Who is Elemental Man? (And why is he everywhere?)
Words Mark Hooper
From the foot of the mountain to the high street… why is everyone dressing for an assault on the Eiger?
You see him everywhere, Elemental Man. Dressed for the foothills of the Himalayas as he transverses the high street. The look has become ubiquitous: close-fitting woolly hat, thermo jacket, double-lined trousers, thick socks and ankle-length walking boots.
It’s no longer safe, it seems, to brave the shops without a wardrobe tested in the Himalayas or the polar ice caps. Nothing but the most cutting-edge, innovative of materials can be considered for our pampered, central-heated, climate-controlled urban lives. Water-repellant, wicking fabric in breathable layers, tried and tested in the most extreme of environments, are now de rigeur for climates that are most often described – with typical British economy of language – as ‘mild’.
If each decade comes to be defined by a certain style – be it Armani’s soft-shouldered jacket revolution in the 1980s or the ‘sports-luxe’ look that dominated the Noughties – then Unnecessarily Extreme Clothing is today’s vogue.
Admittedly, this is nothing new. The outdoor-gear-as-urban-clobber trend has been with us at least since the mid-80s when football casuals began to see the advantages of wearing The North Face at the Kop End. It makes sense: barely moving for hours on end in exposed conditions, braving the elements and windchill factor, often in vain (and forced into a humiliating descent to base camp having admitted defeat) – it was similar for mountaineers too.
For the risk-averse menswear market, there was logic in following where football fans dared to tread: they’d been right about Sergio Tacchini, Lacoste and Stone Island, after all. By the 1990s, the outdoor wear/high fashion crossover had become so established that The Face magazine ran an inspired ‘job swap’ feature in which mountaineers were taken clubbing and vice versa. Inevitably, there were lots of puns involving ‘highs’ – but it was a timely social interest story. The worlds of the rural, thrill-loving ‘normals’ and the urban, thrill-loving ‘freaks’ were proved to be much closer than previously thought.
Which brings us to now, where urban adventurers are all lost in the supermarket, clad in eye-wateringly expensive goose-down jackets, replete with maps of Antarctica on their sleeves. The look is now so ubiquitous that the real cognoscenti have branched out into exotic offshoots. Take, for instance, Extreme Authentic Man.
Taking its roots from designer Nigel Cabourn’s recreations of the outfits worn by the heroes of Everest and polar expeditions past, a new generation of vintage enthusiasts is treading new paths. British brand Shackleton, for instance, uses original knitwear designs from Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition as the basis for its range of outdoor wear – the latest in a growing range of ultra-authentic clothing, with Cabourn established as something of a godfather role for the new kids on the extreme block. These days, no menswear brand is complete without a historically accurate explorer’s outfit in their lookbook, from Moncler’s K2 jacket to Junya Watanabe’s North Face collection and Albam’s Tenzing Norgay-inspired Parkas.
But for true Extreme Authentics, such obviously recognisable characters are sneered at. Instead, they’ll drop such doomed names as Ian Clough and Dougal Haston – true pioneers who died pursuing their first love, before major brand sponsorship transformed British mountaineering, for better and worse.
Today, from The Vintage Showroom and the Arthur Beale sailing store – on opposite sides of Seven Dials in London’s Covent Garden – to the Puces des Clignacourt and Vanves in Paris and the Tokyo specialist dealers, there is a booming market for authentic vintage outdoorwear. And, as male as the trend may seem, there is also a burgeoning interest in womenswear pieces: witness collectors/enthusiasts such as Lauren Yates of ponytailjournal.com, a longterm associate of Nigel Cabourn, who shares his aesthetic for vintage military and extremewear.
There is something reassuringly nerd-like about the extreme trend. Regardless of the athletic prowess of mountaineers, they definitely live on the opposite end of the spectrum to the traditional sports jock. There is a certain irony in technical high-altitude gear finding its target market amongst those who barely operate above sea level (unless you count taking the lift to a meeting on the sixth floor).
All of this is symptomatic of modern life, of course. We take up rural crafts as an antidote to our urban, desk-bound, digital lives; men grow beards and dress like lumberjacks to pretend they have moved on from the metrosexual cliché (does that make them lumbersexuals?). We buy axes that will never strike a log in anger – used instead to decorate our homes like the crossed swords of mock Tudor homes. We read books about building cabins and surviving in the wilderness while we update our monthly Oyster cards. We drive off-road vehicles for our bumper-to-bumper commute across town. We buy carabiners to use as keychains. We stagger out of the underground into daylight, looking like startled garden gnomes in our silly hats, unnecessary beards and bright coats.
We will never know if our watches still work at depths of 200m; or if rescue services can track the GPS technology incorporated into our clothing. We have smartphones to help us find our way home.
But it’s easy to mock. There is a reason why Elemental Man has become a ‘thing’. Or rather for several reasons. And they are all listed above. It is because the modern male is pampered, ineffectual, rudderless, emasculated: it is because he has been called out by #metoo and all the rest. It is because the supposed threat to manhood is nothing but a call for common decency that men are beginning to retrace their steps to find what they are good at and what they should justifiably be proud about. And they often find that many of their apparently defining characteristics aren’t restricted to the male of the species after all. We (meaning humans, meaning women too) can all provide for our families, run our households and our businesses and our countries; build and make and forage and hunt; forge and splice and hammer and hone.
So what is man’s role? Maybe that’s the wrong question. It should be how can we all help, whatever gender or orientation or name we choose to describe ourselves by. But for the men: we should allow them a few things. Let them grow beards. Let them wear extreme climbing gear. And silly hats. Let them be a stereotype. Elemental Man is here to say, and he’s quite a nice bloke. You should buy him an artisanal ale next time you see him…