From Dandy to Dirtbag: Climbing Clothing Throughout the Ages
When Jacques Balmat made the first ascent of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the alps, he looked pretty dapper. There he is in the painting below, wearing his breaches, out for a dandy stroll. For a second, I’d like you to
imagine how that would feel: climbing several thousand vertical feet with wool chafing at your inner thighs, the weight of the fabric pulling you down to the ground. The early mountaineers were badasses, no doubt.
But more than that, I’d like you think about how cool you would feel wearing a waistcoat on top of a mountain. Those early mountaineers (white European men, mostly) had a sense of style. Now, climbers more often look like this:
This is a picture of Fred Beckey, one of the badasses of modern mountaineering, bagging more first ascents than anyone else on the planet. He’s a dirtbag, to use the technical term. Note the stains on his pants and ratty sneakers.
When European men first began to climb mountains in the 19th Century, it was a hobby for the upper crust, the one percenters of their day. After all, who had time to climb except for the aloof patricians with no jobs? These men had their entire day to fill with inane and pointless activities, and what’s more inane and pointless than climbing a mountain? The upper class uniform – petticoats, stockings etc. – followed these men to the tops of the alps, defining the clothing style of early mountaineers. But mountaineering wouldn’t stay elitist for long.
For whatever reason, climbing became a sport of dirtbags, and these dirtbags dress the part. Their nearest fashion analogue would be that of homeless people (the homeless adopt this style out of necessity; the dirtbag out of principle) – and in fact, many dirtbags are effectively homeless, sleeping in their cars and just climbing, you know. The money spent on clothing could be better spent on gear, which is why you’ll often see them wearing clothes that are swiss-cheesed with holes.
These days, even rich climbers don’t look stylish. They’re festooned with overpriced outdoor gear from REI – warm and waterproof, maybe, but ugly. On top of Mount Blanc, you’ll no longer find Balmat’s stylistic flair, but fashionless people in Arc’terix jackets.
The Decline of the Climbing Rock Star
Climbers no longer look like Edmund Hillary – the dashingly handsome Kiwi who first climbed Mount Everest, along with Tenzing Norgay – and photographers certainly never photograph modern climbers with such hagiographic lighting. Mountaineering has lost its prestige in our culture. People look at them not with awe and admiration, but with curiosity and revulsion – like, Why would anyone climb a mountain?
But climbers are fine with this deal. The sport has always attracted outlaws, those circles who don’t fit into society’s square pegs. Climbing a mountain isn’t anything like going on an afternoon stroll, so it would be absurd if people still dressed that way while climbing. Just as Balmat’s clothing communicated social status, the clothing of dirtbags like Beckey says, I don’t give a shit – I just want to climb. He’s not trying to look like a young God defying the laws of nature, like Hillary in this picture. He’s just a man who wants to climb, and he doesn’t care what he looks like while doing it.