Brrr! On Dressing for Winter

Originally published in Idler 69.

I’m conked out in a deckchair at the Five Arrows Hotel in Buckinghamshire for my sister’s wedding and soaking up the last struggling photons of the year’s sunshine, when editor Tom asks me to write a little something for the Idler about winter clothes. That’s the problem with magazines: we’re always operating a whole season ahead and we must channel the spirit of Christmas while simultaneously enjoying the last day of Hawaiian shirtdom.

Still, as someone has has lived in thrillingly cold climes, I certainly have a thing or two to say about winter clothes and I know in an instant how to dovetail the subject with the raison-d’etre of this column, which is “escape.” In this column, we usually talk about “escape to the seaside” or “how to escape social media” or “how to escape housework.” That’s the indelible paradigm here and, in the acquiring of winter clothes, there’s a broader parable about the escape artist’s special talents of resourcefulness and imagination. There is so. Now gather round:

When I lived in Montreal, Canada–a strong contender for the idler capital of the world, the year being divided into yoga season and poutine season–the winter temperature would routinely stand at -20°C, often falling to -30°C. To put this into perspective, -30°C is colder than the surface of Mars and -20°C is still colder than your freezer. You could leave a plucked chicken on the street and it would solidify sooner than your freezer could ever manage. If you packed it in snow, it would be, by outdoor standards, positively toasty.

This is to say that Montrealers take winter clothing seriously. If, for example, your bus is late and you’re forced to wait twenty minutes without adequate clothing, you could end up like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, lightning blue icicles hanging from your eyelids. I remember standing at one such bus stop, watching the powdery snow blow down from the mountain like something from Captain Scott’s diary, and thinking “there shouldn’t even be a place here.” It’s as if Jacques Cartier and his merry band of explorers arrived on the Saint Lawrence in spring, hastily staked a claim, and, by the time winter rolled in, they’d already thrown a city up and by then it was too late.

When I first arrived in Montreal, I had no job (hoorah!) and no dough (bah!) and I didn’t know quite how crazy these winters would be. When asked about my winter coat, I may have said something like, “Oh, I have a good sweater.” Fail!

Without $1,500 (~£1,000) for a “Canada Goose Arctic Project” parka that everyone else snuggly sported, I had to do something clever. Reasoning that Captain Scott (yes, he who died in the cold, but still made considerable headway into the Antarctic) didn’t have recourse to such high-tech parkas, here is what I did:

  1. I wore dollar-store thermal underwear, hiking socks, and two t-shirts for underwear;
  2. I wore my regular jeans and a thin sweater as a second layer;
  3. I wore the aforementioned “very good sweater” as a third;
  4. I wrapped a cashmere scarf around my neck and face, and sometimes, over my cranium like an old woman’s headscarf;
  5. I wore a dollar-store beanie hat and gloves;
  6. I wore sunglasses to protect my eyes from snow glare;
  7. I topped everything off with my long-serving Paddington Bear duffle coat, its Black Monk of Pontifract hood pulled up over the beanie for absolute isolation from the elements;
  8. I bought a decent pair of walking boots so that I wouldn’t slip on ice or snow. I forget the brand of my longest-serving pair, but I can also recommend Blundstones for £150;
  9. I employed Stoicism, the hardy twin of idler’s preferred Epicureanism.

I wouldn’t suggest mountaineering in this sartorial Frankestein’s monster, but there was no way I was going to apply for a jay-oh-bee just to buy a fancy parka.

I called this outlandish outfit my “spacesuit” because, as I’d prove, it would help me to survive even Martian temperatures. I didn’t look too ridiculous because the attractive duffel coat covered the improvised truth. Moreover, nobody was overly interested in my appearance because they were too busy with their own struggles to stay alive.

The other way I stayed warm was to walk. I walked almost everywhere under these insane conditions, so long as it was in a 1.5-hour radius and not an active snowstorm. As documented elsewhere, not least in former editions of this column, walking is the happiest mode of transport for idlers: it takes longer but affords leisurely thinking time and gets you out of what Will Self calls “the man-machine matrix.” It costs nothing, squanders no fuel, and–it being an easygoing form of physical exercise–it saves you from the indignity of the gym.

Striding though the snow keeps you warm. Even in these sub-sub-sub-zero temperatures, which hopefully you don’t face too often, I’d sometimes get so hot while bouncing along in the spacesuit, I’d have to remove the hood to let off steam: big mistake if you’re Neil Armstrong, perfectly fine if you’re me and you’re willing to feel the life-enhancing burn of -20°C for a while. Solvitur Ambulando: it is solved by walking.

So. I escaped the need to work for money to buy that expensive coat. I escaped the obvious commercial solution to a problem with resourcefulness and imagination. I escaped the man-machine matrix and dependence on commercial services by walking. I escaped fear with Stoicism in service of idler’s prize of Epicureanism a little later on.

This has been a first-person case study into “escape as way of life.” While this column usually focuses on a single issue such as walking to escape the costs and ecological perils of the internal combustion engine, this week, hopefully, I’ve shown how to bring multiple escape skills into cunning, life-enhancing work-dodgery. Try it yourself:

Never spend money when there are other resources at your disposal; avoid work at all costs.

And now, citizens of the future, I’ll leave you to your frostscape and I’ll get back to my last piña colada of festival season here in the good old European Union. Stay warm, my darlings.

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