Layers Schmayers

Most Americans use their cars as their winter coats. This revelation came to me when I had a winter canvassing job in Northern New York State, where apart from hunting gear; no one ever had on a puffy down jacket or the equivalent warm coat. Rather, they’d tough it out in a plaid shirt while filling up the gas tank or braving the walk from the parking lot to the supermarket. My colleagues on the canvass layered sweaters over denim jackets and denim jackets over sweaters claiming to be “just fine.”

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote “one thick garment is, for most purposes, as good as three thin ones,” and despite what they may tell you at out door stores Henry was right. A warm down coat, a ski jacket shell with a removable insulated liner–or better yet– a one piece ensemble like insulated work coveralls (known as a “monkey suit”) or a Himalayan expedition suit is sufficient for normal activity (i.e., walking) on even the coldest days.

The subject of three layers vs. one was a matter of and on-going and bitter debate that I had with a former roommate who worked for a large mid coast gear outfitter. My initial dislike of layers is the the necessity to remove two layers (e.g., coat and sweater) when entering a restaurant or well heated home, so rather than layering I just drag out a heavier garment as the temperature drops. “Cotton kills!” was the response along with an explanation of moisture wicking and “breathable” fabrics.

And then one day he walked in extolling the virtues of a light insulated jacket:

“It is plenty warm over just a t-shirt and it only weighs a few ounces,” he glowed.

But what about the whole layer theory?

“Oh, it works on the same principle of trapping warm air.”

Granted if you are going to engage in strenuous physical activity where you will break a sweat under a down jacket then a high-tech layering system is useful; but for medium exertion, like cycle commuting or walking along a trail, a jacket with ventilation (pit zips) is all I ever use above 15 degrees.

On extremely cold days the issue isn’t so much the weather but vanity which makes us uncomfortable: mittens warm fingers better than gloves; a big hood (or balaclava) warms the head, ears, and neck; a longer coat protects the waist more so than a fashionable short jacket. And while warm coats are expensive (this year’s trendy item in New York City is a $700 Canada Goose jacket) I routinely find used ones at thrift shops and church fairs, so much so that I always have two or three to donate to seasonal coat drive. If the weather goes below zero I might wear two coats as I’ll be puffy anyway.

Apart from staying warm, how we dress on cold days betrays quite a lot about our social and political attitudes.

Years ago I protested the Bush inauguration down in Washington. All in all it was a pretty grim task. The weather was a fucking cold made all the more so by the prospect of what the next four years were to bring. My only moment of warmth was when i noticed the sales tag on a man’s new coat. It was easy to spot the victors from the protesters as those celebrating were wearing new wool over coats no doubt purchase specially for the occasion. The protesters (many of whom were city dwellers accustomed to walking around in cold weather) just had on their normal winter jacket. The takeaway was that if you live more than two car lengths from your nearest neighbor you are more likely to vote Republican.


Zack Barowitz

About Zack Barowitz

Zack Barowitz is a writer, artist, and flâneur. He is the radio host of "This Land Is" on WMPG Tuesday nights at 7:30. His work can be seen at