Blaze Orange: A History of the Hunter's Vest in America

Vests an integral part of wardrobe since hunters first stepped foot in woods with a rifle

Friday, August 4, 2017

By Emily Glaser

The word “vest” hails from the romance languages. In French, “veste” means a jacket or sport coat; in Italian, “vesta” is a robe or gown.

In "American" though, vest means hunting gear.

Vests have been an integral element of every hunter’s wardrobe since we first stepped foot in these woods with a rifle. Decked in dozens of pockets, non-restrictive for quick aiming, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, vests are a natural choice for us hunters.

At its debut in the 19th century, Levi Strauss & Co. almost immediately made a name for itself as the heraldry of American manly-men; their tough blue jeans decked the gnarled arms and muscular legs of miners, cowboys and blacksmiths. One of their earliest lines in the 1880s also featured a garment designed for that most masculine of Americans: the hunter.

Rather than its signature denim, Levi Strauss & Co. crafted its hunter’s vest from thick, canvas duck cloth. Designers decked the vest in an astounding 50 pouches perfectly sized to hold single shells. The pockets were installed using more of Levi’s trademarked rivets than any other article of clothing.

The Levi’s hunting vest, and others like it, however, posed a problem; in tan canvas or chestnut brown, the vests were too camouflaged. They helped the hunter hide from prey (positive), but they also hid them from other hunters (negative). Hunting accidents and even deaths grew in number annually through the first half of the 20th century.

In 1960, famed writer Frank Woolner published an article in Field & Stream magazine entitled “Hunter Orange: Your Shield for Safety.” Frank’s brother, Jack Woolner, was information officer for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game at the time, and over the course of the previous year had spearheaded an investigation into the best color for hunters to don for safety.

Experts tested red — but in shadow, it appeared almost black. They also tested yellow — but in certain shades, that drifted into off-white, an unfortunate relative to deer-tail cream. Hunter orange, on the other hand, proved to be a vivid shade absolutely unmistakable for anything found in nature. A year after Frank’s article and two years after Jack’s tests, Massachusetts became the first state to mandate blaze orange garments, especially vests, for all hunters.

SEE ALSO: What’s in a Color? Maryland and Virginia Change Rules for Hunting Colors

According to the Hunter Education Association, the definitions of hunter orange are specific; the dominant wavelength must be between 595 and 605 nanometers with a luminance factor not less than 85 percent. But really it can be defined easily by any average joe: unnatural.

After the Massachusetts law passed, other states began to pass their own ordinances in regards to blaze orange vests and hats. And as those canvas garments were replaced with orange, a shift occurred. In 1960s Minnesota, for example, an average of 14 people were killed annually in hunting accidents and 95 injured. In 1994, blaze orange became mandatory in the state, and now an average of two hunting accidents per year end in death and only 23 in injury.

There are now laws demanding hunter orange in 40 states, and in the 10 states (like New York) where it’s not a law, it’s because the majority of hunters wear it voluntarily. And though hats and accessories are options, it’s the vest that remains the most popular garment of choice.

Embellished with dozens of pouches or saturated in color, vests have always been an integral part of every American hunter’s wardrobe, and they always will be.