Who Invented the Rain Poncho?

A little girl with a moose backpack in her yellow rain ponchoWhether you’ve read Stephen King’s IT (or seen the movie) or not, you probably remember the iconic image of the child in the yellow raincoat and a clown holding out a red balloon. It took many years, from developing a water-resistant fabric to making it wearable before this yellow rain poncho came into existence. 

Rain attire dates back all the way to the 1820s and has progressed significantly since then. What started out as a trench coat made of material designed to protect you from the rain, cold, and sleet eventually branched out into a variety of rain garments such as ponchos, full suits, and much more.

Who invented the first raincoat?

Charles Macintosh was the brains behind the waterproof fabric of raincoats back in 1824. He designed rubber sheets in his textile factory, which were then used to make the garments. 

Macintosh started as a clerk but eventually left to pursue his interest in manufacturing chemicals. Around 1823, he was looking for ways to utilize waste products of the gasworks. During this time, he observed that one of the by-products, naphtha, had the properties to dissolve India rubber. 

He discovered that by using this rubber sheeting and placing it between two sheets of wool, he was able to design a fabric that could get wet on the inside, but still keep the wearer dry. This particular invention was patented in 1824 and was known as “Mackintosh.”

Problems with the original design

Considered to be the first of its kind, the design of the raincoat had some technical issues. Stitching this fabric caused the garment to get slightly punctured, allowing the rain to get in. In the hotter, summer months, the material would become too sticky and would freeze up in the winters. 

Some people also came forward with claims that the fabric had already been invented and was a concept stolen by Macintosh. 

Tailors were reluctant to work with this new material, and eventually, Macintosh had to start his own company for production.

Building a partnership

Macintosh eventually joined hands with Thomas Hancock, a British manufacturer responsible for setting up the rubber industry in Britain. Together, they were able to design a fabric that would prevent the wearer from getting wet and was also quite durable.

Creating a fashion statement

Now that the fabric was ready, it was time to shape it into something that could be worn by men, women, and children frequently. The first design followed the basic pattern of a riding coat complete with inner leg straps to keep the coat from flapping open and letting any water in. 

The Mackintosh brand developed an entire line of raincoats for men and women, ranging from single and double-breasted ones to belted trench coats. These classic designs are still in use in many factories in Britain till today. 

Stars like Audrey Hepburn adopted this raincoat and turned it into a fashion trend. 

Over the years, the idea of the Mackintosh was tweaked by different manufacturers. The initial design had the tendency to make you perspire, but George Spill had the genius idea to add metal eyelets in the armpits to reduce the buildup of heat and moisture if the raincoat was worn for too long.

Rain-proof military wear

Rain-resistant coats were also popular among military officers during the time of World War I. Thomas Burberry designed a waterproof fabric by passing cotton through a chemical mix to make the fabric “breathable.” Although it wasn’t completely waterproof, it did succeed in keeping most of the water out under harsh weather conditions. Moreover, it was soft and flexible enough for officers to move around freely.

Changing designs

Now that people had gotten used to the idea that they could wear a coat over their regular clothes and walk around in the rain without getting wet, it was time for manufacturers to get creative. By the 1930s, the most popular style was the French aviation coat with the belted waist. Around this time, some new designs came to light. Cotton and silk oiled coats gained popularity. Rubber rain ponchos started entering the market due to the ease of putting them on (and taking them off) and the freedom of movement. These were available in a range of colors. 

By 1953, rain ponchos and coats were introduced in a new fabric blend that was also washable- a 50/50 blend of cotton and polyester. 

The 1960s and 70s were all about designer rainwear. Instead of just being a functional piece of clothing, the raincoat was also a fashion statement. Even now, rain ponchos and coats are a mix of functionality and style with brands like Burberry introducing their unique designs as well.

The iconic yellow rain poncho

The rain poncho that you’re probably most familiar with is the bright yellow one that is commonly sported by children and fishers. These are usually made of oilskin (known as slicker in America), a fabric made by coating regular material in slick oil. It was designed for those who spent much of their time on the high seas and needed something both water-repellant and durable. The oilskins had a yellowish hue after being treated with linseed oil. 

Over time, matching hats, gloves, and other forms of outerwear were also introduced. These became common, not just among sailors and fishermen, but also among people on land. They spread across the globe, all the way to Australia and were also adopted by the British military.

Raincoats and ponchos in the present

Raincoats and rain ponchos have come a long way in the 21st century. Many people style their rainwear with jeans and boots for an outfit that is both water-resistant and smart to look at. Newer materials have also been designed to create rainwear that is lighter and softer than the original stiff design. 

Brands like Burberry design raincoats that have also made their way onto runways making Charles Macintosh’s design a global icon.

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