The flannel shirt has been a staple of outdoor culture since the early 1900s. Gracing the shoulders of fictitious American outdoorsmen like Paul Bunyan to real-life world-renowned rock climbers like Tommy Caldwell, who sported a flannel when speaking to reporters after completing his historic ascent of Dawn Wall with Kevin Jorgenson, flannel shirts have become ubiquitous with outdoor recreation. Comfortable, stylish, warm, and versatile—flannels are equally at home on the couch as in casual offices or out for drinks—it’s no wonder their popularity has been so lasting.

Woolrich Buffalo Plaid Flannel

According to most accounts, flannel first popped up in the United States in 1850 by John Rich, founder of the Woolrich brand, when he introduced the Wool Buffalo Check Shirt. Woolrich was already a trusted source of fabric, socks, and blankets for local lumberjacks around Rich’s home in rural Pennsylvania when he launched this new shirt made from wool flannel fabric and featuring a distinctive check pattern. He marketed the new shirt with descriptions like “mountain made” and “soft supple, yet tough as iron,” attributes that have been attracting flannel devotees for more than a century and a half.

Rich’s distinctive checked pattern—Buffalo plaid—is said to have gotten its name from its designer, who owned a herd of buffalo. Others, however, argue that the pattern dates back to Scotland and made its way to the United States via Jock McCluskey, a Scottish immigrant to Montana. Either way, the flannel moniker is now used to describe much more than the woolen fabric Rich created—today it’s used as a catch-all for patterned shirts and it’s hard to walk into an outdoor store (or cruise your favorite outdoor brand’s website) and not find a flannel shirt, pants, or hat.

The Shirt for the Working Class

Although the founder of the Woolrich brand may have introduced flannel fabrics in the United States, it was the founder of another major brand—Hamilton Carhartt of Carhartt—that took flannel mainstream. In 1889, Carhartt opened a flannel-focused textile plant in Detroit. Soon thereafter, flannel (which had already been used for soldiers’ clothing during the Civil War) became a staple in the wardrobe of railroad workers, and then the American working class, thanks to its low cost and ability to withstand rugged use.

Flannel clothing remained vital workwear in the early 20th Century. During World Wars I and II, soldiers were issued flannel shirts to wear as an extra layer underneath their uniforms. These button-up uniform shirts had many familiar features, particularly the single and/or double chest pockets that are ubiquitous on modern flannel shirts. But most importantly, the shirts were soft, rugged, and warm, features that quickly made the shirt much more than a uniform.

Earl Shaffer: Grandfather of the Appalachian Trail

Perhaps no one better symbolizes the flannel shirt’s crossover from outdoor workwear to recreational wear than Earl Shaffer. Shaffer was the first person to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in one continuous trip in 1948 and the first person to hike the AT in both directions—he completed the AT north to south in 1965. In 1998, Earl Shaffer also became the then-oldest person at the time to complete the AT (an honor which now belongs to M.J. “Sunny” Eberhart) when, at age 79, he finished a journey on the trail to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first trip.

Earl Shaffer set off on his initial AT trip after returning from serving in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Shaffer later said his purpose for hiking the Appalachian Trail was to “walk off the war” and get over the loss of his closest friend at Iwo Jima. It’s reasonable to assume that it was in the army that Shaffer, like many others, discovered flannel. The flannel-lined M41 Field Jacket was worn by nearly every enlisted man and officer in the Army serving from the early days to the middle of World War II.

Compared to today’s high-tech, gear-laden hikers, Earl’s approach to the AT was no-frills. Early into his first thru-hike, he ditched his tent, preferring to sleep in his poncho without a sleeping mat, he cooked over an open fire, rather than carry a stove, and he used no maps. Even in 1998, Earl Shaffer eschewed high-tech outerwear, ultralight gear, and modern gadgetry; instead, he carried a rucksack from World War II and hiked in a pair of boots from a thrift store. His brother gave him a cell phone, but he mailed it back after a week, annoyed by its extra weight.

Notable about Earl Shaffer’s record-setting 1998 AT adventure were his clothes. He was easily recognizable thanks to the pith helmet, blue flannel shirt, and blue work pants he hiked in day after day. Although, even Earl couldn’t resist stopping at Eastern Mountain Sports while passing through West Lebanon, New Hampshire.

From World War II to Today

Shaffer, of course, was hardly the only veteran returning from World War II to appreciate the value of a flannel shirt for outdoor recreational use. Following the war, Pendleton—a war-time clothing manufacturer and family-owned company that had been producing woolen goods since the late 1800s and a full line of men’s sportswear for hunting and fishing since the 1920s—attracted the interest of an unlikely group of outdoor users: California surfers. During the 1950s, Pendleton plaid and swim trunks were the uniform of California surfers. With Neoprene still a relatively unknown fabric, they would wear Pendleton flannel over a layer of Vaseline to stay warm in the water. As a nod to the shirt’s prominent place in surf culture, the Beach Boys—the band most synonymous with surfing—were originally called the Pendletons.

Flannel shirts remained popular weekend wear for men throughout the 1950s and 1960s and started to gain traction in popular culture as well. In 1947, Marilyn Monroe was famously photographed wearing a plaid flannel shirt. Two years later, in 1949, Pendleton, introduced the ’49er jacket, a wool plaid coat that borrowed the styling of men’s flannel work shirts. Between 1949 and 1961, Pendleton sold over a million ’49ers. In 1979, another woman stoked the interest in flannel when Daisy Duke wore a knotted-up flannel with her namesake shorts on the series premiere of the Dukes of Hazzard.

Flannel shirts once again burst into popular culture in the 1990s. The trend was ushered in by grunge bands—thanks to an abundance of the shirts in Seattle-area thrift stores—and soon wormed their way into nearly every part of American culture. Indeed, everyone from Ice Cube in his Good Day video to Claire Danes on the television show My So-Called Life to Kyle MacLachlan on the cult classic Twin Peaks to Garth (from Wayne’s World) on Saturday Night Live has rocked a flannel shirt.

In the 2000s, flannel continued to enjoy its universal appeal. On the pop culture front, the website Gear Junkie coined the term “lumbersexual” to describe “a man who wears outdoor-type clothes, such as plaid shirts, jeans and boots, and has a beard, but lives a modern, urban lifestyle.” Of course, flannel has also returned to its outdoor roots—in 2010, the U.S Olympic snowboard team uniform was styled to look like the competitors were wearing ripped jeans and a flannel shirt.

Flannel Today

Currently, there is an unprecedented interest in outdoor recreation and it’s safe to say that flannel shirts are here to stay, especially given their history. One thing you can count on is flannel shirts delivering the stylish comfort that has made them a favorite for generations.