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Gone Camping: Mapping Fashion’s Foray into the Forest

Oct 26 2019

Zoë Schlanger on Anthropocene Aesthetics, Gore-Tex, Eco-anxiety, and the Irony of White Hiking Shoes.

In the late 1980s, my father designed wheels for a cycling company. That company had an arrangement with then-fledgling Patagonia: their employees could get discount wheels if the bike company employees could get cheap fleece. Two cults of the outdoors with mutual aesthetic admiration.

That’s how the earliest clothing-memory of my father became a version of Patagonia’s first fleece jacket, a full-zip in rust. It had a smooth outer shell with comically thick fleece pile on the inside, like a sheepskin. By the time I was old enough to register the memory, it was pilling all over and smeared in white house paint. The best photo I can find of the jacket online is an ebullient snapshot of a young Yvon Chouinard, the Patagonia founder, and climber Rick Ridgeway, laughing. Ridgeway holds a champagne bottle in one hand. There is no stemware in sight. The pair are apparently somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, presumably having just climbed some vertical face up there at the top of the world, maybe with ice picks. They’re both wearing the jacket. The photo captures a free, daring feeling we’re all after, now, while this sort of clothing—outdoor wear, hiking boots, climbing gear, wicking fabrics—has surged back into fashion just in time for the global death of wild places, showing up in spaces 80s climber culture never did. A year when I see Outdoor Research shells on the F train, Hoka One Ones on the runway at Collina Strada, and camping-themed hype sneaker campaigns. A year when Frank Ocean showed up to Paris Fashion week FW19 in an Arc’teryx hat and Mammut jacket.It’s certainly retro, which fits: It’s retro in the way actual wilderness is retro.

Aspirational Outdoorsiness in the Age of Ecological Decline

It’s a busy aesthetic, over-accessorized but reaching towards purity, the promise of untouched wilderness, the radical simplicity of a backwoods fantasy. Like all you need is your pack and you’re good, right? Just you and the good green earth and your status water bottle in that $750 USD nylon Prada belt bag.It evokes the image of biblical calves, lean and sinewy from your last vertical ascent, maybe nicked in a few places on the raw granite up that last rock scramble on Katahdin. You know the one, once you get above the Alpine line, where the springs gush up from the ground? You used your LifeStraw to drink out of one of them but probably didn’t even need to, that’s how untouched it is up there. That pure Maine shit.But amid the swaddle of synthetic wicking fabrics underneath your Nike Gyakusou cocoon is a tough pill: All that synthetic clothing, fleece included, is made of plastic, which is a petroleum product. As Jamie Lauren Keiles wrote, “in an era of mass neoliberal despair, what makes more sense than a coat knit from oil, masquerading as an eco-friendly option? What’s more deluxe than pure dinosaur bone?”But it’s not just the way these clothes are born. It’s the way they live in the world. Every time you wash a synthetic garment, it sheds tens of thousands of microfibers. A 2016 study found 13 pounds (six kg) of acrylic sweaters shed an estimated 729,000 fibers per wash in a typical washing machine. Like all household water, this eventually flushes to the ocean.

Last year, scientists published a study in which they peered into the stomachs of 102 sea turtles, representing all seven species of sea turtle found in the world. Every single one had eaten plastic. And the vast majority of the plastic bits found in their stomachs were synthetic fibers. We did it, we’ve stuffed every turtle’s stomach with fleece and performance base layer.Then there is the issue with moisture-repellence, that holy attribute of highly engineered clothing. The short version is that the thing that makes gear waterproof has sparked the biggest global water-contamination crisis the world has seen since the days of DDT.The long version is that globally, tens of thousands of people have been unknowingly drinking perfluorinated chemicals in their water, a byproduct of manufacturing the types of coatings that make things nonstick (Teflon) and waterproof (Gore-Tex). A number of perfluorinated chemicals, known collectively as PFAS, are now detectable at low levels in the blood of virtually everyone. Culpable companies—mostly DuPont—knew of the potential health effects but, much like Exxon and climate change, chose not to say anything for a long time. Today, studies link elevated exposure to it to heightened cancer risks, infertility, and developmental delays. Young men exposed to a PFAS site in Veneto, Italy were recently found to have smaller penises and lower sperm counts.Gore-Tex has promised to phase PFAS out of their gear by 2023.

Degendered, Alluringly Ugly, Highly Functional: Queer?

It would be misguided to think this is male fashion, even if the men sure do seem to be out front with their bivvy kits and camelbacks and taped seams. That’s the inevitable creep of prepper culture. But let’s not stray that way for now.Every gender has a place on the mythical mountain and taped seams don’t see gender, do they. Even hiking companies’ attempt to gender their own apparel lands like a joke—a cinched waist on a base layer, say. Or the same trekking shoe, but “feminized” with a shade almost like grape, but brownish, like a bazooka flavor forced into earth tone drag.The overall look has been called “gorpcore,” a nod to the "good old raisins and peanuts" hiker lingo for trail mix. That’s awfully quaint isn’t it. And yes, to some extent this is camping-dad gear. I opened this story with an anecdote about my father, I know.But I’d like to offer a injunction: this is historically and fundamentally lesbian fashion. This is camping dykes who wore Merrell mocs through the 90s and half-zip fishing pants with the ripcord belt and almond-shaped Oakley performance shades with the head cord on snug. These are Subaru aesthetics. Everyone else is just catching on.Yes, Merrell mocs, the hideous slip-on of a generation, is soundly back. There are Nike and Salomon options, too. I screamed when I first noticed this on, a useful Instagram account for watching this trend. It makes sense, in a way; Crocs walked so mocs could run. Are these not Crocs for winter? What is fashion if not the contortion of the imagination to regard the most difficult of silhouettes as beautiful? Personally, I’m thrilled. As both a 90s kid from woodsy suburbia and a lesbian, this is my heritage. Thank you for your patronage.

Solastalgia and the Problem of the White Hiking Shoes

It is not surprising that we’re seeking a nature-feeling in what we wear. The wonder, peace, and quiet pleasure of being surrounded by trees, or on a river in the morning, or on top of a mountain any time of day, having efforted your own way up there, is well documented. And increasingly, well researched: Plenty of scientific studies have connected time spent around nature to greater well-being. Just being in a wooded area boosts your immune system, and researchers have found that time in forests can reduce depression and hostility. Doctors are prescribing outdoor excursions to their patients.It’s a sense of embodiment we’re after, a here-and-nowness that’s easy to lose sight of in the city. Most of our lives is spent in our heads. But look at a mountain and the fact of that mountain laughs at your small internal world. You are reminded of the great plodding of geologic time that continues whether you are looking at it or not, and to which your human life barely registers. And yet, you are part of that vast timeline all the same. “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice that is familiar to his soul,” said Alexander von Humboldt, the 18th-century geographer and naturalist responsible for introducing the European scientific class to the idea of connected natural systems—also known as ecology. “Everything is interaction and reciprocal,” he said, therefore nature “gives the impression of the whole,” according to Andrea Wulf’s 2015 book The Invention of Nature, an excellent account of his life and work.

That sense of wholeness is lost to most of us who don’t have the chance to go to the woods. But we have a sense of what we’re missing, I think. Can you grasp at it by wearing hiking boots on your commute? I think so. It is a reminder of what’s out there.Or, what increasingly isn’t. In 2005, Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the word “solastalgia” to describe the type of grief felt by the loss of one’s home environment changing while you stay put; signals of seasons lost to the shifting climate, or tracts of wilderness eaten by wildfire, your childhood trees drowned in too much rain. Solastalgia sounds enough like “nostalgia” to evoke the feeling of longing contained in that word.In 2017, the American Psychological Association validated “eco-anxiety” as a clinically legitimate diagnosis, drawing a bigger circle around the feeling of loss: you can feel eco-anxiety from afar, and angst about the loss of the natural world at large.If hiking clothes could be seen as a confused signal of affinity for earth, a soft protest of what’s being actively disappeared by petro-capitalism, what about a white hiking shoe? Is that a cheeky site of cognitive dissonance or a display of total nihilism? In the world of the white hiking shoe, does wilderness still exist? Will those milky soles ever touch dirt? Does it matter? Maybe not.

Indeed, some have taken the trend past utility and into the realm of purely decorative literalism. A Comme des Garçons Homme Plus x Nike collaboration birthed a sneaker enveloped in its own miniature tent, dubbed the “foot tent.” Miniature fiberglass poles float the tent a few centimeters above the toe box. Theoretically a person wearing these Nikes within, say, The North Face Domey 3 tent would be making a pomo Russian doll of the genre. That particular tent comes in a “heat map” print that makes the structure look entirely subsumed in orange flames. In an era of increased forest fires, what better way to embrace the solastalgic abyss while still embracing the theme?Burn the whole thing down. Or don’t! It’ll do it itself.