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Living: The Look Is Layered and Down Is Up

4 minute read

In New York’s high-fashion circles, it is known as Chilly Chic. In less trendy zones, people call it common-sense clothing. Either way, fear of goose bumps has struck: like squirrels gathering nuts, Americans are collecting cozy clothes for a low-energy winter. Department stores report record sweater sales, up as much as 50% over last year. Quilted down coats and jackets have descended from snowy mountains to urban streets. A mannequin in a Los Angeles store window wears thermal underwear —and spike heels. “Anything that even looks warm is big,” explains a Chicago fashion executive.

The principle behind keeping a body warm is the same as that for a house: insulation. Several layers of clothing that trap pockets of air next to the body work most effectively. With that in mind, Americans are reviving traditional cold-weather wisdom. Natural fabrics are in demand again; wool, cotton and silk are most comfortable because they breathe, allowing perspiration to evaporate. No one any longer laughs at “snuggies,” those sturdy thigh-length undertrousers that Grandma used to wear. Fur has begun to shed its politically uncool image (the American fur industry does not use pelts from endangered species such as leopard and baby seal), because “it’s an organic, renewable, nonpolluting resource,” as Ernest Graf, president of Ben Kahn Furs, explains. In Alaska’s subzero temperatures, residents fend off the cold with Eskimo mukluks, boots made from sealskin and caribou, and fur parkas. And down is up everywhere. At many a party, discussing the virtues of feather-stuffed outerwear has replaced talk about the right running gear.

This winter, when the weather outside is frightful, it may not seem much better inside: thermostats must by law not be set above a chilly 65° F in offices. The best defense against 9-to-5 frostbite is clearly the layered look. At the risk of violating stodgy dress codes, men are buying sweaters and knit vests to slip under suits. Women are snapping up fuzzy tights, pants rather than skirts, blazers and all kinds of sweaters, from shetlands and turtlenecks to cashmeres and one-of-a-kind bulky knits. Impulse buying is on the wane. “Shoppers are more money conscious this year,” says a Chicago retailer. “They’re going for longterm, classic looks.”

Will worker productivity plummet along with the mercury in frosty offices? Possibly, says Dr. Ralph Goldman, a U.S. Army environmental medicine expert who documents human responses under a variety of climatic conditions. Goldman suggests that manual dexterity can suffer in temperatures of less than 68°. Does this mean that wool hats and mufflers will soon be de rigueur in the typing pool? Or fingerless gloves? “I’ll bring in a space heater before I’ll wear those,” grumbles a Manhattan secretary.* But she will try thermal underwear beneath her baggy jeans.

In recent years utilitarian clothing and high fashion have converged. Today, women demand warmth and glamour from designers. “If something is not comfortable, it won’t last,” explains Sportswear Designer Ralph Lauren, whose matching handmade sweater sets from England sold out this fall despite their $406 price tag. A chic woman’s wardrobe this winter might include Swiss-made long Johns ($45), brightly colored Danskin leg warmers ($10), hunting boots from L.L. Bean ($36.75), a bulky Norma Kamali quilted coat ($350). For dress-up evenings, a fuzzy angora sweater adorned with sequins, beads or metallic embroidery over silk pants and heels.

Loungewear in softest velour or chenille, perfect for curling up with a book or in front of the TV, is selling well. Colorful “sweatshirt dressing”—pants, pullovers and dresses inspired by jogging garb—is booming among the junior set. Says a Macy’s fashion director: “People can cuddle in these clothes.”

* If she does, her company is liable for a maximum fine of $5,000.

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