Reflective material exists all around us in the modern world, specifically on vehicles, traffic and warning signs, and street markers. This glass-filled, polymer-layered composition also appears in our garments, including those used in personal protective equipment and high-end fashion scenes. Reflective clothes don’t just look cool—they can save lives! But where did this stuff come from? What is the history of reflective clothing materials, and why have they remained so popular to this day?
3M and Harry Heltzer
The 3M Company is a technology development and manufacturing business (such as General Electric or DuPont) that has produced many impressive and innovative creations throughout the past century. However, 3M reflective material is the product that made this company what it is today. In 1937, Harry Heltzer, who was just a minimum wage laborer at the time, was tasked with inventing center striping for Minnesota highways that was sticky and, most importantly, highly visible in low-light conditions.
His solution was double-coated tape filled with glass beads. Finding beads small enough for the tape was challenging, so Heltzer began dropping the molten glass from his window to produce his own. Once perfected, 3M reflective material helped propel the 3M Company to a market leader and even scored an executive role at Heltzer later in his career, where he would oversee the business at its absolute zenith.
3M in PPE
Today, the 3M material you find in clothing differs from Heltzer’s 1937 invention. The reflective fabric consists of retroreflective lenses connected by a polymer layer. Its most popular use is in work garments, specifically hi-vis clothing used in industrious industries.
Items such as helmets, safety vests, shirts, boots, sweaters, and gloves are adorned with 3M fabrics to help boost visibility. Construction workers commonly wear hi-vis garments to alert drivers of their presence from far distances, keeping hundreds of thousands of employees safe each and every year.
3M in Pop-Culture
But 3M eventually became a staple in the high-end streetwear fashion scene, largely thanks to the sneaker industry. Nike included 3M reflective material on the original Air Jordan V in 1990, and it was an instant hit. Nike remains an industry leader in producing trendy garments and shoes with this shiny, flashy fabric, implementing it in other sneakers, jackets, and running gear.
However, culturally significant brands such as Off-White, Y3, and ICNY are also known for producing 3M clothing. Some businesses even make 3M lined suits and other formal wear that celebrities can use to cover their face and bodies from paparazzi photos!
The history of reflective clothing materials isn’t the strangest or wildest tale ever told, but the significance of this invention is still felt in today’s fashion culture. And most importantly, it remains one of the most effective ways to protect motorists and roadside construction workers. Thanks to the efforts of innovators like Harry Heltzer, humans consistently create simple objects that change our society forever!