals.

The great dilemma in designing for protection from multiple hazards is that there rarely is a clear-cut hierarchy of threats. Designing always involves trade-offs. For example, to protect soldiers from chemical weapons, they must be fully isolated from the environment. This necessitates the provision of breathing air and a method of preventing heat build-up within protective clothing. However, the motors used to circulate air leave a signal that can be picked up by infrared detection devices, providing the enemy with a target. Since both heat exhaustion and exposure to chemical agents could be fatal, neither of these requirements can simply be ignored to satisfy the need for full camouflage. Multifunction protective clothing for outer space, deep-sea diving, chemical-spill cleanup, Arctic exploration, asbestos removal, bomb disposal, race-car driving, mountain-climbing expeditions, and many other activities and environments all involve protection from multiple hazards. Even clothing that has only one primary protective function involves challenging trade-offs between protection, mobility, thermal comfort, and use of the senses.


The accelerated pace of technological development in the latter part of the twentieth century, combined with changes in society's attitudes toward lawsuits, had a significvant affect on the development of protective clothing. For centuries, many people had worked and played in hazardous conditions without physical protection. As technology made it increasingly possible to be protected from a wide array of hazards, many companies and organizations began to face lawsuits for not designing protective clothing properly or providing it when needed.

Improvements in sports equipment added another legal problem: The more fully equipment protected athletes, the more willing they were to take serious risks on the playing field and to use the equipment itself as a weapon. The litigation arising from serious football injuries in the 1960s spurred the formation of a number of regulatory groups to oversee the design and use of protective sports equipment. In 1978, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) mandated that every football player in an NCAA game must wear a helmet that was certified to have met specific performance standards. In 1980, similar regulations were set for high school players.

Interest in consumer protection surged during this time as well, with the most notable development for protection in everyday clothing being the Flammable Fabrics Act: Children's Sleepwear, enacted in 1972.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), formed in 1971, formalized government involvement in regulations to ensure health and safety in the workplace. Many places of work, even those in which protective clothing had never been worn, then became a target for litigation. Providing the wrong protective clothing was as risky as providing none at all. The resulting potential for financial liability spurred many companies to seek protection for their workers and led toward the development and refinement of many new protective materials and designs. As women began to enter more professions, equipment specifically geared toward a woman's size, shape, and specific protective needs also began to be developed.

Active Protection

Many future developments in protective clothing lie in the arena of active protection; that is, garments which interact with or change the environment of the wearer rather than passively insulating the body from it. High-tech materials and developments in the field of wearable computers make active rather than passive protection the wave of the future.

By the early twenty-first century, loggers wore pants that incorporated fibers that pull out of a protective fabric to clog the chains of a chain saw, stopping it immediately, should the saw accidentally drop onto the logger's leg. Epileptics wear vests that read muscle contractions and automatically inflate personal airbags around the head when a seizure is about to occur.

The U.S. Army envisions that full-body hard suits will one day "walk" injured or unconscious soldiers back to safety. Fabrics of the future may be self-cleaning, fibers rippling to move unwanted dirt away or emitting an agent to neutralize a toxin. Braddock and O'Mahoney describe a future garment as being "made of small cellular units connected to one another by screws" (1998, p. 141). These cells and screws would be directed by a computer link that could order minute automatic adjustments in the shape of any part of the garment or direct heat, cooling, massage, or medicines through tiny channels to isolated body areas when needed. The protective possibilities for future active clothing designs are endless.

See alsoAprons; Coat; Fashion, Health, and Disease; Space Suit .


Braddock, Sarah E., and Marie O'Mahoney. TechnoTextiles: Revolutionary Fabrics for Fashion and Design. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1998.

Hatch, Kathryn L. Textile Science. Minneapolis: West Publishing Company, 1993.

Renbourn, E.T., and W. H. Rees. Materials and Clothing in Health and Disease. London: H.K. Lewis and Company, 1972.

Watkins, Susan M. Clothing: The Portable Environment. Ames, Iowa: The Iowa State University Press, 1995.

Susan M. Watkins