From shepherds to politics: the history of loden

Written by Enrico Grigoletti

Week 48
TYROL

There’s a particular coat that all Italian grandpas used to wear, and it’s called Loden.
Well, that’s not entirely correct since the word “Loden” refers to particular wool woven in Tyrol, felted and netted through a water beating process that makes it impermeable and resistant. The netting gives the fabric a soft cloth feel, while the final phase of combing permits water droplets to slide off the fabric, rendering it as one of the first high-performance materials to ever be manufactured.
All those technical characteristics answered the needs of shepherds and farmers living on the Alps who had to face extreme weather conditions during the winter. These shepherds and farmers were forced to wear only leather, linen and Loden wool according to a 1573 edict issued under Ferdinand II, Archduke of Tyrol. During the summer, farmers wore a long Loden shirt (the hemetep) while a lighter Loden skirt (the ras) was the garment destined to ladies. Extreme winters forced farmers and shepherds to protect themselves with long waterproof capes. The fabric went from the hands of shepherds and the mountain valleys into the House of Hapsburg when Franz Joseph I of Austria commissioned Moessmer – a Tyrolese wool enterprise – to manufacture a Loden white cape and grey coat enriched with Merino wool and cashmere.

francis

For years the Bruneck factory supplied Loden wool for the highest ranks of Tyrol, and recently their signature fabric in a bright blue hue has been used to wrap the newest Messner Mountain Museum “Corones” designer by Zaha Hadid. Loden wool has since lost its working class attributes and the 19th century saw the celebration of Tyrolese wool as the premium fabric of choice to tailor middle class outerwear, from Northeast Italy to Southeast Austria. Styria, a Bundesland located in Austria, is the place that gave the name – steirep – to the typical green trimming.
The wool used to tailor those dapper overcoats soon became synonymous with a specific garment: the single-breasted coat, clean and flawless, perfect in its shape and volume.
Tabarro and palandro – a classic cape that covered the shoulders of our ancestors – were soon replaced by a sleeker piece of outerwear that was shorter and better designed for the cities. But over the years the word “Loden” also became synonymous with the forest green colour the coats were made of i.e. Loden Green (Pantone 18-0422X).

From the fabric to the coat, and finally to the colour, the word Loden is capable of directing minds to a specific stylistic scene rooted in Northern Italy and recalling the bourgeoisie of the area. Just take a winter stroll in Milan between Cadorna and Conciliazione and you’ll see what we mean. You will no doubt chance upon an old lawyer or professor, proudly dressed in a Loden coat, scarf and wool flat cap from Melegari. A lot of Italian politicians active in the 70s and 80s also used to protect their tailored suits with this forest green garment.

mariom

Mario Monti, economist and former Prime Minister of Italy, was a natural ambassador of the coat, giving the garment high exposure and crystalizing it as an emblem of austerity. So much so that Italian talk show Porta a Porta featured a mannequin with Mario Monti’s Loden.
It is clear that this garment is a very Italian thing, given that nobody outside Italy is wearing it, except maybe for the Bavarians who use it as a traditional costume. Germans consider the Loden a rural garment and wearing it within an urban environment is bad taste.
Stiff and boring for some people, Loden signifies the idea of an old man, or on the contrary, it is seen as radical chic, like a pair of Mephisto shoes or desert boots. Many have tried to reinvent the Loden as a contemporary garment, from designer Andrea Incontri who worked with Austrian tailoring brand Habsburg, to Aspesi that offer a contemporary review of the Loden every fall/winter season.
Unfortunately no matter how many attempts will be made, the Tyrolean wool coat is a reflection of its origin: of the climatic severities of the Alpine valleys, of the self-importance of Austro-Hungarian lounges, and the Italian political elite and bourgeoisie. For this reason, it will be forever confined to an imaginary destined to disappear.

Fulling is a step in woollen clothmaking which involves the pressing of the cloth