From Climbing to Catwalks: The Complete History of Carabiners

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Throughout their history, carabiners have played a reliable role in safety and security, but do you know their origin story? From Napoleonic battlefields to the snowy slopes of the Alps, these humble “D”- or oval-shaped pieces of metal are all about increasing mobility in the face of danger. But they have also been pivotal to the unfolding story of style. Rooted in blue collar aesthetics, the carabiner is an enduring symbol of lesbian culture and, since World War II, has been a secret signal for those in the know. With or without its baked-in functionality, these metal hooks are a crucial part of fashion’s visual vocabulary. To celebrate the simple yet endlessly adaptable icon, we trace the tale of the carabiner from climbing to catwalks.

Originals (1800s)

From the beginning, carabiners existed to facilitate mobility and safety. The first-known carabiners were put to the test by lightly armored cavalrymen known as carabineers. They needed quick access to their lightweight short-barrelled firearms — called “carbines” (or carabine, in French) — while riding on horseback. The guns were equipped with a simple strap, attached via small oval-shaped metal hooks or karabinerhaken (German for “carbine hook”) with spring closures — a predecessor to the mountaineering keychains we now know and love today.

Early Development (1910s)

There is evidence of carabiners being used as temporary points of attachment in the late 19th century in Saxon Switzerland, and these might have been strong carabiners adopted from the mining industry. Many say that the transition from firearms to climbing was instigated, or at least popularized, by “Rambo,” who was one of the first to use carabiners to swing across cliff walls while suspended from a rope. Not the red bandana Rambo of 1980s Hollywood, but German climber and inventor Otto Herzog (1888–1964), who claimed the nickname first (it’s a shortened version of the German term ramponieren, which means “to batter”). Before they had carabiners, climbers secured themselves by untying and tying slings around a rope. They used a piton (a steel metal spike) hammered into cracks or seams as they ascended. Rambo’s carabiners were the weak pear-shaped clips readily available at local shops, which could only hold body weight (the stronger specialized carabiners used by firefighters and miners were too heavy and expensive to be adopted by most climbers). Together with Herzog’s friend and fellow climber Hans Fiechtl, who developed better pitons with an offset eye, carabiners were further refined over the next decade, and these men continue to be lionized as pioneers of modern rock climbing and alpine safety technology.

Shapeshifter (1940s)

Building on enhancements to the basic concept proposed by Herzog and Fiechtl, carabiners evolved significantly in the 1940s. This was in large part thanks to legendary Italian climbers Riccardo Cassin and Felice Bonaiti, who invented the D-shape grab that remains the most recognizable type today. The benefit to this asymmetrical shape is that the majority of the load is transferred onto the spine, which is the carabiner’s strongest axis. At around the same time, lighter aluminum and alloy versions were created by French alpinist Pierre Allain (or American Raffi Bedayn, depending whom you ask) using material borrowed from the aerospace industry that replaced the heavy steel snap links. Since these early innovations, the style and shape of the carabiner stayed true.

Improver (1968)

In the late 1950s, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard began making D-shaped carabiners and pitons using a second-hand coal-fired forge, and started selling his equipment from the back of his car — in between surfing and climbing. This American rock climber updated the original carabiner design in 1968 to reduce weight, produce smoother corners, and increase the carrying strength to nearly 5,000 pounds, making them as strong as carabiners are today. The success he had with this nifty piece of kit led Chouinard to start his own climbing equipment business — Chouinard Equipment — which later became the climbing, skiing, and mounting sport company Black Diamond.

Queer Code (1970s)

Queerness has historically been encoded in clothes and accessories: secret signals when discreteness was crucial. Alongside symbols such as the green carnation worn by Oscar Wilde, the hanky, and the thumb ring, carabiners have been enfolded into queer semiotics, as well. They remain a sartorial symbol of lesbian culture that took hold during WW2, as women entered the labor force in roles traditionally occupied by men. Carabiners served women in the blue collar workforce as a multifunctional tool, and over time, they came to symbolize lesbian identity. The working class associations of carabiners in this context flourished in the 1970s among feminists who dressed to subvert the male gaze. The carabiner later played a small but important part in American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home, about the relationship between a father and daughter, both of whom are gay.

Stylist (1996)

Tom Ford didn’t quite feature carabiners in his Fall/Winter 1996 Gucci show, but a simple white floor-length, long-sleeved dress appeared with a metal buckle suspended across a hip cut-out that clearly mimicked them. High fashion has always been fascinated with juxtapositions, and hardware has been used on softer clothing since ancient times. In many ways, this dress references moments like Elsa Peretti’s equestrian belt buckle for Halston (which was the inspiration behind Ford’s collection) or the way in which Michael Kors used oversized silver carabiners for his Spring/Summer 2023 runway (also referencing Halston). Function, by this point, is irrelevant. It is the optics that count. And speaking of optics, that Gucci dress was granted another lease of life last year when Bella Hadid resurrected it for the premiere of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker in Cannes.

Costume Sport (2006)

While designers who cater predominantly to the menswear market have always borrowed from the arenas of sport, work, and performance, it was not until White Mountaineering was founded in 2006 that the performance demands of the outdoors industry and the aesthetic considerations of fashion fused. What distinguishes labels like White Mountaineering from standard performance-wear brands is that it is predominantly sold in fashionable stores and more often seen on the streets than the slopes: a sports costume rather than a costume for sports. Carabiners are perhaps the foremost indicator of mountain cosplay — a prop whose affinity is always to the sport.

Novelty Acts (2015–2018)

There was a brief moment in the 2000s when it was fashionable to accessorize handbags with trinkets, tassels, and other sorts of dangly things. These were the accessories to your accessory. In contrast, during the second part of the 2010s, it was trousers that became the donkey on which to pin your key chains, novelty carabiners, and other hardware, as seen jangling on menswear runways dreamed up by the likes of Cottweiler, Louis Vuitton, and Heron Preston. This style’s roots are in ’90s youth culture, when it was customary for every skater, hardcore punk, and, later, emo kid to connect their wallet or a set of keys to their belt loop (a look that itself owes everything to work gear and the DIY spirit). But while carabiners have meant function over style for most, this was the moment when big name designers began to play with shape, color, and decoration. Japanese jewelry brand IVXLCDM, for example, created an 18-karat gold climbing hook, priced at a modest $18,000. Wearing Billionaire Boys Club, Pharrell Williams, on the other hand, accessorized his ’fit with a crystal yellow carabiner and BAPE fishing lures at the 2015 BET Awards. More recent novelty design innovations include the late Vivienne Westwood’s penis-shaped carabiners.

Fashion in Suspension (2023)

London-based fashion design duo Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena — known for mixing Bulgarian folklore references with sports resulting in perfect Y2K style — were breakout stars in 2022. The brand’s most sought-after and recognizable product is a pleated skirt suspended from a leather waistband with rows and rows of small carabiners. Everyone from Dua Lipa to Ava Max has been seen wearing one. In many ways, the skirt perfectly sums up the accessory’s overall journey. On the Chopova Lowena skirt, the carabiners perform the role of suspending the fabric while allowing for the possibility of mobility. Simultaneously, they imbue the garments with the gendered codes that have built up around the hardware over time, calling out to those with the ability to decipher them. The result is a fashion moment that has earned its place in the history books of carabiners — that little metal tool on which so much else is suspended.

  • Additional Research:John Middendorf
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