Cold Snap: reflections on winter and its clothes

So we’re having a cold snap. According to the news, we are all in a dire situation. The city has declared an extreme cold weather alert as well it should. More beds have been made available to the homeless. I hope the guy I saw crossing Queen’s Park, wearing two t-shirts, got one of them. I felt like jumping out of the car and taking him somewhere to buy a jacket. Maybe he had one in that pack he was carrying on his back, but I doubt it. It looked more like a sleeping bag. So I’m not against cold weather alerts. I’m against hysteria. I’m against it mainly because I am susceptible to it.

In actual fact, it isn’t that cold in Toronto, not compared to North Bay, for example, where it is -22C/-5F going down to -27C/-17F that’s -40/-40F when the windchill is factored in. Here it is only -11C/-9F with a windchill of about -17C/0F. True the snow sounds crunchy and most of us move snappishly out of doors. Still construction and road repair goes on, although I notice that they are rotating the sign guys faster than usual. Even those hardy souls need to get warm after an hour or so.

But now that we have 24 hour news, every weather event gets hyped out of all proportion. It’s hard to say whether it actually rains harder or we just think it does because of the news. Gone are the days of my childhood when a hurricane could sneak up on us. All to the good of course, but …

Today when I checked my local 24 hour news channel for the weather, I was told how to dress – my warmest coat, hat, gloves, scarf. Makes you wonder who they think they are talking to. Maybe the teenagers who won’t listen to mom.

There have always seemed to be those who can’t bear to wear a hat. They probably started out life as toddlers who tore their hats off and threw them down as soon as possible. Some of them, paradoxically, grew up to be teenagers who got their wool toques confiscated in class because they refused to take them off.

In general, I observe, that people dress more warmly these days. probably because they can. Long ago, long before you can remember, the warmest fabric you could buy was wool. Well, of course there was fur but since you couldn’t afford it, it might as well not have existed. Even the cheapest fur, euphemistically called Persian lamb, was out of the question. It was actually just a dolled up, reverse version of my grandfather’s barn coat, a sheepskin with the sheep’s wool turned in and the hide itself out. When you bought a coat in those days the most you could hope for was a chamey in the back, between the lining and the wool, to cut the wind. That is chamois, which my dictionary tells me is soft, pliable leather from sheep, goats or deer. You had to turn the coat upside down and fish around inside the lining to make sure it was there. Such a wool coat, a kerchief and galoshes over shoes did not provide much protection from fierce cold and snow.

As a child, I had worn rubber boots in the winter which, despite thick hand-knitted socks, were fearfully cold, but they wouldn’t do for a young lady on her way to Central High. One of my early purchases from my first job at 15 was a pair of snow boots.

It was children’s wear that saw the first widely produced quilted fabric. My children’s snow suits were padded with cotton and they had hoods. Still the only adult wear of that sort were snowmobile suits, one of which I acquired at the earliest opportunity even though I rode on a snowmobile only once. I still had it nearly 20 years later when I moved to a country town in the snow belt. I wore it on my long drive to work on bad days. I am happy to say that I never did need it, never having found myself stranded on a deserted road.

Then down-filled ski jackets came onto the market, but they had a very sporty look and women especially stayed with the more decorous dressy wool coat. I found a long down-filled coat in an outdoor outfitter store, which filled me with joy. It would take courage to show up at work wearing this big puffy garment but I was up to it. As I approached the women’s cloak room the first day I wore it, I met the teacher down the hall. She was wearing the exact same coat.

Now, there are sleeker, lighter, longer coats with “fur” trimmed hoods that extend beyond the face to shield it from the wind. They have zippers and snaps. Even the pockets zip. And many women are wearing them. Suddenly, being warm seems to trump looking dressed up. Not that such coats aren’t elegant in their own way. And washable to boot.

Then there are the fur-lined aviator caps with ear flaps and ties under the chin. The fur, like the coat fur, is fake or sheepskin. For a few years, I was the only one wearing such a hat, but this year, I see them everywhere. Like the coats, they are made in China, where such hats and quilted garments are nothing new.

When I hurriedly left for Los Angeles last month, I wore such a coat, not having time to consider the question. To my credit, I left the aviator cap at home and grabbed a red wool tam instead. I needn’t have worried about looking out of place. Southern California has mountains after all and down coats don’t merit a second look.

It occurs to me that somewhere people are collecting that down the way my grandmother used to collect the feathers from the barnyard chickens she plucked, hoarding it away to be stuffed into ticks to make feather beds.

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2 thoughts on “Cold Snap: reflections on winter and its clothes

  1. I am a ‘hat thrower’ from way back and still prefer to wind a wool scarf around my ears than don the dreaded chapeau. This year I wore my first full length, down-filled, puffy coat…..it was like having another human being draped upon my body…..which would be fine if I needed to perfect my fireman’s carry!

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