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Friday, November 5, 2010

It's 59 Degrees Farenheit, So Why Am I Wearing a Fur Coat?

Up for some down? A warm (75 °F) and
humid (90%) day in late October, NYC
Actually, I tell a lie. No, not about the temperature: it is definitely 59 °F (around 15 °C), and that's in the shade. But I'm wearing an unlined polyester raincoat. It's the people around me who have on fur or — leaving politically correct considerations aside — some close equivalent: down, shearling, leather, or wool.

Temperatures on the U.S. East Coast have been averaging a good 10 °F above normal. But from the way many of my compatriots dress, you would never know this.

I wonder, are all these heavily-clad people sweating it out for the sake of fashion? Or have they actually persuaded themselves that 59 is the new 39?

As a repeat expat, or rex-pat, I'm all about acclimatizing. Upon arriving in a new place, I tune into what the natives are wearing and adjust my own dress habits accordingly.

"Grumpy and Freezy" in Prague,
courtesy Sezin Koehler
Sezin Koehler, a half-American half-Sri Lankan horror novelist who has traveled the world but now lives in Prague, understands this. In a recent post for Expat+HAREM, she wrote:
When I first arrived in Prague I was a size 7, had an acceptable C-cup and chocolate-colored skin. Three years later I’ve become a size 12 and an overbearing DD-cup with skin the color of weak tea. Aging plays only a small part.
I take Koehler's point. Finding herself under assault from Prague's sub-zero temperatures, she responded as any sensible rex-pat would: by making the necessary bodily and sartorial adjustments.

But on the East Coast of America, it may be safer to take your cues from other new arrivals (including us repatriates), not the natives. Often as not, New Yorkers are staggering around like Rip Van Winkle, bundled up against a cold that existed some twenty years ago.

So, how is it that we Americans got stuck in this time warp? (I say "we" because to some extent this post will be a self-indictment.) And what will it take to shake us out of our stupor?

First, some possible causes:

Americans are most comfortable with binary choices: good guys vs. bad guys, socialists vs. libertarians — or, as Heidi Klum might put it in her steely German accent: "One day you're in, and the next day you're out." It's hardly surprising that we should apply the same non-calibrated approach to the weather. If it's winter, we wear a coat, regardless of what the thermometer says. Life is so much simpler that way. Often it's much sweatier, too, but we have showers and deodorant for that...

The first time I went to the dentist since repatriating to the U.S., I couldn't get over how much he was at pains (pun intended) to tell me I wouldn't feel pain. If I'd been able to move my mouth, I would have said: "Are you kidding me? Since when did dental procedures become pain free?" That was an important lesson in how coddled my fellow Americans had become in my absence. I suspect that one reason so many of them can't wean ourselves off their heavy coats is that they can't stand the thought of being cold for so much as a second or two. It's everything I can do to refrain from getting up on my soapbox and preaching about mountain climbers who survived horrific cold simply by keeping their bodies moving. Oh, sorry, here I go:
Yes, the first blast of cold air hurts, but keep moving, folks, keep moving, and you'll be fine. Heavy wraps are for when you plan to be stationery for an extended period. ... Amen!

Illustration by Milo Winter,
Courtesy Project Gutenberg
America prides itself on being a new-world culture, where people can take charge of their destiny rather than giving into the Fates. That's all well and good, but attempting to rewrite Aesop's "wind and sun" fable qualifies as overreaching, in my humble opinion. That's the kind of thing I say to myself when I see my compatriots sallying forth in great big coats in 50-degree weather. What were they thinking when they decided to don that monstrosity: that they could make the climate gods conform to their sartorial whims? "Save that for when it's windy," I say under my breath, trying not to smirk upon noticing a few people lugging their coats around. That Aesop was smarter than he looked!

As Ross Douthat pointed out in his New York Times column this week, we Americans can't seem to make up our minds about global warming and whether it can really be happening to us (see #3). His observation dovetails with my theory that for some of us clinging ever more tightly to our coats is a way of clinging ever more tightly to the hope that if we ignore the issue for long enough, it will simply go away. It may even blow out to sea if we're lucky (and collide with the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, but that's another tale of woe...).

Global style hub Refinery 29 has just posted a "cheat sheet" for snapping up the perfect winter coat:
Finally, with so many strange, balmy days behind us, the deep chill of winter is in the air. Along with November's arrival comes a brand-new urge to overhaul the closet and put our coziest wardrobe staples front-and-center. And that definitely begins with a good, sturdy coat for winter.
Of course it's jabberwocky, but I fall for it every time. Why? Not because I don't want to know about climate change, nor because I abhor being cold. The truth is, I'm an old sentimentalist. More than any other item of clothing, a coat harks back to an idyllic past that existed before the earth warmed up. Ah, the good old days when summer was hot and winter was cold, and you needed two wardrobes. I am getting all warm and fuzzy inside just thinking of it! But unfortunately for the retail industry, I have already collected a closetful of coats that I rarely wear any more. I keep them just in case I'm suddenly in the mood to bask (hahaha) in my nostalgia.

And now a few ideas for some wake-up jolts:

British officer in WWI,
Courtesy Wikimedia
1) Corral British and Japanese expats to give lessons to the natives on the fine art of layering one's clothes. As is well known, no one is better prepared for capricious weather than Brits. By dressing in layers, they can weather all four seasons in a day, a not infrequent occurrence in Albion's clime. Regardless of whether you're a rumpled tweed type or a fashionista, two basic layering principles apply:
  1. A lightweight innermost layer in case the sun makes a rare appearance for long enough for you to strip down to next-to-nothing — or in some cases, nothing at all. As Andrew Welch of British Naturism puts it: “When the weather gets warm, we have a whole wardrobe of clothes to choose from. We choose to choose none.”
  2. A practical outermost layer such as a rain/trench coat, mac, or anorak — ideal for when you find yourself being stalked by a chill north wind.
Japanese, too, are fond of layering; but in their case, the tendency is to add under- (rather than over) garments, as can be seen in this illustration of underwear from the Heian era (794-1185). To this day, most Japanese don long underwear in winter. Boring, I know, but boring is where it's at in a country where most people have a long commute in overheated, overcrowded subway cars (the long johns, too, are hard at work, wicking away the sweat).

The Climate Change Elephant,
Facebook profile pic
2) Arrange a stampede by a herd of Climate Elephants. Under the aegis of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, a group of cheeky pachyderms have been popping up Down Under to remind people that climate change is the elephant in the room. Could we Americans commission them to perform the same or similar stunts stateside? Depending on how dexterous they are with their trunks, perhaps their first prank could be plucking excessively heavy coats off people's backs — a kind of Gestalt therapy.

3) Harness the power of reality TV to call attention to our proclivity for overdressing in winter. Possible titles include What Not to Wear — Quite Literally or The Emperor's Old Clothes. Contestants would be taken apart for their failure to don the appropriate garb for a climate that no longer gets as cold as it used to, and taught how to dress in layers. One or more of the judges would be from the UK or Japan. They would make surprise visits to contestants' homes on days when the temperature suddenly rises by at least ten degrees: how well are they calibrating their clothing?

4) Encourage tourism to some of the world's coldest inhabited places. Not only would we Americans find out what cold really is but we would finally have a good excuse for getting our beloved outerwear out of storage. One possible destination is the village of Listvyanka in Siberia, next to the world's deepest lake, Lake Baikal, which freezes over from late January to early May. I'm envisioning a Doctor Zhivago tour, with glamorous fur coats and hats provided as part of the package, along with the option of having your photo taken standing atop the lake next to a cardboard cut-out of Omar Sharif or Julie Christie.

Question: Have you taken any steps to cope with our markedly different weather conditions? NOTE: Practical is fine, but nutty is even better! (Nutty times call for nutty measures ...)


Kate said...

It's not the outside temperature I have trouble catering to, so much as the indoors one. Why restaurants think it's necessary to have the air conditioning turned down to 45 degrees in summer and the heating up to 85 degrees in winter I don't know. If it were the other way round, the customers would soon be complaining. As it is, on a July day the refrain is, "Friendly's for ice cream, anyone? And make sure you all take a fleece."

The heavy coats in winter...well, yes, I take your point, but temperatures can rise as much as 30 degrees between early morning and school home time. Layering clothes where children are concerned has its disadvantages, and they're all in the school's Lost and Found cupboard. It's far more difficult to lose one big coat (she said, with the fervency of one who's been there before.)

HyunSook said...

Speaking of underwear, Uniqlo’ best-selling product is Heattech underwear; the Heat Generation -- Keeps you warm, Keeps you feeling good. It became a universal under coat. When it first came out, I immediately bought a couple of the Heattech products for my parents who are living in Korea. My father, who is more sensitive to cold than my mother, said, “it works! The Japanese really know how to make things better, don’t they? ”

While Mr. Yanai should be proud of his product that keeps people worldwide warm, there is one thing that Koreans should feel good about themselves for inventing a system that has kept them warm during long and cold winters. It is the floor heating system called ondol. The traditional ondol (heated stone) was spread under a living space used for sitting, eating, and sleeping (no beds in traditional Korean homes) and heated by rice paddy straws or dried firewood. These days, the modern Korean houses and apartments have ondol floors heated by circulated hot water from water heaters, or an electrical heating.

These days, newly built Japanese houses and apartments use the ondol system, yuka danbo (Japanese), which is more effective than the heaters. Our apartment has it. It is so effective that you don’t need to turn on a heater. I have heard some Japanese saying, “yuka danbo no okage de uchi ga poka poka ni narimashita (Thanks to floor heating, our house is well heated.” I think this is a good example of benefits of exchange of ideas. We learn from each other.

Kym Hamer said...

Brits are so good at layering because they insist on fostering indoor temperatures akin to an equatorially adjacent holiday destination (I'm thinking the Caribbean here).

This may be workable when you are at home but when venturing into a) the homes of friends, b) retail outlets or c) the tube, it's not as simple as popping upstairs to don a lightweight cardy to stave off the chill or changing out of your woolies and into a t-shirt to bask in centrally heated bliss.

For my part, I feel that I have actually mastered the gentle but necessary art of layering since my move here but my old cost-and-climate-saving refrain remains...instead of turning up the heat, put a bl**dy jumper on!

Sabrina said...

Ha! After moving to the UK, I noticed that when my husband and I took a hike, he seemed to take his ENTIRE closet with him. I didn't understand why he needed two jumpers, two thin coats, one big coat...etc. I was astonished that he needed at least two pairs of shoes as well. I regret laughing because I was ALWAYS the one who was either too cold or too wet. I never had any "backup" and I wasn't prepared for the weather. On our last trip down to Cornwall, I had at least as many coats and shoes as he did. It took me some time to learn...but I got it!

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awindram said...

Not all Brits have mastered the art of layering. A night on the town in the North East of England will soon make that apparent. I remember almost as a teenager almost getting beat up by some guys for the sin of wearing a coat and scarf - it was December.

Stacy said...

I wouldn't be surprised if sometime in April you're tempted to write a post on how it's not that warm, and what's with all the flesh showing when it's 59 degrees out? As I recall from when I lived in That Part of the world, dressing in denial is one of the grandest northeastern traditions. If by November the weather isn't autumnal, then gosh darn it, it should be.

Joy said...

Overdressing eh? In the UK there is a strong trend to serious underdressing amongst the under 25's. In the midst of last winter (the coldest in 30 years) it was a scarily common sight to see young blokes out 'on the town' wearing t-shirts (no jackets or jumpers) and young women in sleeveless dresses that barely covered their 'personal property' sliding through the snow in open toe sandals.

I have just decided that I am going to buy a stash of survival blankets and launch a "Warm a young 'un" campaign in which old fogies like me wander around town centres and force these underdressed youths to warm up. Perhaps we should also force feed them hot soup...

ML Awanohara said...

Sorry for my long silence, but I had to make a sudden trip to London. I hadn't been to the city for something like three years. I'm happy to report that my theory about dressing in layers still applies. One day in particular stands out, which started off cool and rainy (wore a lightweight windbreaker jacket, a couple of layers beneath), proceeded to be blustery as we walked along the South Bank (complimented myself on having the foresight to wear a lightweight scarf and a jacket with a hood), and then brightened up while still drizzling as we reached Tate Modern (could shed the jacket for a short while).

I kept looking for a rainbow, but no such luck...

By the time we reached the top floor of the museum for a much-needed cup of tea and a scone, the sky was extremely dramatic--dark blue clouds with the sun just breaking though--which made the million-pound view of the River Thames, the City of London, and St. Paul's even more breathtaking.

That said, I'm willing to concede I may be out of touch with the younger generation, as @Joy has mentioned and @Anthony has alluded to. Young people everywhere have a yen for impractical clothing.

But maybe in this era, they have it right? After all, they didn't ask for this weather-crazy world they've inherited, so why not throw care to the winds (as it were) and don a revealing get-up? As mentioned above, nutty could well be what's called for.

ML Awanohara said...

@Kate and @Kym: I'm already dreading spending the winter in an overheated Manhattan apartment, where I have to go around wearing next to nothing, opening windows, and running a humidifier for most of the winter. There are probably about two days (at most a week) where this level of heat is justified.

For me this habit of overheating the indoors is another reason to dispense with heavy coats unless I expect to be outside for a considerable period. There's nothing worse than being overdressed in an overheated building.

As @Kym says, I'd much prefer to put on a bl**dy jumper (sweater) than be subjected to tropical heat.

I really think it has to do with how coddled Americans are (see my second point above). Because whenever I complain to the building authorities, they say that other people complain of feeling too cold(!).

@Kym, I'm actually a little surprised to hear that Brits have gone this way, too. I remember one particular occasion years ago when I'd been invited to stay with friends in Northern England. It was a bitterly cold night, and I had to wear a woolly hat and gloves to bed because they weren't using any heating.

So is this part of Britain's Americanization process? (Say it ain't so!)

Kym Hamer said...

ML, maybe it's a London thing???

Sezin Koehler said...

Greetings and apologies for taking so long to comment here! May I use our sub-zero temperatures and resultant Seasonal Affectation Disorder as my excuse? ;-)

Many thanks, ML, for linking back to my expat+HAREM piece! I can see how this strange cold-weather behaviour could be frustrating, but who knows, maybe those coat-laden individuals are like me and simply cannot tolerate when the weather drops even to 20C (70ishF). That temperature is literally how "low" it gets in many of the places I grew up and lived, so when the numbers start going closer to and past zero life becomes unbearable.

Last winter in Prague was brutal: We had -30C in the middle of the day. This year I decided to try and toughen myself up by waiting for the last possible moment to don the thermal underwear. The only result was that I've had a cold for what feels like a month. Oh wait, it has been a month. Sheeeeeesh.

If one isn't accustomed to these low temperatures then I'm not sure if it's really possible to get used to them, layers or not aside. Each winter here gets harder and harder, as do my growingly fervent prayers to find a new place to settle or *gulp* move back to America. At this point, even all that Palin-inspired madness would be worthwhile so long as the city was warm all year 'round.

Thanks again for featuring my piece in this fascinating post!


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