A Lifetime of Lumberjack Shirts

Plaid flannel shirt on a wooden chair
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Here’s a question for you: Can you think of a garment that you’ve worn your whole life? Not a single, specific item that always magically fits Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-style, you understand, but rather a type or category of clothing. Like jeans in general, as opposed to one pair in particular.

Jeans were what I thought my answer would be at first, by the way. My dad was a denim obsessive and in time I would become one too, but for several years as a child I staunchly and inexplicably refused to put on even a single pair of jeans, despite all of my father’s best efforts. So denim doesn’t quite fit the bill. I may have been wearing it for most of my life, but not for all of it.

I’ll also go ahead and chuck out things like socks, underwear, or T-shirts here. Reason being that these things typically speak more of practical necessity than they do any real sense of stylistic expression or personal preference. I’m interested in the clothes that have stuck with you from childhood right the way through, the ones that you seem somehow innately drawn to. For me, at least, that proved a more difficult question to answer. 

As soon as I got it, however, it seemed obvious. In my case, I have found a lifelong companion in flannel shirts.

Stretching all the way back from baby pictures right through to the present day, plaid flannel shirts have been my constant companion (including on the November a.m on which I write this — in fact, had it not been for the familiar warmth of an old overshirt and a thoroughly caffeinated beverage, the low temperature and grey light of Scottish autumn might otherwise have kept me in bed this morning).

Thinking about it now, the flannel thing seems fated somehow. It may be the perfect item of clothing to sum up the course of my life so far, like if Rosebud turned out to be a shirt rather than…well, on the off chance you’ve slept on that one for eight decades, I’ll let you find out for yourself.

I was born in a small, mountainside town with temperatures low enough to freeze the fish pond across from my house every winter and cover the nearby hillsides in snow for weeks or months at a time. Layering was a necessity and nothing did the job quite like flannel did. Add to the cold temperatures the fact that my town’s only form of industry was forestry and you’ll find you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a burly woodsman covered in plaid.

Kurt Cobain playing guitar in a plaid flannel shirt
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain wearing one of his era-defining flannel shirts
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

The timing was key, too. This was the 1990s, when Pearl Jam spun round in every Discman and grunge was all the rage. The kids I knew, especially the cool teens I tried to emulate, were all doing their best Kurt Cobain impressions. It was all filthy, tattered jeans and tent-sized lumberjack shirts all the time. Then, when I went off to boarding school and university a decade or so later, the hipsters and lumbersexuals all came to town — myself among them — each one covered head-to-toe in buffalo check.

And now, of course, another decade on, I spend most of my time writing about clothes, which has done nothing to dull a lifelong flannel habit. If anything — as anyone who has ever gone down a menswear rabbit hole knows all too well — it’s just deepened and refined it into ever more obscure and obsessive niches. For example, remember a year ago when Brad Pitt wore that one shirt while volunteering during the pandemic and the internet lost its mind? Trying to figure out exactly where he got that flannel from was like a weekend of quarantine taken care of for me.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, flannel shirts remain my go-to whenever the temperature begins to drop. As soon as the leaves start to change, so does the pallet of my shirt rotation. Regardless of fashion trends and personal wardrobe changes, the flannels, unlike so much else, have remained constant. Like I said, a lifelong clothing companion.

In fact, there are precious few autumn and winter days on which I don’t wear one, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Like when it’s chilly and I pull one on while reading or taking out the bins. I usually just grab one and wear it over whatever else I happen to have on around the house. Mine is, you see, an updated, urban version of the very bucolic conditions that first gave rise to the flannel shirt.

Before getting into that, however, a quick point of clarification. At the risk of stating the obvious, there can sometimes be some confusion about what exactly to call these shirts. While plaid and flannel are at times used interchangeably, the former specifically refers to the pattern while the latter is the material it’s made from. So not all plaid shirts are made of flannel and not all flannel shirts have a plaid print. Plus, it goes without saying, you also get plenty of other garments made of the same stuff, like the plaid skirts featured in so many school uniforms or the titular garb from the 1956 Gregory Peck vehicle, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

People wearing plaid flannel shirts around a fireplace
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Given this lexical confusion, I generally stick to the altogether more simple and evocative title that is ‘the lumberjack shirt’, which also helpfully offers a glimpse into the shirt’s backstory. 

Flannel has, since its invention, been all about keeping us warm. The material dates back to Wales in the seventeenth century, where it was used to fend off the country’s wet and windy winters. Sourced from the nation’s ample sheep herds, the material was woven from napped worsted fibres that proved more effective than the plain woollen garments that preceded them. It proved so effective as a textile that it soon spread to working men throughout Europe, where it got its current appellation via the French flanelle and German Flanell.

It took off particularly well during the Industrial Revolution when mechanisation sped things up considerably thanks to a process known as carding. By 1889, the material would also spread throughout America thanks to Detroit-based entrepreneur Hamilton Carhartt (yes, that Carhartt), who sought to improve working uniforms in the U.S. To this end, he started making rugged flannel garments, a version of which you can still get today.

Working woman wearing a plaid flannel shirt
Image credit: The Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

It’s in America that the flannel shirt really comes into its own. Flannel came to stand for working people of all stripes, from railroad and construction workers to frontiersmen and soldiers (flannel having been used during the Civil War to make everything from coats to undergarments). There is no working man with which these shirts are more closely linked, however, than the lumberjack. This is thanks in large part to the exploits of Paul Bunyan, a mythical giant and folk hero who could clear swathes of woodland with a single stroke, all while wearing a red flannel shirt. 

Consequently, lumberjack shirts came to represent a kind of rugged masculinity in the twentieth century, when they became a go-to garment not only for working-class people but also for white-collar workers looking to cast off the confines of suits and ties in their downtime. Think of Don Draper in those final episodes of Mad Men.

Around the same time that Don would have been traipsing around the woods in his fancy flannel, the shirt would also be adopted by its first musical subculture (one of many to come). As surf culture became all the rage in the 1950s and ’60s in California, a little band now known as The Beach Boys started out calling themselves The Pendletones in reference to the Pendleton shirts that surfers wore in order to keep warm.

No musical genre has a bigger claim to the flannel shirt than grunge, though. Thanks to Seattle-based musical acts like Nirvana and Alice in Chains — not to mention TV shows like My So-Called Life and Twin Peaks — lumberjack shirts will forever be cemented in the Gen X cannon. 

Much of the rest we already covered at the outset: aughts-era lumbersexuals, Pitt dressed in plaid. Which brings us back to where we started, in other words — an appropriate narrative turn for a piece of clothing that (to me anyway) has come to feel uniquely timeless and apparently eternal. It’s a source of consolation, in a way. Just as comforting as the soft feel of a familiar shirt is the knowledge that, whatever else may change in autumns future, those flannels in my closet are forever. 

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