Guide to Performance Clothing: All-Day Comfort Meets Active Adventures
Maybe you’re tired of being uncomfortable while fishing or golfing on hot or cold days. Or, you’ve seen clothing labeled “performance” and wondered, “What makes that better than what I already have?” Either way, understanding what performance shirts, pants, and shorts are, exactly, can be difficult — especially when, at first glance, they look like normal clothes. We assembled this guide to help you better navigate what makes performance clothing better than traditional garments and how it compares to fabrics like cotton.
Performance clothing has reached the point where it’s grown beyond outdoor sports and entered the zeitgeist of modern, casual apparel. Sure, it’s nice when your long sleeves dry a few minutes after you release a trophy fish, or you know you can wet wade in the same pants you plan to wear to dinner with your SO later. But performance clothing is about more than just the conveniences; it’s about all-day comfort and protection from the elements.
What Are Performance Shirts & Pants?
If you’ve worn a specialized fishing shirt in the past decade or so, then you’ve likely worn performance clothing. Performance shirts and pants are garments designed to wick moisture, block UV rays, resist abrasions, and stretch for easy movement while looking like casual or corporate casual attire. You’ll often see a lot of crossover between the materials used in athletic apparel and performance clothing. But while athletic apparel most often consists of T-shirts, shorts, sweatshirts, and sweatpants (either baggy or form-fitting), performance fabrics deployed to create button-down shirts, polos, and chinos result in clothing that stretches like athletic apparel but looks like something you could wear to a casual oﬃce.
Note: Designers of dress shirts and pants also like to use the label “performance” to describe garments, and those should not be confused with performance activewear. These garments are usually simply wrinkle-free and would be a nightmare to wear fishing, golfing, or anywhere that’s not a stuffy office or dressy event.
What Is Performance Fabric?
The key to performance shirts and pants is the fabric, but the clothing designs are indiscernible from standard casual apparel. Performance fabric most commonly consists of synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, or Spandex; or natural materials with quick-drying and wicking properties like wool. Though some performance fabrics consist of a blend of synthetic fibers and cotton, the performance properties (like wicking, drying, and UV protection) are significantly reduced as the cotton percentage increases in a garment.
Another important property in the best performance fabrics (though not all performance apparel offers it) is stretch. Spandex is used in premium performance clothing to allow ease of movement when you’re active. If you’ve ever worn a garment that’s labeled as “performance” but doesn’t include any form of stretch in the fabric, you can testify to how unpleasant an experience it was. Unlike cotton, most synthetic weaves don’t have natural stretch properties, so if Spandex or another stretchy fiber isn’t included in the weave, they are noticeably restricting.
Cotton Shirts vs. Performance Shirts
While cotton shirts are better for everyday wear, performance shirts are more versatile, since they can double as activewear and officewear. Both cotton and performance shirts will keep you cool in most environments, but once you introduce moisture and UV rays, performance clothing far out-performs cotton. The synthetic fibers in performance shirts wick moisture away from the skin, allowing you to feel cooler when it’s warm outside, and warmer when it’s cold. Cotton may allow some sweat to evaporate away from the skin, but if you’ve ever worn cotton during a workout, you know how long it can take to dry (long enough that you’ll probably change shirts before the sweaty one can dry). A wet cotton shirt may not be terrible on a hot day, but it can be downright dangerous on a cold day. So dangerous, in fact, that you’ll often hear the phrase “cotton kills” in outdoor sports circles, suggesting that a wet cotton garment will lead to hypothermia in cold weather.
“But I live in the desert and don’t have to worry about moisture,” you might think. Well, the tighter weave of the synthetic fibers in performance shirts block more UV rays than the open weave of cotton, making most performance shirts UPF sun shirts.
Because performance shirts and pants are so versatile, functional, and comfortable, their popularity has grown in scenarios far beyond active outdoor pursuits. Many people may just be discovering the fabrics that have become a staple in the closets of anglers, golfers, hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and others who demand clothing that provides maximum comfort in all elements, and dynamic style. If you haven’t added an outfit with a performance top and bottom to your wardrobe yet, we can’t recommend it enough. Start with something you’ll wear every day, like a performance polo and performance shorts — once you try performance clothing, we think you’ll love it.