In light of global warming, this autumn’s unseasonably mild weather is something of a guilty pleasure. Nonetheless, winter is bound to make at least a cameo appearance sooner or later. For many men this translates to confronting the elements in all manner of unsightly attire. But with a few basic tenets, winter can be transformed into a fashion-friendly opportunity.
Most of us have heard that the key to cold-weather dressing is layering; still many men still don’t get it right. The physics are simple enough: several lighter layers keep you warmer than one very thick one by trapping air between each, which is consequently warmed by your body, enclosing you in an insulated heat shield. However, just as a bulky parka can make you look like the Michelin Man, so can layering the wrong types of clothes make you look just as bulky and feel uncomfortable, if not immobilized. Again, layering is a potential fashion opportunity because more clothes means more possibilities for adding style to your look. With this in mind, let’s break it down.
Three Basic Layers
- The base layer lies against your skin. It provides the first layer of insulation and wicking moisture. The latter is especially important because sweat can otherwise create more heat loss.
- The insulating layer traps heat. This is where wool is especially useful for work and urban winter attire.
- The outer layer protects you from the elements, notably wind and harsh weather. Ideally, it’s breathable enough to allow moisture out, so your sweat isn’t trapped inside. (This is why many outer-layer garments are water-resistant rather than waterproof.)
An important part of dressing for warmth and layering efficiently is knowing which fabrics serve best. Cotton, while not as warm as wool, does help keep you warm. It also breathes and is absorbent, which means it lets you sweat naturally without soaking you. A cotton short- or long-sleeve T and/or button-down shirt makes a great base layer for most any outfit.
Wool is the warmest natural fabric choice and is a universal essential of cold-weather wear. It can absorb 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling wet. Whether it’s from sheep, lamb, goat/cashmere, vicuna, alpaca, or camel hair, wool makes for perfect additional layers over your cotton base layer. A cashmere sweater is a wardrobe essential for adding a layer of winter warmth. It can easily go under a suit or jacket without adding bulk, and is light enough to pack into a briefcase. Flannel-lined wool trousers are warm, cozy, and smart – just don’t get them wet!
Goose down provides a lot of heat and is very light weight, which is of greater concern for cold-weather outdoor activities, such as skiing. However, down does lose insulating effectiveness when wet. Down vests can be a great addition to sportswear, but because of their bulkiness, most don’t look good worn under dress attire. A few, however, are designed with this in mind, and can actually work, depending on the fabrics and colors of the jacket worn over it.
“Fleece” is widely used to describe any artificial fleece garment. It’s lightweight and continues insulating when wet, but offers little protection from the wind unless efficiently layered. Fleece is one of the least expensive options for insulating layers. It’s fine for casual outdoor wear, but is a no-no for dress attire simply because it does not mix well with finer fabrics. (Put bluntly, it looks cheesy.)
Your bottom layer of clothing can prove most important in maintaining warmth and comfort. A simple cotton T-shirt can make a big difference under a dress shirt, while a long-sleeve thermal one can prove too warm for dress attire or indoor activities. Long johns are a good option for frigid weather. They keep your legs warm, adding a layer between your skin and pants that also protect you from wind. Underwear made of special synthetic fabrics such as Under Armour is a good alternative because it hugs the body without adding extra girth. This can be especially useful for maintaining the look of slim-tailored dress attire.
Socks are essential for keeping your feet warm, with wool and/or cashmere or being the warmest, most comfortable option. As with thermal underwear, thermal socks are great for outdoor activities, but can be too warm for indoors. Of course, you can always layer two pairs of socks as well, so long as your footwear allows enough room.
Much serious cold-weather outerwear is designed as outdoor gear, so what it lacks in style, it makes up for with insulation and protection. Fabrics finished with GOR-TEX or similar materials are popular for these reasons. A parka or shell in plain, dark colors can give you a lot of utility – even for everyday urban wear. Many designers are making these in more tailored styles that better suit the style-conscious man. That said, the lower the temperature plummets, the more allowances we generally make for functional-looking outerwear. High-performance sports gear makes great cold weather gear because the synthetic fibers are much lighter than wool and down. Happily, this winter’s men’s collections show much more mixing together of sports-designed gear and classic dress attire. This is preferably done in simply coordinated colors, such as dark blues and blacks, thus keeping the different fabrics from clashing too much.
The Final Mix
Now that you’ve got the basics, try experimenting with different ways of layering your wardrobe, seeing which combinations provide the most warmth and least bulk, and making sure you have full range of motion under your layers. Keep your base layer as closely fitted as possible, and add insulating layers in sequence from thinnest and tightest to thickest and loosest. Make sure you choose an overcoat that works with your layers without looking squeezed into or humongous. Ideally the lines of your coat should follow the lines of your suit or jacket. Once you’ve got your basic layers down, accessories are the final touch for warmth and style.
Hats: A great hat keeps your head warm and can really accentuate your style. Just remember that for dress attire, a baseball cap normally doesn’t cut it, nor does it provide much warmth. A knit hat, skullcap, or “touk” is a warmer, more stylish option.
Scarves: A scarf also can add a lot of warmth and style to your outfit. In fact, it’s become something of a fashion essential. With so many weaves, colors and patterns available, scarves can add considerable versatility to your wardrobe.
Gloves: also come in more styles and colors than ever, and can really punch up your look. Leather or suede with cashmere lining are still the best choice for dress attire.
Boots: While insulated, waterproof boots are great for blizzards, overall the best winter boots are soft leather with natural fiber lining and thick soles. It’s worth spending more for a great-looking, well-made pair of boots that will look as good with a suit as with jeans.
Note: Jeans themselves are poor insulators and suck when wet, so if you’re featuring them in your winter look, try wearing them over long underwear that’s either cotton or a synthetic insulating fabric. You’ll be glad when you fall on your butt on the ice-rink.
Now that you know how to dress for winter, we’ll see just what global warming permits. Otherwise, we’ll be posting tips for spring wear very soon.