The Race Vest, a pre-history image

The Race Vest, a pre-history

October 17, 2021

Reading Time: 17 minutes.

“The King hath … declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes which he will never alter. It will be a vest.”

Samuel Pepys (1666)

At one time, in the UK, a race vest was a string wife-beater, worn by odd people who ran – or Jimmy Saville – a niche item of clothing seldom seen on the racks of your local sports shop, as real men played football or rugby (and women played netball or hokey). The cult of running - in the UK at least - really began in the 1980s, no doubt spurred on by the launch of the London Marathon (1981), which spawned many other city runs, and was part of a Western shift away from an unhealthy culture of drink, fags, fried food and recreational violence, to a culture of health and fitness lifestyle, well at least for some.

The reasons for this shift are complex, but the new consumer culture and new individualism was a big part of it (the four-part BBC series The Century of Self is recommended viewing if you want to understand just about anything). Footballers had to share the limelight with people like Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, and both Chariots of Fire (1981) and Jane Fonda videos were hits. All of a sudden the wearing of a running vest no longer singled you out as an odd bod (unless your name was also Jimmy), but on-trend.

London Marathon
London Marathon (1981), where real men still wore t-shirts, while odd men wore vests (some perhaps knitted by their mums).

But forty years later, when you talk about racing vests something else comes to mind, which in some ways is an evolution of that smelly old piece of sports kit, the multi-pocketed running vest, which continues to make its journey from ultra-niche and specialist, to the mainstream, and no doubt eventually, the norm.

Although the point at which the first commercial vest can be pinned around 1985 (Ultimate Direction hydration vest), I thought it might be interesting to go back a little further in time and try and piece together the direct - and indirect - heritage of this item of gear, part equipment, part clothing.

First, let’s go back to the first principles of load carrying.

The Pocket

The need to store small items no doubt surfaced soon after humans started collecting things that had some value, and could not be easily replaced, such as a really good shell, a lucky flint, dried mushrooms or moss for tinder, or foxes teeth to trade, - who knows. Although larger items could be dried, carried on your shoulders, or placed in animal skin sacks, looking after small items, when you wanted your hands free, was less easy. Luckily it’s very easy to construct a pouch from a piece of animal skin or plant material, and just tie this to yourself, something you’ll see used by modern hunter-gatherers whose lives depend on being as unencumbered by baggage as their prey (even if they just keep their mobile phones in them).

Otzi the “iceman” who died in 3,300 BC, carried just such a pouch, containing a scraper, drill, flint flake, bone awl, and dried fungus.

Eventually, the pouch would contain a cargo that was valuable enough to risk being stolen or robbed, and so I suppose it would be placed and hidden undergarments, accessed via a slit being cut into the outer garments (such as a tunic) to allow access. This would eventually lead to an integral pouch sewn into the clothing, or pocket (the word pocket is come from the Norman “poke” or “pouque”, meaning pouch).

I guess the number of pockets a person had no doubt signified how many things they had of value to carry, with items such as the pocket knife, pocket watch pocket handkerchief (but not the battleship), helping to demonstrate one’s status in life. Such items would generally be worn

The utility pocket

The use of pockets to carry an actual load, versus a sack or satchel (a sack with a cord or leather strap, or straps), probably came about due to hunting and gathering, and especially poaching, which for hundreds of years was a very high-risk activity.

The “poachers pocket” was an internal pocket, accessed either via hidden slits, or from the open jacket, into which game could be slipped quickly, and hopefully, covertly and so go unnoticed by gamekeepers.

Poachers pocket
Poachers pocket

The utility of such a large pocket, placed around the lower back, allowed the hands to be kept free, and the front of the body unencumbered by bulk, vital in heavy country, or running. This style of pocket and larger pockets in general, allowed an item of clothing to become an item of load bearing equipment, and would eventually become a feature of all hunting and field jackets, the poachers pocket rebranded as a game pocket.

You will also find pockets being added to the outside of the rear of jackets, allowing a jacket to hold enough supplies for an extended trip without the need for a pack (there is a great two-part podcast on the assault of Mount Longdon by para Jimmy Morham, where he describes removing all their webbing and filling their pockets with ammo, in order to move easily up the mountain).

Poachers pocket
External poachers pocket

The Duck Hunters

The invention of shotgun cartridges, as well as better quality (and long-range) shotguns, led to an explosion of wildfowl hunting in the late 19th century, both in the upper and lower classes (duck hunting in the US being a blue-collar activity). The requirement for speeding loading of a two-shot rifle led to the hunting jacket (which would become the classic safari jacket), and then the hunting vest. The vest (or jerkin), featured both pockets as well as slots for a dozen or more shotgun shells, as well as a game pocket at the back, which could even be viewed as an integral pack, being able to hold a large number of birds. This style of vest was widely adopted and was no doubt the inspiration for the later fishing vest, designed by Lee Wulff in 1930-31, allowing an angler to carry all his fishing tackle on their person when far from the bank.

Poachers pocket
Vintage duck vest
Poachers pocket
Rear detail of vest, with load pocket (some of these can be very large).

Military load carrying

During the second Boer war (1899-1902), the British army found their traditional leather webbing system, with a belt and yoke (braces), inferior for modern warfare compared to the Boar Commandos, who used a more functional and practical load carrying system. Whereas the Boar system was designed to maximise the speed of firing and movement, as well as adaptation to being on foot, or on a horse, the British system was far more rigid, even ceremonial, being cumbersome, heavy and badly balanced.

Poachers pocket
Boar Commandos

The requirement for a load carrying system fit for 20th-century warfighting, rather than early 19th, that could carry ammo, water, bayonet, entrenching tool, and food and clothing, led to the 1908 webbing pattern. This was designed to be an integrated system that could be put on and removed like a jacket, and allow a soldier to move and fight as easily as possible.

1908 webbing pattern
1908 webbing pattern

The full ‘fighting order’ a soldier was expected to carry with this system was 25.9kg (57 lbs), with “fighting order” being 22.3kg (49 lbs 2 ounces), which included 150 rounds of ammo. Unfortunately for the soldier, by World War One, in which gas mask, steel helmet, grenades and extra ammo and rations were added, this load could be double (52kg).

Nevertheless, the introduction of a modular webbing system did allow a considerable load to be carried by an individual undertaking arduous tasks over often impossibly harsh - and deadly - terrain.

The Battle Jerkin

Towards the end of World War 2, the limitations of traditional webbing were all too apparent. Being made from heavy-duty cotton webbing, they were heavy even when empty, but doubly so when wet. They were also very abrasive to wear over lighter weight clothing and would jump around when running.

In 1942, a British army Colonel Rivers-MacPherson adapted a leather hunting jacket for combat, a design aimed at fast movement over Scottish hills no doubt equally ideal for Italian and German ones. His design was tweaked and modified, the leather being replaced by canvas, with more pockets and pouches and a pack being added, until eventually, you had the “battle Jerkin”. The jerkin was issued in small numbers to specialist troops, such as commandos, in time for D-day, with the Americans also providing their own assault vests (you can see Tom Hanks wearing a replica of one in Saving Private Ryan).

Battle Jerkin
Battle Jerkin

In the end, these vests proved to be unpopular, because although they were more practical, lighter and easier to fight in, they were also much hotter, with heat and sweat, which leads to dehydration and abrasion, something soldiers wished to avoid. And so once ashore, most of these vets were “lost”, and more traditional webbing was acquired.

US soldier wearing the assault vest.
US soldier wearing the assault vest.

As with many gear innovations, what was required was one innovative idea ahead of its time, to be caught up by technology in order to work more effectively.

The Survival Vest

Another item of interest from WW2 was the introduction of the C-1 survival vest by the US Army air force, a multi-pocketed vest (with the contents printed onto each pocket) that came in one size that could be adjusted by three straps. Made from cotton twill (denim), as with the battle jerkin, although practical, this was another load-carrying vest that would be uncomfortable to wear for extended periods. What’s interesting about the design of this vest is that it has to have pockets positioned in such a way as to still allow the wearer to sit in a seat.

The C-1 vest
The C-1 vest

The C-1 vest was eventually replaced by the SRU-21, which replaced the cotton twill with fireproof aramid mesh, making it much more comfortable to wear, as well as lighter.

The SRU-21 would typically contain the following:

  • Tourniquet
  • Survival Radio
  • .38 tracer ammo (for position location). .38 ball ammo (self-defence). Revolver (.38)
  • Mirror (signalling)
  • Survival Kit
  • Light (distress marker)
  • Bag, storage, drinking water
  • Knife (pocket)
  • Net, gill, fishing
  • Compass

Combat vests

Eventually, the battle jerkin would have its day, and by the 1970s load-carrying vests for combat, made from mesh, had appeared, such as the British 72 pattern. Specialist units also made up their own webbing vests, often by sewing ammo pouches into aircrew vets.

This led to the Israelis adopting the first vest style load-bearing equipment in the form of the Ephod in the late 1970s. This style of webbing vest was further adapted by the South African army in 1983 in the form of the pattern 83 battle jacket, which featured a larger number of high capacity pouches, designed to allow a soldier to carry enough food and water, as well as bivy kit, to survive in the bush for extended periods.

SAF 83 Pattern Webbing
SAF 83 Pattern Webbing

An interesting side note was the British Army COP vest, which went back to the poacher’s style vest, doing away with pouches and webbing, and instead just creating a pocketed vest or jerkin. This style of load baring equipment was required for covert observation soldiers, who would often be living in extremely confined spaces, such as bushes or hedges, for weeks at a time, but who had to be prepared to fight (or fight to escape), at any moment.

The water revolution

One of the key drivers of the modern race vest, even if it is often no longer a component part, is the flexible water bottle.

The flexible water container is not a new invention, in fact, it’s tens of thousands of years old: the water bladder made from animal skin adapted by all human civilizations. As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that many bladders had fur on the inside!

The industrial revolution allowed complex forms to be mass-produced, leading to the steel water bottle, closed with a cork bung, and later with a screw top (ideally attached to avoid being lost). Again, the war business perhaps gave us the most advanced, and widely produced water bottle of the first three-quarters of the 20th century, in the form of the US M1910 canteen (this held one quart of water, or 0.9 litres). This was a three-part system, with the canteen fitting inside a large mug (that could be used to cook with if metal), and the whole lot fitting into a pouch. These canteens were made from aluminium first (spun), then welded stainless steel, and later in polyethene (M1961).

Around the same time as the plastic army canteen was introduced, Sigg produced the now-famous aluminium Sigg bottle, which remained the outdoor standard for the next few decades, until eventually replaced by the Nalgene bottle.

During this period flexible water-carriers did exist, with the US military 2 quart (1966-72) bladder being perhaps the best example of things to come. This interesting design made use of its collapsable nature in order to stop water sloshing (which could see you shot), plus also doubled up as a floatation device, a helpful feature while engaged in a land war in South-East Asia.

The first outdoor flexible water bottles I remember came from Liquipak, an Israeli company that I think made packaging and no doubt saw an opportunity in the 02 business, and I seem to even remember them having a drinking hose system. But history records Michael Eidson as the father of the modern bladder system. Eidson was an EMT and decided to run a race with an IV bag stuck in a sock pinned to the back of his running top, with a tube running from it attached to the front of his body with a safety pin.

This rather Heath Robinson set up would very soon become a small niche running and mountain bike company called CamelBak (in 2015 the company was sold for $412.5 million).

Since then the market for drinking bladders has exploded, affecting pretty much any sport in which people get thirsty, as well as military sales (31% of CamelBak sales), with countless versions on offer (personally I’m a fan of MSR ones).

Enter to race vest

One of the issues with drinking bladders, as well as water containers in general, was freezing. With a bladder, this is more acute as even if the water in the bladder remains liquid, more often than not, it’ll freeze in the drink tube.

Bryce Thatcher, a mountain runner from the US, tried to solve this problem in many ways, including battery heating. In the end, he struck on a very simple solution, and just wore the bladder under a race vest, poking the drink tube down inside the vest until he needed it. And it worked!

Bryce further improved the design by sewing up a fleece vest into which the bladder could be placed, removing the need for straps (like the battle jerkin, the less material between you and the outside air the better). Now that the freezing problem was solved, Bryce now noticed a huge dividend, that wearing a vest was much nicer than wearing a pack. Instead of riding on your back, jumping around, the vest hugged you and removed all the usual pressure points.

By the time summer came around the initial need for the vest was forgotten, and a mesh version was sewn up, with multiple generations of the vest being rapidly sewn. The idea of keeping everything accessible, such as snacks, compass, map, water, so that there was no need to stop and start, taking items out of your pack. You no longer had a pack that contained all your stuff, but rather you wore all your stuff on you, allowing you - like that soldier on the beaches of Normandy, or the Boar commando, to move quickly and efficiently while carrying a load.

Bryce would go on to commercialise this product through his company Ultimate Direction, with the Arctica Race Vest.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


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