ETCETERA / Design Dinosaurs: 2 The Cagoule

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The Independent Culture
BOBBLE-HAT associations have clouded the fact, but the proofed nylon cagoule was, originally, a classic example of elegant design solving a tricky problem.

The problem was this. In 1948 a chemical process was finally found which would make nylon (invented in 1935) waterproof. By slightly melting the surface of closely woven nylon fabric over hot rollers, a glaze could be produced which was impermeable to water. But there was one small hitch. Puncture the glaze by stitching and the resulting garment was waterproof no more. As all traditional raincoats, including oilskins, were stitched throughout, the search for a suitable design seemed hopeless. It was the French who spotted a prototype: the monk's habit or cowl, la cagoule.

The habit was a hooded pull-over smock made from one piece of material with just a single opening for the head. It combined minimal stitching with the other all-important factor for water exclusion: minimal openings. The design caught on fast. In 1950 cagoules were worn by the French mountaineers who were the first to conquer an 8,000-metre peak, Annapurna. In Britain the cagoule was first marketed by a manufacturer of outdoor garments called Noel Bibby: a simple green nylon monk's cowl with slits instead of pockets. It was lightweight (2-3oz), was as hard-wearing as a wax or linseed-oil impregnated oilskin, folded to the size of a hardback and was dirt cheap. It sold in thousands.

Ironically, the cagoule's flaw was also its raison d'etre. It really was waterproof. Wearing it was like wearing a plastic bag; survivable in voluminous cape form with plenty of circulating air, or in sub-zero temperatures where the body perspires little. But otherwise, after the slightest exertion the wearer was sodden with perspiration.

Breathing fabrics, taped seams and Velcro-protected zip and pop-fastenings mean the proofed nylon cagoule is now all but consigned to the great rucksack in the sky. The style lives on, however, in the hooded sweatshirts of black fashion and sports culture - and in monasteries.