Fleeces used to be preserve of geeky ramblers and bird-watching dads – the very opposite of cool. But in recent years the humble fleece has become on-trend, with heritage styles, colour-blocking and retro vibes transforming these fuzzy jackets into a standout fashion statement. Reinvigorated by the ‘gorpcore’ trend – the phenomenon of fashion-conscious urbanites wearing technical outdoor clothing – the retro-cool fleece is a must-have item for 2023, whether you’ll actually be wearing it up a mountain or (more likely) looking intrepid-chic in it down the pub. Here’s what to look out for when shopping for your next retro-cool fleece.
What is a Fleece?
In 1981, Malden Mills, the company behind Polartec, invented ‘polar synthetic fleece’ – or, to the everyday consumer, the fleece. It was a game-changing moment in the outdoors industry, with the birth of a new type of garment. They achieved this by knitting, napping and shearing synthetic yarns into thermal fabric for outdoor apparel, using polyester fibres engineered for ‘more versatile durability, greater resilience, lightweight warmth and fast dry times’. The rest is, well, history. Numerous different versions of fleece have been invented since then, with different levels of warmth, thickness, breathability and wind-resistance, but ultimately this entire genre was spawned from that 1981 innovation.
Related: The History of Fleece
What Makes a Fleece Retro-cool?
Many retro fleeces are, quite literally, heritage throwbacks, with brands re-releasing their original fleeces from the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes these re-releases are carbon copies of the old lines; other times they are modern, 21st century reincarnations of the original designs. But all of these fleeces tend to have a few common styles and features, including:
- Colour blocking – you will have seen this, even if you don’t quite know what it means. Essentially it’s the use of two or three (or more) bold and often contradictory colours together in one garment, with each colour often filling an angular block of the item of clothing. This usually involves the body of a jacket being split into squares or rectangles, with different colours in each block.
- Bold colours – retro fleeces generally don’t focus on boring blacks and navy blues. Their very raison raison d’être is to stand out and they are often all about bold, fresh, eye-catching colours, such as oranges, purples, vibrant greens and aqua blues.
- Pocket patches – a single chest pocket commonly features a ‘patch’ of different material – often in a colour that clashes and stands out against the rest of the jacket – for no real purpose other than to add to the design, feel and style of the garment.
- Retro patterning and styling – from cardigan-like swirly patterns to vibrant pocket trims, coloured zippers and colour-blocked shoulder patches, all manner of design touches are included to give garments a striking, distinctive and noteworthy look.
What Features do Retro Fleeces Have?
Fleeces vary quite significantly in thickness and warmth, from ultralight micro-fleeces to heavy-duty, high-pile, super-cosy coats – and consequently it’s important to choose one that’s suitable for the conditions you’re likely to encounter. The easiest way to do this is to try the garments in a shop (where possible), or to check their gsm rating (grams per square metre) – the higher the figure, the warmer, thicker and heavier the fleece will be.
Other features to look out for include how many pockets the fleece has, whether it includes a full-zipper or half-zipper, and if a hood is included or not. The fit will often vary from slim and athletic to relatively baggy, while waist hem adjustment and wrist cuffs can help tailor the cut to your exact body shape.
But ultimately your purchase is less about technical features and more about the look, feel and vibe. Simply choose a fleece that floats your boat and you think will make you confident, whether it’s because you love the styling, adore the bold colours, or can’t get enough of the heritage design features. All of this is pretty subjective, but here are some of the best retro-cool fleeces we love here at Outdoors Magic.
Best Retro Fleeces 2023
We have tested these fleeces during hiking trips in December, January and February in the Lake District, with a mix of very wintry and unseasonably mild conditions – as well as on post-hike chill sessions in the pub. Here are our favourites:
- Finisterre Axiom – Best Retro Fleece
- Craghoppers Whitlaw – Best Value Retro Fleece
- Napapijri Half Zip Fleece Trentino Hz
- Cotopaxi Teca Fleece Full-Zip Jacket
- Columbia Men’s Sweater Weather Printed Half Zip Fleece
- Montane Chonos
- Fjällräven Vardag Pile Fleece
- Rab Outpost
- Patagonia Classic Retro-X