Because of its durability, affordability and warmth, flannel quickly became popular across European borders. Wool factories sprouted up all over England and France; by the 19th century, its production blossomed thanks to the more efficient mechanical “carding” process, utilized by mills all over Britain during the Industrial Revolution. In 1889 American entrepreneur Hamilton Carhartt, seeing the need to improve the working man’s uniform in the United States, opened his factory in Detroit, MI and started producing tough flannel garments.
At the turn of the 20th century, perhaps because of its association with construction and frontiersmen, the flannel shirt became a symbol for rugged men. The American populace were captivated by the mythical giant Paul Bunyan, garbed in red plaid flannel shirt. His tall tales and heroics inspired workmen — especially loggers — and their children.
After the war, flannel proved it wasn’t exclusive to the undershirts, work clothes and bedding; it could also be sophisticated. The 1950s witnessed the rise of gray flannel suits, the standard for most all business men. In 1955, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a novel by Sloan Wilson about a man navigating the new business world, was released to critical acclaim and prompted a film adaptation starring Gregory Peck (a style icon of the time) in a Fox Flannel suit.
The fabric continued to feature as a business essential in popular culture. Disney’s The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968) parodied the modern business man; Sean Connery rocked a few gray flannel suits in 1964’s Goldfinger.
Flannel resurged with a vengeance the early ’90s as part of the grunge music scene. The shirts that had united America’s working class in the 1950s became a symbol of the anti-conformity zeitgeist. Pacific northwestern bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam were garbed in messy plaid flannels that were both cheap and built strictly for comfort — the polar opposite of the neat gray flannel suit of the ’50s.
Today flannel is synonymous with outdoor wear. Often confused with plaid (which is just a pattern of woven flannel), flannel is a staple for outdoor brands such as LL Bean
Plaid flannel has also transitioned to high fashion. It was picked up by big-named brands — including Tommy Hilfiger, Dior and Ralph Lauren — and crossed the gender divide, finding use in women’s
Both a sturdy staple and an ever-reborn product of cyclical fashion, flannel has grown from humble Welsh beginnings to clothe the builders of the railroads and inspire folklore, symbolized the American business work ethic and that idea’s angry cultural and musical counterpoint. Say what you will about its inferiority to new-fangled lab-created materials — it’ll be around longer than you will.