The windbreaker is a highly versatile piece of technical outerwear designed for minimizing the effect of wind and light rain on its wearer, making it the perfect summer, early autumn, and late spring jacket.
Do you live in a chilly, windy city like I do? Have you felt the bitter, biting cold of the wind cut through your many layers and rest deep in your bones and soul, an unshakeable frigidity saved only by a hot chocolate indoors and with shelter from the elements? Do you live in a humid environment where constant drizzle is not enough to be debilitating to your day-to-day, but just enough to be annoying when you need to walk a few blocks to buy some milk? Are you interested in owning garments that can be layered in highly-intentional ways to ensure a regulated temperature no matter the weather? Does light rain bother you so much that it keeps you up at night thinking how the raindrops may forever tarnish the real cool graphic silk button-up you were hoping to wear tomorrow to impress all of your friends?
If you’ve answered in the affirmative to any of those general (or highly specific) questions, it’s likely that you own, have owned, or would greatly benefit from owning some sort of windbreaker.
This garment is more commonplace than one might expect, and like other garments of such a highly-pervasive nature the windbreaker has transcended from its original utilitarian roots (which it still maintains) to becoming a mainstay of modern fashion for your more casual, sporty looks. While the term itself wasn’t commonly used until the 1940s, we’ll come to see that wind protection in our garments has long been an important feature to the way we dress ourselves, with roots in some of the coldest and most inhospitable places humans have lived on earth.
Let’s get into a little history and exploration of the windbreaker, whose humble status among other, more loudly-celebrated outerwear downplays this jacket’s important versatility and look, making it an excellent option for your casual outfits on a summer eve as readily as your next hiking trip in the mountains. Let’s dive in.
What is a windbreaker?
Before really identifying the appropriate times to wear and not wear a windbreaker, we should try to define it a little to separate from other technical outerwear pieces that rest in a similar realm.
At it’s base, the windbreaker is an outerwear garment that is built to minimize the effect of windchill on the wearer, as well as provide slight (adequate) protection from light rains. This makes it a really good ‘all-around’ jacket for casual contexts because it has your back if the weather changes abruptly and you may not have the option to change layers right away. As such, you see a lot of windbreakers marketed in the realm of sport clothing, meant to offer runners and hikers peace of mind for their excursions where they wouldn’t want to be caught out in the cold wind.
In order to fit into this world of sport clothing, many windbreakers are made from synthetic materials that can offer breathability, insulation, a lightweight construction, and protection from the elements. One will often see such materials like nylon and polyester in their windbreaker construction, materials whose tight weaves will help prevent wind from cutting through the layer and thus minimize convective heat loss. Furthermore, the construction of these jackets and the materials used can also be effective impermeable garments in a pinch – while many are not considered fully waterproof (unlike the rain jackets we’ll explore in a second), the windbreaker can save the outfit you’re wearing underneath it if you ever get caught in the wind or light rain off guard.
That being said, windbreaker is a pretty catch-all term for an outerwear garment that is simply designed to minimize windchill, so impermeability, insulation, breathability, and even a lightweight construction are not always guaranteed. Depending on the intention of the designers, different windbreakers are well suited for different environments and contexts. We’ll explore a few of the different kinds that are easily accessible closer to the bottom of the article.
So, if the term windbreaker is so general, what separates it from a rain jacket? Can’t a windbreaker have water-resistance? Can’t a rain-jacket protect against the wind? Is a garbage bag with sleeves taped to the sides a windbreaker? Is it a rain jacket? Is Tupac still alive in South America? Is there ever a way to know? Fret not, dear reader; we’ll find out together.
Definitionally, the only thing that makes a windbreaker a windbreaker, despite all the other features the garment may have, is a resistance to wind. The prime function of this coat is to minimize the effect that the wind can have on your body temperature, often lowering it in situations where you’d like to stay regulated. In a similar sense, the only thing that makes a rain jacket a rain jacket is its full impermeability – what is a rain jacket if it doesn’t protect you from the rain?
As such, the important distinction between waterproof and water resistant begins to emerge. In the world of technical outerwear, waterproofing and water resistance are important concepts to identify – while waterproofing is the highest level of protection from water that can be offered, water resistance has some protection to it but it is significantly less than its counterpart garment. As such, a water-resistant windbreaker will be more prone to wetting out, in turn creating damp areas and allowing water to penetrate through the jacket after prolonged exposure to rain. The majority of windbreakers on the market made of nylon and polyester materials are water-resistant, either coated with a thin coating of DWR (durable water repellent) or just using the close threading of the garment to block water from immediately breaking through the coat. This allows the windbreaker to be used in a situation where short-term exposure to light rain can still be handled. A DWR coating will cover the jacket in a compound that is hydrophobic, which means the water doesn’t absorb into the garment’s material but will instead ‘bead’ off, keeping you dry underneath. The type of material DWR is applied to, as well as the amount of DWR, is relevant to the level of water protection.
In this sense, the main technical appeal (and thus the definitional standard) of the windbreaker is its wind-resistance. In the same way, the main thing that defines a rain jacket is its waterproof qualities. Equally, a waterproof rain jacket is also often wind-resistant just due to the materials used to make the garment waterproof – to put it semantically, a windbreaker is always wind resistant and can have water resistant properties, and a rain jacket is (almost) always waterproof with usual wind resistance.
Now that we have some idea about the basic idea behind a windbreaker, let’s look a little deeper into the different kinds you can find out in the great wild of retail shopping.
Styles of windbreakers
In the world of layering and heat regulation, the windbreaker is a pretty important piece to have. We can break down most common windbreakers into a few general groups that come in a large variety of styles and cuts, matching any fit you need it to. All of these do the bare minimum: wind resistance. After that, it becomes about weight, material, water resistance, and more.
Nylon (no insulation/layering)
- One of the first styles that comes to mind when you think of windbreakers is the classic, thin, single-layer nylon garments. They make a loud ‘swish’ noise when you walk, they’re iconic in 80s/90s fashion, and they often come in fun, bright colors. The nylon windbreaker can be found everywhere and is deeply versatile. First of all, it’s extremely light. This makes it well-suited to athletic activities where temperature regulation becomes key in the warmer months. It’s light and airy underneath but also prevents the wind from cooling you down too much, especially if you’re sweating. You’ll see these sort of windbreakers everywhere, especially in running and biking apparel. Because they are very lightly water resistant, these aren’t the best option for an activity where you may need a hardier garment, like in a hiking situation where you don’t want to be caught outside with all your layers drenched. This garment is made from a single layer of nylon and is extremely lightweight, packable, and effective against the wind. Equally, however, it offers very minimal heat preservation and should not be worn without layers (unless it’s warm). For packability and utility, one of these is worth to have in your day bag if you’re enjoying some time at the park or the beach on a warm summer evening.
- Polyester windbreakers are probably the second most common material you’ll see in windbreaker production. Where nylon is significantly lighter, polyester has a bit of weight to it that makes it more effective at keeping warmth around your core. It doesn’t pack up in the same way nylon does but offers better water resistance and insulative properties. These are the more common windbreakers you’ll see used by lots of athletes: an early morning summer training session may require a little bit of warmth as you sweat, so the polyester garment emerges as a solid contender. Equally, in colder months, it can serve as a decent base layer underneath some fleece and a shell jacket, acting as the last defence against wind that may permeate the rest of the layers. Also, because of how it’s weighted, polyester windbreakers are slightly more water-resistant in quick exposure. Water can still make it through the weaves of the garment, but it dries a bit quicker than nylon and the thickness makes wetting out slightly less likely. This is a great summer windbreaker.
- Tricot is a really neat warp-weave fabric that is used often in outerwear. It is dense, quite heavy, and soft. It is also naturally quite sturdy and when paired with nylon and polyester spandex blends it becomes quite breathable and water resistant. This sort of material is really comfortable in a garment and you’ll often see it in use for spring/fall athletic layers: it can be a bit warm to use on a hot summer day. It should be mentioned that this style of windbreaker is likely not as water-resistant as nylon or polyester, it can be absorbent after being exposed to rain for prolonged periods of time. Given the weight and density, it is thus a little slower to dry than the former garments.
- The shell jacket is the outer layer of a full fit. Its main function is to protect the insulating layers found below, often made of fleece or cotton to keep heat near the core. These insulating layers can be susceptible to wetting out if exposed to water for long periods of time and also are susceptible to wind, risking dropping the core temperature you’re trying to maintain. A properly-made shell thus has the prime function of protecting the layers underneath from anything that may impede their ability to regulate your temperature. As such, almost all shells are water-resistant to the same degree as nylon or polyester and are all wind-resistant. They have the cut and fit similar to the rain shell, built baggier in order to comfortably house different layers underneath. These are useful in colder months where you want to avoid the biting wind while bundled up with warm garments underneath, but equally well-suited for the summer with no layers underneath.
- As the next step from the windbreaker shells, the evolution would be the waterproof windbreaker – also known as a technical shell or rain shell. This garment will be built out of a synthetic material that can easily bond to the DWR coating that is applied to it, which will give it a high level of water resistance. The garment, often made of polyester, is already inherently wind resistant and makes it a really solid option as your ‘emergency’ coat. If you’re a hiker or wanting to take your jacket into the outdoors as a backup if it starts dumping, get a waterproof shell. Furthermore, these types of jackets require care on a level most other coats don’t: the DWR coating can wear off after use and thus has to be reapplied by the owner of the coat after periods of heavy wear. These are heavily technical garments that are built to be breathable in athletic situations and to protect the layers that may be put underneath. This is the bridge between the rain jacket and the windbreaker (leaning toward rain jacket) with the breathability and lightness of an athletic garment. If you have the dough, take a look at some Arc’teryx shells for a hefty – but worth it – investment into your next everyday shell. This is a great summer windbreaker.
- While this list is by no means exhaustive, the last of the different types of windbreakers we’ll look at is the insulated windbreaker. This type of jacket often has insulation sown into the garment: this can look like a fleece layer on the inside of the coat or perhaps a thin layer of synthetic down. This style of windbreaker is great for fall and spring months as it provides quick and accessible protection against the elements. The outside is often made of a polyester blend that will easily deflect wind and provides a small level of water-resistance. These jackets can have a bit of a downside however, as if they are exposed to water for long periods of time the insulated layers underneath will also get wet, which can be annoying if you’re caught outside for a while with nowhere to go. This style of garment can even extend to many kinds of winter jackets with built-in insulating properties.
History of the windbreaker
It’s funny to try and imagine the windbreaker as having some sort of statically-defined origin point, like if the invention of polyester and nylon heralded the first moments of humans being able to finally avoid the cold wind when they needed to. In all reality, the word windbreaker is only a term that came much later than humans wearing garments that offered wind resistance. The word windbreaker would become an excellent catch-all term for the many kinds of coats and outerwear layers that offered protection to people from the effects of the wind.
If we look far, far back, the first windbreakers were made by indigenous societies, especially those that lived in the far northern reaches of our planet. The parka is thus an important garment to identify, as its original construction by the Inuit people made it an amazing windbreaker and insulative piece of outerwear that protected its wearer from the harsh and cold winds of the Arctic. These original parkas were made of natural materials that were sourced after hunts: the indigenous peoples of this area found ways to use all the parts of the animal they had hunted, and the pelts of seals and caribou, once tanned and cured, were amazing at elemental resistance. By putting the fur/hair on the inside of the garment and the cartilage/skin layers on the outside, the Inuit people made a garment that provided insulation as readily as water and wind resistance. These coats were not breathable and that was especially useful in the frigid temperatures far up north, trapping heat inside the garment and keeping the wearer toasty in some of the harshest conditions we find on earth.
Explorers and colonial forces would come to see the massive benefit of these garments and adapted the tools for themselves, especially in the 19th and 20th century of polar exploration. The work of the Inuit people would set the stage for weather resistant clothing into the future. The Second World War was another watershed moment for creating lighter garments of different, synthetic materials that drew on the same principles as the parka. We would see the first use of the term ‘windbreaker’ through the jackets of the John Rissman Company, who used the material gabardine as a basis for their line of ‘Windbreaker’ jackets, released around the 1940s. This is the first commercial use of the term, which became the standard thereafter. While the concept originates with the indigenous of earth’s cold regions, the term originates with Rissman, initially a word to describe a specific line of coats but later becoming adapted to a far broader and generalized class of jackets that could be sold and marketed for their wind-resistance.
The functionality of these garments began to be paired with their relation to fashion. By the 1970s, nylon and polyester windbreakers were becoming increasingly prevalent among men and women, seen as a utilitarian piece of outerwear that would look good with your outfit but importantly protect what was underneath. Waterproof coatings would become more popular as time went on and today, many windbreakers exist on the market at varying levels of weight, water resistance, and breathability.
When to wear the windbreaker in summer?
Now we have some definitional understanding and a historical timeline for these lovely garments, lets chat a little bit about the appropriate contexts to wear your next windbreaker. Again, with the different kinds of windbreakers you now know about, the time and place becomes a lot easier to identify. We’ll focus on what kinds of windbreakers work well in the summer months and in what moments.
For sports and summer athletics, the windbreaker is a must-have. Many modern high-end windbreakers are marketed specifically for running or training, offering lots of breathability as much as they do wind resistance. Impermeability is relative for these coats, and you can find lots of good selection in water resistant and non-resistant garments. The main thing you need to think about when buying a windbreaker for athletics is the kind of athletics you’re doing and when you’ll really be using the garment. A big thing to remember would be that the point of the wind resistance in this context is to not lower your body temperature too much because your sweat hit by the wind can serve to really chill you on a morning run. For sports like biking – where you’re getting hit with wind constantly – this is a necessity piece, especially if you like biking long distances and might get caught in the rain out of nowhere. Equally, you don’t want something too heavy: light and breathable is the way to go as you’ll be doing exercise with it on and want to not get too hot. As such, I’d be inclined to recommend single-layer nylon windbreakers as well as a few kinds of polyester choices. You may not want to wear this on a summer evening where it gets a little chillier as it won’t really offer any insulation.
For a more casual look that retains a utilitarian side in case you get caught in the elements, there is a really wide range of coats to pick. For the summer windbreaker, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to pair this with a fit: if you’re going out to a bar on a warm evening, this layered approach to your outfit will work really well as long as you get something light enough – don’t want to be sweating profusely in a packed place. For a casual athleisure look on a warm day, the lightweight nylon and polyester choices will shine, giving texture and layers to your look while not warming you up too much. For a bit of a chillier casual summer evening, you can start thinking about the tricot-style windbreakers or even something with a small level of insulation inside: this can make sure that your temp stays regulated, that the wind doesn’t bum out your evening, and that you stay looking good (nothing worse than wearing a t-shirt around all day in the summer, getting to the evening chill and being too cold).
The windbreaker looks good with most summer fashion staples and retains the sporty feel to it that feels good in a practical sense just as much as it does in a stylish sense. Pairing your windbreaker with some sneakers, shorts, and a ball cap is a classic look that can be dismantled and reassembled easily – it evokes a versatility grounded in athleisure that is as comfortable as it is utilitarian. Given that many are lightweight and easily packable, the windbreaker is a perfect garment to stuff into your day bag, taking up way less space than a sweater and still providing protection in weather you weren’t expecting. Furthermore, the waterproof and water-resistant windbreakers have widespread use in the great outdoors, becoming an important part of your hiking layering system.
Brands and styles to look out for
Now that we’re windbreaker experts, lets do a few snap takes on some different windbreakers available online and how well they may fare in the summer environment.
This is a windbreaker by Columbia made of 100% nylon. This is likely among the most ideal windbreaker purchase you could make (0r something in this vein) because it has so much versatility to it, especially in the summer. It is light and packable, with a baggier silhouette and hood that makes it well-suited for athletic activities, layering, and rain protection. My vote on the summer windbreaker is something like this, which can keep you regulated and comfy in the summer months with minimal weight and thickness. Lovely!
Here’s a really cool Adidas windbreaker in 100% polyester. Immediately we notice a few differences from the Columbia one from earlier – it looks a bit heavier and less packable, but has a much more athletic silhouette and is probably more breathable. This is the summer windbreaker to use for those early morning jogs, evenings in the park, or damp days where you need to head out. This one is built to not have layers underneath and is in fact probably better suited to being a part of a layer system underneath a shell or warm article of clothing.
Now we have something different from the last two, a demonstration of the ability to take the windbreaker concept and apply it directly to popular fashion trends, separated from purely athletic builds. This is a neat windbreaker with a bomber cut, made of 100% polyester. I think this is a really great summer piece, especially given the ability to dress it up a little. The bomber jacket is an iconic cut and looks really good with a t-shirt (as we see here) but equally good layered with a button up or even light sweater. This is a windbreaker you can wear on a night out or a date: it shows your date you care about looking good but are also ready to weather the elements at any point. Who wouldn’t find that sort of situational awareness attractive?
The summer is a perfect time to use this type of coat given its lightweight construction and general ability to handle inclement weather and temperature changes with ease. Now that we’ve played around with a few windbreakers it’s time for you, dear reader, to venture alone into the vast world of wind-resistant garments. Like baby birds leaving our nylon and polyester nest, it’s time for you to spread those wings in search of weather-resistance on your own. I’ll be sad to see you go, but I promise my core will stay at a regulated temperature and in a semi-dry state.
Breaking (the) wind, this is Graham. Thanks for reading.