My Search for a New Winter Coat
Winter has declared war on most of the Midwest. The Polar Vortex directly and indirectly wreaked havoc on most U.S. citizens last week. Grocery stores ran short on staples! Schools canceled school! Travelers found themselves stranded! Cars did not start!
And my zipper on my down coat broke!
Okay, that probably is not a direct result of the Polar Vortex, but you try finding a down coat in the beginning of January when a frigid cold and snowy winter has a stranglehold on most of the Midwest. Yes, yes, I know there is the internet, but I like to try on coats and get a sense of whether or not I look like a beached whale. However, since every decent coat has been snapped up by smart people who do not live in denial that they need a new coat (the zipper is not broken, the zipper is not broken), I know that the internet will be my last resort.
How does my search for the right coat relate to a blog on medicine and history, you ask? Well, in many respects, what we wear during the winter affects our health. Warm coats and accessories protect us from hypothermia and frostbite. Doctors warn about exposure to below zero temps and beseech us to dress appropriately (a warning most teenagers and young adults ignore). You do not want to mess around with frostbite.
But how do you stay warm and not look like Ralphie’s little brother Randy from A Christmas Story?
For those of us who live in this region, winter does not always equal high fashion, or does it? Especially for women, hat hair is common and the main winter uniform is usually jeans, boots, and a sweater. As for the coat, that’s an even bigger conundrum because during this frosty time of year, looking like the Michelin Man leaves a lot to be desired. But for the sane adult woman, avoiding frostbite usually trumps maintaining appearance, although begrudgingly.
So as I thought about this blog post, I started researching winter coats. By the early twentieth century, ready-made clothing became the norm, giving customers more access and choice. Winter coats came in a myriad of styles and prices. Yet, when it came to materials, most winter coats at this time were mainly constructed out of wool or fur.
The warmth of fur was out of budgetary bounds for most people and wool, if wet, does not fully protect from winter’s chilliness. In 1940, after suffering hypothermia, Eddie Bauer patented the first down jacket and developed other outwear marketed for fishermen and the U.S. Army, which meant that most people still wore what was readily available.
During the 1950s, companies such as Owens-Corning and DuPont developed new ways to use fabrics and materials, such as nylon and fiberglass, to create warmer coats. Down became more accessible, but the bulk, weight, and cost still meant that wool (and now leather) remained the coat of choice. (Remember Marty McFly’s down vest?)
Throughout the 1980s, DuPont, 3M, and other companies developed synthetic materials, such Gor-Tex and Thinsulate, that mirror goose down’s warmth, minus the bulk and the cost. As these materials slowly filtered into the mainstream, winter coats became warmer, drier, lightweight, cheaper. However, a good winter coat can still run upwards of $100 and the more a person pays, the better the quality and fashion. Winter coats have become status symbols with prominent logos, giving a passerby an idea of how much a person spent. Coats have also become slimmer, not only in bulk, but in cut, leaving the winter body on display (no more hiding holiday weight gain). Winter never felt so warm and looked so good, right?
Now to check the internet.
Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.