The History of Bulletproof Fashion

As weapons evolved during the history of warfare, so have the ways soldiers have tried to protect themselves from injury and death. Let's look at some of the ways body armor has developed, and how becoming bulletproof can be fashionable today.

"Bulletproof" concerning body armor is actually considered a misnomer by many armor manufacturers. They prefer "bullet resistant," because the wearer is not totally safe from the impact of a bullet.

Early Protection Efforts

Early body armor was made from animal skins. With advances in technology, metal armor came into use, culminating in the full body armor suits of medieval knights. Metal armor, however, was of little use after the development of firearms. In medieval Japan, silk was used in creating soft body armor, and in the 1800s, the Japanese discovered that 30 layers of silk could stop bullets fired from the black powder firearms used at that time.

In the 1890s, a Ukrainian-born Polish immigrant, Casimir Zeglen, worked with various materials to develop a bulletproof vest. In his research, he uncovered the earlier use of silk by the Japanese, and created a four-ply woven silk vest that could stop a .44 caliber bullet at ten paces. It became a sensation when he demonstrated it in front of a live audience in New York City. He offered to make a vest for then President McKinley, but was told the President was traveling and that he could meet with him after his return. Unfortunately for McKinley, he was shot and killed by an assassin during that trip—a bullet that Zeglen's vest may have been able to stop.

One of the causes for World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. While Ferdinand did wear a Zeglen vest, he was still killed by a bullet that hit above the vest—a shot to the neck. It illustrated the point that a bulletproof garment isn't magical; if the bullet doesn't hit the material, it won't work.

The bad publicity and the fact that the U.S. military rejected Zeglen's vests as being too costly, too uncomfortable, and unable to stop bullets fired at higher velocities or greater distances, led to the failure of Zeglen's business; however, other efforts to make effective armor continued.

Kevlar

Since the first U.S. patents in the early 1900s, various attempts at body armor were made with limited success. These include the World War II development of the flak jacket, which used ballistic nylon. They were somewhat effective against fragments from explosive shells, but were bulky, movement-restricting, and generally of no use against pistols and rifles.

It wasn't until the late 1960s when the National Institute of Justice, disturbed by an alarming rise of police fatalities, began researching options for light body armor for policemen. New fibers were discovered and a standard was established for acceptable performance. Body armor took a huge leap in 1965 when a DuPont chemist, Stephanie Kwolek, while attempting to find a new, stronger, lighter material for tires, invented Kevlar.

Most soft body armor is still made from Kevlar today, but new materials are being developed that are even better. Dyneema claims to be 15 times stronger than steel, and 40% stronger than Kevlar. In Iraq and Iran, the combat armor is made of a Kevlar outer shell with inserts made from ceramic with Dyneema backing.

Soft body armor doesn't stop a bullet cold in its tracks, instead it acts like a sponge or net to absorb the bullet's momentum before it pierces the armor. With multiple layers, the bullet is also deformed, causing it to mushroom, which, in turn, spreads the bullet's energy over a wider area slowing its momentum even further.

To date, more than 3,000 police officers have had their lives saved through Kevlar body armor.

The Future in Body Armor

Recent efforts have focused on "liquid" armor, which is made of microscopic particles of silica and other larger particles mixed in polyethylene glycol. It is soaked into fabrics made of materials like Kevlar, which allows the armor to be lightweight and flexible. When a bullet or knife hits the fabric, the fluid becomes rigid, hardening the fabric. Afterwards, it resorts back to its fluid state.

Scientists in California are studying abalone to see how the structure of abalone shells can be recreated in the making of body armor, while researchers in Israel are looking into creating artificial spider silk and implementing it into garments. Other Israeli scientists are using nanotechnology to create a stronger ceramic that is twice the strength of current ceramics.

By 2019, the U.S. military plans to replace Kevlar-based armor with lightweight plastic body armor.

The Christian Dior of Body Armor

Miguel Caballero is a Colombian designer who has made lightweight, bulletproof clothing his specialty. Though there are other manufacturers of body armor that make inconspicuous and fashionable clothing, high target politicians, jewelers, and others have propelled Caballero to the top. His clients have included former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Venezuela's ex-President Hugo Chavez, Mexico's President Enrique Nieto, and ex-President of Columbia Alvarez Uribe. President Barak Obama wore a Caballero suit to his inauguration. Caballero's clothing, from suede jackets to t-shirts, have been so successful that he is expanding his business into children's clothing. A wardrobe from Caballero won't be cheap. The least expensive item in his recently opened Paris store is $3,400.

To work for Caballero's company, you need to have faith in the product. New employees have to take part in a demonstration, being shot while wearing Caballero clothing.