The Story of the Mallory Jacket
It’d probably be stating the obvious to say that Nigel Cabourn puts a lot of thought into his designs. From the shape and the cut to the weight of the fabrics and the angle of the pockets, each detail is carefully considered to help bring his original idea to life, all the while doing justice to the story that inspired it.
For the first in a series of articles telling the stories behind some of Nigel’s most enduring designs, we looked at the Mallory Jacket—a hard-wearing sports jacket that’s been a mainstay of the Nigel Cabourn Authentic range since 2003.
Like the Everest Parka and the Cameraman Jacket, the Mallory first appeared as part of Nigel’s ‘Ascent of Cabourn’. For those unaware, this was a small range made up of 12 designs inspired by Edmund Hillary’s 1953 expedition to the summit of Mount Everest, created to mark the 50th anniversary of the bold trek. The jacket which became the Mallory was inspired by a grainy black and white photograph of a sherpa which was taken during the expedition.
A million miles from the technical outdoor outerwear of today, this jacket was typical of the rugged, hard-wearing clothing worn by mountaineers in the days before synthetic fabrics, and provided the spark for Nigel to create one of his most famous pieces.
As you’d expect from a small, hand-printed photo from the 1950s, the picture doesn’t exactly give much away, but it does clearly show a sherpa looking towards the camera, wearing an ear-flapped hat and a tweed jacket, complete with reinforced panels on the shoulders and the elbows. The patch on the shoulders would have been added to help the jacket stand up to the abuse given when carting heavy climbing gear around, and unlike a traditional shooting jacket, it carried on down the top of the sleeves.
The initial design for what eventually became the Mallory started out with four military-style patch pockets and Kevlar was used for the shoulder and elbow patches. It was originally known as the Sherpa Jacket, and then the Tenzing Jacket (after Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who reached the summit of Everest along with Edmund Hillary), before finally becoming the Mallory, in honour of legendary mountaineer George Mallory.
Born in Cheshire in 1886, Mallory is perhaps the archetypal explorer, and was the kind of man whose life could inspire countless adventure novels. He was athletic, he studied at Cambridge, he moved in artistic circles (and was good friends with the Bloomsbury Group), and he fought at the Battle of the Somme. Beyond all this, he was a highly-skilled climber, and by 1913 he’d already conquered what many believe was the hardest route in the UK at that time, Pillar Rock in the Lake District.
In 1921 he took part in a trip to the Himalayas to map Mount Everest, discovering the route which is now used by the majority of climbers to make the ascent. Over the next few years he played a major part in the first three British attempts at the summit—the third, in 1924, was sadly his final attempt. After setting off from Advanced Base Camp on the 4th of June, Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine were last seen on the 8th of June by sharp-eyed expedition member and geologist Noel Odell.
Whilst hunting for fossils lower down the mountain, Odell caught glimpse of two figures high up in distance. He described things slightly more eloquently in this report, “My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow crest beneath a rock step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.”
Mallory’s body was found 75 years later in 1999, with a fractured skull thought to be the cause of death. A missing photograph of his wife Ruth, which he had carried in his jacket pocket with the intention of leaving at the summit, has led to much speculation as to whether Mallory and Irvine did in fact reach the top, but so far this has never been proven.
Although it’d be nice to think that Mallory climbed boldly into the unknown wearing a tweed suit, when his body was eventually found he was actually wearing a gabardine jacket, along with layers of wool and silk. The tweed was reserved for photographs, as Nigel explained in an old interview.
“I tell everybody that he went up the Everest in a tweed jacket, but he didn’t really. What happened was that he kept a tweed jacket in his rucksack and whenever someone took a photo, he put it on as the gentleman he was.”
Trying to put all this history into one jacket is no easy task, but by combining the sherpa’s unique shoulder patch from the 1953 expedition with the tweed jackets often worn by George Mallory, the Nigel Cabourn Mallory Jacket was created. It’s not a stitch-for-stitch reproduction of one particular garment, but rather a fusion of details which come together to capture the feel of the early days of mountaineering.
The Kevlar from the initial design was replaced with tightly-woven Ventile cotton (a nod to Edmund Hillary’s Ventile parka worn on Everest’s summit), and the military-style pockets were swapped out for three sleeker flap-pockets. Over time a covert inside pocket was added, along with a button-off throat-tab so that the jacket could be fastened up to the collar in cold weather.
Nigel has long been a fan of Harris Tweed, and thanks to the relationship he’s forged with the weavers of this unique fabric over the years, he’s often managed to get special tweeds made solely for use on the Mallory Jacket. The ‘Crazy’ version of the Mallory, complete with intentionally mismatched hues of Harris Tweed was a particular standout.
This season the Mallory comes in two summer variations—one is made from lightweight pigment-dyed cotton drill as a nod to traditional work-wear fabrics, whilst the other is made out of heavyweight Irish linen. And for the first time, matching Farm Pants have also been created from the same fabrics, for those who are after a full Mallory suit. Both the jackets and the trousers are made in England to the high level of craftsmanship you’d expect from the Nigel Cabourn Authentic range, and just like the pieces they’re inspired by, are built to last a lifetime.
Some 17 years after it was first created, the Mallory Jacket continues on its own singular path—it’s influenced by history, but designed for today—sharp enough for the city, and tough enough for the mountains. Where you take it is up to you.