I used to think of layering as a timeless concept. The idea of wearing many light articles of clothing rather than a few heavy ones was everywhere: my brother’s Boys’ Life magazines, advertisements from my local outdoors store, my summer camp’s suggested packing list. But, like any way of dressing, layering had to be invented.
In his 2005 memoir, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, claimed that his outdoor-clothing company, founded in 1973, was the first to bring the concept to the outdoors community. But the idea goes back further than that. Almost every American’s understanding of layering comes from the mid-century U.S. military.
In 1943, the Quartermaster Corps—the branch of the U.S. Army charged with procuring uniforms, among many other essential logistics of war—introduced an experimental new uniform kit, which it named the M-43. The ensemble included a woolen undershirt, a long-sleeved, flannel shirt, and a sweater. But the star of the kit was a new field jacket, which was (somewhat confusingly) also called the M-43—a nine-ounce, tightly woven cotton sateen garment, drab olive in color, sporting big pockets on the chest and at the hips.
Today, Americans need look no further than cotton T-shirts, cargo shorts, and camouflage to see how military styling has entered everyday life. But the M-43 jacket was not just a style. It also taught an idea to millions of Americans. Just as the military jeep brought four-wheel drive to the masses, so the M-43 made layering a civilian staple.