The long, sunny, warm summer days are behind you, the leaves have burst into brilliant colour, fallen to the ground and been blown to the neighbour's lawn by the brisk breeze that ushers in the most bitter and blustery of seasons: winter. The shorts, T-shirts and capris have been packed away, the strappy sandals are hibernating in the bottom of the closet. The time has come for some of the more practical items of your wardrobe to make their annual appearance.
The winter chill is, of course, subjective, and while one person might not give up shorts until the first freeze, another will be wearing a jacket and have gloves close to hand before the mercury flirts with the frostier side of 50° Fahrenheit1. Wherever your personal comfort draws the line, it's important to dress appropriately for winter weather.
The key to staying comfortable and warm in the winter months, short of not going outside at all, is to dress in layers. Several light layers will better serve to keep you warm as body heat is trapped between the layers. It's also easier to maintain a comfortable body temperature when you can take off or put on one light layer at a time as you get warmer or colder.
Winter clothes can be luxuriously comfortable, from flannel-lined trousers to woolly jumpers, soft cotton turtlenecks, even softer microfleece, cashmere sweaters and down-filled jackets.
Spending the Day Out-of-Doors
Unless you plan on rolling naked in the snow, if you have to spend any measurable amount of time outside during cold weather, whether for work, to shovel the drive, walk the dog, or go sledding, it's a good idea to start layering first thing in the morning, before you even put on your trousers.
Traditionally, thermals are polyester or cotton, knit in a 'waffle-weave' pattern and can be very lightweight or quite substantial. Thermal shirts can be worn under jumpers or button-down shirts, sometimes they are even nice enough to be worn on their own. Long johns (or thermal pants), on the other hand, should always be worn under trousers.
In recent years, thermals have been made from fabrics like silk or synthetics like polypropylene. These materials are even lighter weight and specially designed to wick2 for better insulation. Cotton and cotton blends should be avoided because they do not transfer moisture well, and once you begin sweating your cotton layers will remain damp.
When dressing for colder weather it's best to go for several light layers as opposed to one or two heavy layers. The layers provide insulation and make it easier to cool off when you start to get too warm (as well as easier to warm up when you start to get too cold). Good choices for layers might be a turtleneck under an oxford shirt and maybe a light jumper, or a long-sleeved tee under a lightweight fleece.
For many, winter means several months of cold feet. Make sure your socks are thick enough to keep your tootsies warm; if there's enough room in your shoes you might even wear two pairs at once. Rag wool makes for very warm socks, but is also kind of itchy, so you might like to wear a thinner sock on the inside. For added warmth you can look for disposable feet warmers3 that can be worn in your shoes.
Boots aren't strictly necessary, depending on your expected exposure; for most casual occasions regular footwear will suffice. If you need boots, though, try to get a pair that are lined and waterproof, especially if you plan to be trekking through the snow.
I'll Get Me Coat
Now you need to go outside, how best to bundle up? Largely it depends on how cold it is outside and what your tolerance for cold is. Winter wear can be made of a variety of materials including wool, leather, denim, synthetics, fleece, even fur. These materials provide a wide range of protection from the elements, and satisfy most fashion-conscious shoppers. Here are a few basic items that will ward off the worst of the chill. For added protection, look for materials that are wind and water resistant.
Whether you feel you need a lined flannel jacket or a down-filled parka, a coat is essential for warmth. Coats come in endless varieties:
- Coats should be lined. The linings can be quilted, fleece, thermal, synthetic, or down.
- Length should be a consideration. A full-length coat will help keep your legs warmer, but might be inconvenient when getting in or out of a car. A short, waist-length coat won't restrict movement as much, but won't keep anything warm below your waist. Something in-between is usually a good choice, but it's down to personal preference. Keep in mind what activities you might be doing when deciding on a length.
- How do you want your coat to fasten? A zip is most popular as it's quick and usually easy to manipulate while wearing gloves. Zips, however are more prone to break, and once a zip is broken it can be difficult to repair. Snaps or poppers are also easy to fasten with gloves on, but may leave gaps in the closure allowing cold air in. Buttons are much harder to fasten with gloves on, but you can always button your coat before putting your gloves on, and buttons are the simplest to replace when one comes off. Velcro is quick to fasten and unfasten, but knit accessories can easily become snagged in the bristly bit. There are other, more fashionable closures as well, but consider their practicality against the fashion statement you want to make. Some coats can have more than one method of closure.
- To cover, or not to cover. If you have a strong dislike of hats, you might want to choose a style of coat with a hood. If you're not sure whether or not you'll use it, look for a style with a detachable hood. You can always dig it out of the closet when you need it.
Scarves can be really useful, or really useless. Many fashionable scarves look very nice hanging over your shoulders and down the front of your coat, but don't really live up to expectations when the wind picks up. Most winter scarves are between three and eight inches wide, and can be from three to seven feet long or more.
A scarf is generally worn wrapped loosely around the neck to keep the cold wind from invading the collar of your coat. If you want to wear your scarf on the inside of your coat, a short, lightweight scarf is best and won't be too bulky under the coat. More commonly, people wear a scarf over their coat, and a longer length is more versatile. A longer scarf can be worn over the head and then wrapped around the neck, eliminating the need to keep track of a hat. Longer scarves are also very fashionable in addition to being practical and, if you can't find one you like in a shop, they are incredibly easy to make4.
Also available are tube-knit scarves which are very loose-knit to make them stretchy and versatile. They can be worn like traditional scarves, or the centre can be opened to fit the scarf over the head and shoulders like a cowl or shawl.
The bane of perfectly coiffed ladies everywhere: the winter hat. Although a hat is a must for children, somehow as we age our hairstyle becomes much more important than keeping our ears from freezing off. Having a hood on your coat might be a preferred option, as the hood will fit loosely over the head but might be gathered by a drawstring or elastic around the face to keep it from blowing off.
The most common winter hat is a stocking cap, a knit or fleece hat that simply goes over the head and can be pulled down over the ears. Some varieties might have flaps that cover the ears, and children's styles may even fasten under the chin so they can't be easily pulled off.
If keeping your ears warm is your primary concern, you may opt for earmuffs. These generally cover only the ears, and are connected by a plastic coil that goes over or behind your head, holding the muffs in place by tension. Earmuffs can be worn by themselves, or with a hat for added warmth. When not in use, earmuffs usually fold up in a very compact fashion and can be easily stored in a coat pocket for handy access.
Gloves are a finishing touch, usually the last thing to pull on after you've fastened everything else. Basic knit gloves are functional and usually quite inexpensive, but can be worthless if you're outside for more than a few minutes5. Better are lined gloves, which may be knit, fleece, lycra or leather, depending on your budget and fashion requirements. Mittens are actually best for overall warmth because there is less surface area for heat to escape from, but while gloves decrease your dexterity, mittens can make it virtually impossible to do anything with your hands.
If you wear gloves while driving, you may want to find a style that has leather pads on the palms and fingers. This makes it easier to grip things, like the steering wheel or the gearshift, without them slipping from your hands and possibly causing an accident. If you find it's difficult to do anything with gloves on, you might choose convertible mittens instead - gloves with individual fingers but the tips of the fingers are missing and a mitten top covers the fingers. The mitten part can be flipped over to allow your gloveless fingertips to manipulate keys, the radio controls, or change for the toll booth.
When you are out in the rain or snow it's a good idea to carry an extra pair of gloves, so that when your first inevitably becomes wet you can replace them with a fresh, dry pair.
Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland
This obviously doesn't cover the whole gamut of available winter gear; advancements in materials and design even make it possible to run the Iditarod in relative comfort. A few simple items though will keep you toasty warm long enough to shovel a path for the postman or for a snowball fight with the kids.
Now go get a carrot and some coal, and we can build a snowman.