Soft power: how the feather trade took flight

Simon Rabinovitch in 1843:

In the summer of 1922 two men called George took part in the first attempted ascent of Mount Everest. George Mallory was an establishment man. A Cambridge graduate and son of a Church of England rector, he dressed in the respectable climbing gear of the time, a jacket and tough, cotton plus-fours. George Finch, his fellow explorer, was an outsider, a moustachioed Australian with chiselled good looks and an independent streak who liked experimenting with new contraptions: he took bottled oxygen to use at high altitude, and wore a specially commissioned coat made from bright green hot-air balloon fabric stuffed with the down of eider ducks. Though climbers were already using sleeping bags filled with down, Finch’s fellow climbers initially mocked his bulky coat. That changed as they approached Everest. “Today has been bitterly cold with a gale of a wind to liven things up,” Finch wrote in his diary. “Everybody now envies my eiderdown coat and it is no longer laughed at.” The two Georges turned back after their third failed attempt on the summit. Two years later Mallory joined another expedition to Everest, but went missing close to the top; his climbing feats were then romanticised by a hero-hungry public. Finch never tried again and pursued a considerably less romantic career as a chemistry professor. Yet ultimately he had a greater impact than that of the better-known George. Today, climbers at high altitude routinely carry oxygen. His other innovation has been even more influential, extending far beyond mountaineering circles: on the 1922 expedition George Finch invented the puffer jacket.

The new coat quickly caught on. When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally made it to the top of Everest in 1953, they wore down snowsuits. No mountaineer today would do without one (as one climber put it a few years ago, “the main problem with climbing Everest nowadays is pissing through a six-inch suit with a three-inch penis”). As well as scaling the highest peak, the down coat has travelled far more widely. The first commercial down-filled jacket was patented in 1940 by Eddie Bauer, intended for outdoor enthusiasts. Today, a coat invented for mountain explorers is more often used to protect the metropolitan masses from the elements. From Tokyo to Toronto we face the winter dressed in down, even if our main activity is to scurry a few city blocks. Duvet-coats are now sold by high street and designer brands alike. And fortunes have been made off the back of them: Canada Goose, which specialises in “extreme weather” wear, has built a multi-billion-dollar brand from its puffer coats; so has Moncler.

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