Updated: May 27
Flannel pieces hit all of the criteria for your capsule wardrobe. Versatile and timeless; here's how flannel became crucial for any minimalist wardrobe.
Developing a Foundational Understanding of Flannel
Flannel is a type of fabric that has been around for many years. It’s a soft, woven fabric that is typically made of wool or cotton and slightly milled and raised. It initially began with farmers and the working class, who favored it for its warmth and affordability. As the fabric advanced through the years, a check print was introduced and soon became its signature style. Eventually, in the ’90s, flannel was adopted by the grunge subculture, giving it a new, edgy feel. Today, flannel shirts are still a favorite item for their comfort and effortlessly cool style. As such, they’re a worthwhile addition to every gentleman’s wardrobe.
Types of Flannel Patterns
Flannel shirts are typically offered in check prints, but they’re also available in plain varieties. Most of the time, check styles of flannel shirts will have a more casual and relaxed feel, while plain versions will create a sharper, more polished appearance. As such, you should choose which to wear based on the look you’re trying to achieve. If you do pick a check flannel, be careful to balance your outfit accordingly. As the print can tend to be quite bold, it’s usually best to keep the rest of your outfit minimal and neutral.
Flannel can be made with worsted yarn (which uses generally longer fibres, and is then combed) or a normal woollen. What generally defines a flannel is the milling process, where the cloth is beaten and the fibres are broken, producing that fuzzy feeling.
A worsted flannel reacts differently to the milling and will have less texture. It is generally used for making lighter-weight versions of flannel. However, it doesn’t have most of the body and texture that is the whole appeal of flannel.
A milled woollen cloth used for a coat is not normally called a flannel. Flannel most generally refers to a milled cloth (worsted or woollen) used for trousers or suits.
According to Permanaent Style, an argument can be made that a flannel "should really be 13oz or more – even 15oz." It is only at that point that it can be worn a few times without having to be re-pressed, and this weight ensures that the flannel will not rip when wet or bag at the knees.
In general, English flannels tend to be closer set (more yarns, denser, in the warp and weft) and use thicker yarn. As a result they tend to be heavier. Meanwhile, Italian flannels tend the opposite way, sometimes emphasizing for style at the expense of substance. If you have no experience and are picking a flannel, an English one is therefore a safer bet. Finally, grey flannels tend to be a melange of different shades.
Exploring the Rich History of Flannel
In the Museum of English Rural Life’s digital archives, flannel appears in everything, from petticoats to blankets to children’s smocks. While the oldest items are made of wool, flannel can also be made from fibers like cotton and even pine. The thread used to weave flannel is tightly spun and water resistant, and often brushed on one side, resulting in a fabric that’s durable and softens with age.
In the U.S., flannel has gone through a series of incarnations. Some of the earliest documented flannel garments were a kind of two-part long underwear, known as emancipation suits, patented in the decades after the Civil War as a replacement for whalebone corsets. Those morphed into union suits, the full-body long underwear worn by Yosemite Sam. Union suits became the standard base layer for those working in lumber or on railroads, while flannel jackets were used as heavy, water-resistant outerwear.
Flannel spiked in popularity during the folk-revival movement of the '70s, and then achieved iconic fame with the rise of grunge in the '90s. According to Clara Berg, a textile specialist and curator at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, "Seattle’s grunge scene embraced flannel and tattered jeans as anti-fashion."
The clothes were functional and cheap - in a 1992 photo from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a man shows off a plaid jacket that he coyly says had been “left behind,” a remnant of the region’s lumber workers. The look appealed to those who didn’t feel represented by the glitz of hair metal. When Nirvana’s Nevermind exploded to the top of the Billboard charts in 1992, ratty thrift-store flannels came along for the ride. It was around this time, Berg thinks, that plaid and flannel fused into synonyms, as the grunge scene didn’t distinguish between different plaid shirts.
But with the popularity came backlash. When Marc Jacobs, then a designer at Perry Ellis, released a grunge-inspired collection in 1993, he was panned by both pearl clutchers in the fashion world and professional musicians who chafed as their anarchist sensibility was co-opted and commercialized.
How Are Flannels Popularized Today
Nowadays, everyone loves to wear flannels in retro and casual way. Men and women love them because they are easy to throw on, and they also follow many different fashion trends. Whatever your background, location or occupation is, there is a flannel-based outfit out there for you.
When you wear flannel, you never appear to be trying too hard, and you are always comfortable. The outfit combinations that can be built around a flannel shirt are almost endless.
Aspiring entrepreneurs in Southern California are notorious for rocking flannel shirts loosely with relaxed fit cotton chinos (and a pair of Chuck Taylor's, of course). Maybe they'll throw a bomber or denim jacket over their shirt for those cool summer nights by the ocean.
Tech guys in Silicon Valley often wear their flannels a bit more fitted, untucked, and with a pair of skinny jeans. Once again, they are casual, they are comfortable, and they don't have to think too hard about what works while they code all day & night.
Then there are the go-hards from the Midwest and the East Coast. These guys have worn flannel their entire lives, out of necessity. They tend to go in a couple of different directions with their flannel expression. Creatives, even Mega Church Pastors pair their long flannel shirts with fitted leather jackets and Chelsea boots. And you know what? It not only looks effortless, but women go crazy for it. On the other hand, C-level executives in cities like Chicago, New York and Boston have taken flannel to the boardroom. They know how to blend the raised texture of a flannel shirt with a wool flannel blazer, and even a pair of new-era cords.
There's something special about wearing flannel. It may be ingrained in my mind from my early twenties, but so many senses are brought to life when I throw a flannel outfit on: bonfires with friends, drinking a glass of good whiskey on a Friday night, snuggling up on a fall afternoon with the girl you love, and eventually, that girl taking that shirt and claiming it as her own!
The Bottom line
With a rich history, flannels have proved that they stand the test of time and it's not difficult to see how they have become absolute cornerstone pieces for any capsule wardrobe. Check out our next post to see how you can make flannel a part of your wardrobe.
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