Rachel Gross, scholar of outdoor gear, goes back to nature, via the mall

U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps gear research.

“Why do Americans go shopping on their way to the wilderness?” asked historian Rachel Gross.

That they do is an article of faith today. Every list of what a camper, hiker or hunter needs implies that preparation for the outdoors is in great part a matter of buying the right things. Gross, now a postdoctoral fellow at UM’s Davidson Honors College, has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, and her work explains how that came to be. Last Wednesday she presented an introduction to her work before an audience invited by the entrepreneurial incubator Blackstone LaunchPad.

Gross’ talk about the forces that shaped the vast American gear economy focused in part on how “brands shaped Americans’ material experience of the outdoors.” Many of those brands are iconic names whose images have shifted greatly over the last century, like Abercrombie & Fitch. A&F’s early 20th century retail flagship, with its taxidermy and indoor tents, was predecessor to today’s REI and Cabela’s stores.

Gross also detailed the mutually self-sustaining influence of the outdoor gear industry and the military. During WWII, outdoorsmen like Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean advised in the development of cold-weather uniforms. Later, military apparel would influence developments in outdoor clothing. And Gore-Tex’s miracle fabric, born of Teflon, was a catalyst for clothing as technology.

For obvious reasons—who here doesn’t have strong opinions about outdoor apparel and gear, and a desire to deconstruct consumerism?—Missoula is well tailored to Gross’ interests and work. As she develops her dissertation, “From Buckskin to Gore-Tex: Consumption as a Path to Mastery in Twentieth-Century American Wilderness Recreation,” into a book manuscript, Gross will be working locally with Davidson students to find vintage outdoor gear and clothing in preparation for an exhibit at Fort Missoula next year.

They’ll be doing a smaller pop-up museum before the end of the year aimed at raising community awareness of the opportunity to participate, and at eliciting contributions. “I’d be delighted to get the word out to residents who might be interested in seeing their old surplus packs or wooden skis on display in an exhibit,” Gross wrote in an email.

If you have anything interesting in your basement or garage, Gross would like to hear about it. She can be reached via email at rachel.gross@umontana.edu.

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