Newcomers, Don’t Dress Like Winter Chicagoans

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Chicago L snow

Last winter’s Chiberia notwithstanding, Chicagoans are pretty savvy about winter. But although we may know how to dress to not stand shivering at the nearest CTA stop like your average Chicago newcomer, we don’t always take our own advice.

Layers, and hats, and gloves, and scarves, a good coat, grippy boots, and comfy long under-everything will keep you warm–and upright on the sidewalk–from December through March April May. It’s not rocket science, either. That’s why newcomer whining doesn’t curry much favor. The people complaining the loudest about being cold on a windy January ‘L’ platform are usually gratuitously under-dressed for what is likely their first Chicago winter.

It’s not like we didn’t warn them. Considering all the weather whining we do, ourselves, it’s impossible for anyone to live for any length of time in this town and not be quickly schooled in all the ways our weather likes to be generally unbearable.

Then again, they could just be confused by what we’re wearing. We should probably preface our newcomer weather warnings with an emphatic, ‘Do as we say and not as we do.’  Because so often in the Windy City, we fail to follow our own winter weather dress code.

A couple of years ago, Chicago Magazine suggested we locals all dress like multi-layered hipster Michelin men while trying to commute to our jobs in winter. But I think the graphic at the above link was designed by a newcomer. Everyone here knows, the longer you live in Chicago, the fewer layers you bother to wear. Not because you can’t be bothered with them. But, sadly, because after a decade or more on Lake Michigan’s frigid winter shores, you just don’t feel the cold the same way anymore.

It’s like how Angelenos always explain why they wear sweaters when it’s in the 60s. (That’s the high teens in Celsius for my international readers.) Only in the reverse. The unfortunate, awful reverse. When I still lived in my native New York City, I stayed home if the temperature dipped below 20 (-7 C). After 13 years in Chicago, that’s open-coat weather for me.

The warmer it gets, the more Chicago locals peel off:

  • Below 0F (-18C): You’re still fully dressed for winter. And it’s the full kit–long underwear top and bottom, hat/scarf/gloves, thick sweater, the warm socks, the warm boots, and the puffy parka pulled out from the back of the closet.
  • 0F to 10F (-18C to -12C): Why needs a parka today? This is regular winter coat weather.
  • 10F to 20F (-12C to -7C): That thick sweater has now been traded in for a thinner one, and that hat/scarf/gloves combo is starting to feel annoying today, too.
  • 20F to 32F (-7C to 0C): This is warm weather for a Chicago winter. That hat/scarf/gloves combo is  away in your bag, not on your actual head/neck/hands. Your coat is zipped open at the top. You don’t care how windy it is or if it’s snowing, you’re staying zipped open, dammit. You’ve ditched the long johns. You leave your coat in the closet at work and walk outside to Chipotle (or to smoke) in your inside clothes. Local frat guys are starting to break out their flip flops and pledges can be seen in tee shirts on the CTA (albeit shivering.)
  • 32F to 50F (0C to 10C): The entire City of Chicago just switched to a spring jacket.
  • 50F to 60F (10C to 16C): Sweaters and jeans. Shorts and hoodies. Let the backyard barbecues begin.
  • 60F and up (16C and up): Summer.

I’ll let my Angeleno readers, who are now doubtlessly in shock or too smug to read any further, continue to ponder the above while I note for newcomers not to worry, it’s a process. You should probably stick with that sub-10F gear for awhile until you get used to a Chicago winter. We’re not as cold as the Twin Cities, but our frigid lake winds can make it feel like we’re colder. So be prepared–and don’t say you haven’t been warned.

When it’s time to start ditching those layers, you’ll now. A few years from now, in the middle of February, standing at the counter at Wow Bao, you’ll realize you can’t pay for your lunch because you don’t have your wallet. It’s back in your coat, back at your office. Standing there in your dress shirt/blouse, totally annoyed at yourself, you’ll know you’re finally a Chicagoan.

And then you’ll bitch about winter the whole way back to your office to anyone who will listen.

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