During a conference two weeks ago, a colleague in my graduate program asked me for advice about winter shoes. “Where did you move from, again?,” I asked. “Santa Barbara,” she said, wincing slightly, “but I got a coat, so I’m feeling less worried … ?”
While many undergraduate, graduate, and professional students—and faculty/staff—arrive here from other parts of the Midwest, my colleague is one of many recent arrivals coming from domestic and international locales that are decidedly more … tropical.
Maybe you’re in a similar boat. Are you a recent transplant to the Midwest and maybe feeling slightly clueless about winter in Iowa? Have you heard horror stories about “wind chill” and obscenely low temperatures that have you fretting about what to wear? First of all, don’t panic. The weather here is not actually that bad, but the key to surviving — and maybe even enjoying — winter in Iowa City is preparation, and you don’t have to sacrifice aesthetics for comfort and safety. As our gorgeous autumn weather gets more brisk, here are four strategies to help you brave your first Iowa winter in style.
Layers, Layers, Layers
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends wearing “three layers of loose-fitting clothing” when outside for long periods of time: a thermal inner layer of “wool, silk, or synthetic” material; an intermediate layer of “wool or synthetic” material; and a top layer that provides “wind and rain protection” without completely cutting off ventilation. Five minutes can feel like a long period of time without the right garments, so even though you might not be able to follow those guidelines to the letter, having a base layer that covers your skin can really make a difference, especially on particularly frigid days. That can be long underwear—which is increasingly available in colors other than cinderblock gray—or foundation garments that are more in sync with your style. For instance, because I wear dresses year-round and commute by walking, I often wear fleece-lined leggings or wool stockings as a base layer to protect my legs. Speaking of which …
All Wool Everything
Wool is perfect. It’s water-resistant, but also absorbs moisture; it’s warm even when wet; and it’s breathable. Socks, stockings, sweaters, gloves, mittens, hats, and scarves that are either 100% wool or a wool-blend are a winter purchase you’re unlikely to regret. While technically different from sheep’s wool, other textiles we place in the category of “woolens” have similarly miraculous properties. Last winter, a friend scoured every secondhand store in town looking for cashmere. “It’s the Seven Days of Cashmere,” she said, as she proceeded to wear cashmere every day. You, too, can riddle your friends with envy. Angora, mohair, and cashmere can be expensive to purchase new, but local secondhand and vintage stores like Second Act and Revival can also yield some sweet, affordable finds. Check back throughout the season.
Keep All of Your Digits
Loose-fitting layers are great for trapping heat while still allowing your body to circulate all that warm blood you have, but they need a bit of assistance when it comes to your hands and feet. You already know how I feel about woolens (they’re perfect for socks and gloves), so let’s move on to the most important piece of your Iowa winter wardrobe: shoes. After three years of wearing pretty serviceable winter footwear, during my fourth winter in Iowa City, I sprung for a pair of L.L. Bean boots that changed my life (and my winter recreation habits).
Running errands, commuting daily on foot, and going for long walks in Hickory Hill on snowy days all became a whole lot easier once I got them. Having inappropriate footwear can make you varying degrees of uncomfortable for an entire season, and sometimes without you even knowing it. Other folks swear by boots made by Columbia, Sorel, and the North Face. The brand doesn’t necessarily matter, but it’s important that you think about temperature rating, durability, traction, comfort, return/exchange policies, and whether you want lining like Thinsulate or shearling [and, if you’re me, color]. While a good pair of boots can cost upwards of $100—unless you find a killer sale—they’ll also last you way more than one winter, and some companies will do repairs for the life of the boot for free.
Protect Your Neck
I tend to measure winter weather in the number of scarves I need to wear to be comfortable (e.g. “Today is a two-scarf day”). If you hate both turtlenecks and the feeling of winter chill slipping past your scarf, consider doubling up or rocking a wider, longer scarf. Pashminas might seem thin, but they’re actually made of cashmere and do an excellent job of blocking drafts. While I know the following recommendation is not for everyone, nothing beats fur for warmth. Because I only wear fur from animals killed before I was born, that means keeping an eye on Crowded Closet and Artifacts for any pieces that might come in. If you’re looking for vintage fur stoles that have been lovingly rehabilitated and re-lined by hand, Jensina Endresen, owner of Bustleworship, is Iowa City’s favorite furrier. Regardless of how you choose to protect your neck, don’t forget to wear a hat. And one that covers your ears.
Even though I’ve mentioned a lot of animal products, it is possible to dress for winter in a vegan way that avoids woolens, silk, leather, and fur. The principles of layering, shopping for footwear and keeping your head warm can all be implemented using synthetic and/or plant-derived fabrics. Whether you choose animal-derived or vegan products, new or vintage togs, Iowa City in the winter doesn’t have to be a frozen hellscape that traps you indoors from December to March.The weather can, instead, provide an opportunity to engage with the beauty of our public spaces in a more peaceful and unhurried way.
Alea Adigweme is a writer, artist and educator. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 187