Let This Be the Winter You Finally Learn How to Dress for the Cold

We still have several months of socializing outside. Get yourself some sexy mittens.

Legs in insulated overalls
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by RefrigiWear.

Every pandemic season brings its own sartorial challenges. As many of us forgo indoor hangouts with those we love, our ability to see live human faces and hear live human voices has depended on the fickle whims of the clouds and sun. In spring, there were showers to contend with. “Every weekend under COVID is my outdoor wedding, and I forgot to shell out for the backup gazebo,” Anna Silman wrote, in the Cut, of having to cancel meetups with friends whenever the forecast suggested rain. In summer, there were heat waves, sudden downpours, and sweat-soaked masks. On the West Coast, autumn brought orange skies and choking wildfire smoke. Rarely in modern history has the average social life expanded and contracted in such perfect sync with the weather.


If you like leaving your house and hanging out with people, our current season might find you isolated, depressed, shivering, or some combination thereof. The bad news: We’ve got about two more months of cold ’n’ lonely still to come! The good news: Pandemic winter loneliness is one of the precious few emotional problems fashion can actually solve.


I spent my formative years in New Hampshire. My family arrived in the Granite State from New Jersey, wholly unprepared for the five consecutive months of icy sidewalks, unmelting snowbanks, and frigid temperatures that awaited us. By the time we discovered L.L. Bean, I was too teenage and image-conscious to wear anything that would have kept me comfortable, preferring my jackets cropped and my bell-bottom hems soaked in salt and slush. I only learned how to dress for winter weather in adulthood, when I realized that feeling cold was a choice: There were, in fact, garments specifically manufactured for this season. All I had to do was buy them.


In the years since that epiphany, I’ve accumulated an arsenal of winter clothing items that have passed the test of my perpetually cold body. Some garments boast high-tech fabrics and meticulous construction, the result of a considerable amount of research and ingenuity marshaled on behalf of professionals who do their work in cold weather. Others are as basic and old-fashioned as evolution itself. Sheep wear wool for a reason!

Most winters, these clothes simply make my life more pleasant, allowing me to bike to work or take a walk in a snowstorm. This year, though, when seeing loved ones almost always means braving the elements, they are one of my few remaining tethers to the outside world. If you’ve been avoiding social gatherings because being cold makes you miserable, perhaps by now you’ve realized that you’re instead miserable because you haven’t been seeing your friends. Allow me to share some hard-won wisdom that could help you maintain some social connections until spring.


One of the oddest things about mainstream bundling strategies is the asymmetry: It’s easy to find, and widely acceptable to wear, several layers on top. They tend to fit over one another. But wearing multiple layers of pants is much less common, even though fattier body parts like butts hold the cold and act like ice cubes for your entire body. It’s time to end the stigma of thickly bundled lower halves! Start with a pair of wool or synthetic fabric leggings. (I like a pair that’s got some of both.) Avoid cotton, which makes for a terrible base layer because it absorbs liquid and holds it against your skin—so if you sweat, even a tiny bit, that moisture will freeze you once you cool back down. As my most outdoorsy friend once chided me as I shivered in a cotton thermal shirt on a camping trip—I thought thermals were supposed to be warm! It’s practically in the name!—“cotton kills.” That phrase applies more to a three-day snowshoeing trip than a conversation on a chilly stoop, but, still, it won’t be comfortable for either.

Next, you’re going to want to put on some fleece-lined pants. Trust me on this one. I added this Eddie Bauer pair to my repertoire this winter, and they are the first thing I pull on whenever they’re clean. (These seem similar to the ones I got, which are now nearly sold out.) Indoors, or on warmer days, these will be all you need. A warning: Now that I’ve experienced fleece-on-leg coziness, regular sweatpants feel like jeans. (I can no longer even imagine wearing actual jeans.)


While I’m here, might I also recommend a pair of unlined waterproof pants, which you can don in all seasons? We’ve agreed that wearing a thick coat on top and only one layer on bottom is stupid and wrong. The same logic applies to wearing a raincoat when it’s precipitating. Why let your legs get soaked? But I digress. Back to winter: If it’s really cold out, or you’re going to be out in the snow, get yourself a set of puffy pants or overalls. The puffier, the better, because air traps warmth. I haven’t sprung for a pair of down pants yet, but don’t these look nice?

Now we’re ready for the big guns. Last fall, in a moment of panicked pre-loneliness as winter approached, I started browsing heavier outerwear, the kind that’s designed for people who spend their entire days in refrigerated warehouses or outside in the cold. Yes, the prospect of wearing industrial-strength workwear to potentially eat a cheese plate in a park seemed a little melodramatic—looking back, this was my equivalent of stocking a basement with water purifiers, assault rifles, and MREs—but who among us hasn’t tried to fend off pandemic malaise with products? I tested out RefrigiWear’s softshell overalls, which feel virtually indestructible (“softshell” means flexible, not fragile) and are pretty darn comfortable as long as you take precautionary measures to forestall any lower-layer wedgies you will be unable to pick once they’re zipped up. On the last day of January, I wore the overalls to sit outside in a literal snowstorm for 40 minutes, drinking a birthday cocktail with a friend. My Refrigiwear-clad lower half would have been perfectly happy staying out there for much longer.

You should also keep your butt warm with a coat. Don’t mess around with those jackets that stop at the hips! In my opinion, if it’s not precipitating, you can’t do better than down. It’s light, it’s warm, and if the coat is long enough, it feels like you’re wearing a sleeping bag, in a good way. Check the down fill power: A higher fill power means less down is needed to create loft and warmth, so jackets on the higher end of the spectrum will often be more expensive, but they’ll also be lighter, or warmer for their weight. This is worth it! Fill power goes up to around 900, but anything over 600 should be pretty good. Since winter clothes-shopping season is wrapping up, now is the time to trust the geese and get a fluffy coat on sale for cheap-ish.

Speaking of animals that have entirely figured out how to dress for the cold—have you met wool? Wool is a magical fiber that stays warm when wet, unlike killer cotton. If you perspire a bit or even step in a puddle, your wool will not leave you to die. No need to get spendy with merino or cashmere—thick-knit boys are perfectly fine. My warmest sweater? A hand-me-down from my sister, 100 percent wool, manufactured by Old Navy of all places, circa 2003. (However: When cheaper wool stands alone, it can get scratchy, so my ultimate winter combo includes a softer synthetic turtleneck under this guy.) My favorite socks? Also wool! In October, due to a series of events I will not recount here, I found myself hiking a snowy mountain in slip-on running shoes. My feet were completely soaked for the better part of six hours. But, because I do NOT fool around with foot warmth and was wearing two pairs of wool socks, my tootsies were still toasty. I swear these socks kept my feet as warm as they would have been in water-resistant boots.

As for your other extremities: Fingers are best served by mittens, because they can cuddle together and share heat, whereas gloves keep them cold and alone. I use an immortal pair of knit ones I got from a mall kiosk in my youth, but these mittens are plenty puffy and weirdly sexy. I sprung for a cashmere hat two years ago, and my ears still love me for it. Normally I’d also recommend a balaclava for your cheeks and chin, but luckily the pandemic has been great for facial warmth! Whatever face mask you’re already wearing should do the trick.

Now that you’re all bundled up, you’re almost ready to have friends! The last thing to remember is that clothes aren’t everything in this seasonal game we call warmth. Dog-sledder Blair Braverman has offered some essential tips on keeping yourself from freezing outdoors, including eating frequent snacks (but not big meals, which will direct all your nice, warm blood to your gut) and peeing often. The smartest among you will use a stand-to-pee device, which makes it possible for people without penises to pee without pulling down their pants. Also, though I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from my spouse and friends for this, I have to recommend always tucking in your shirt.

Of course, none of your preparation will matter if your friends are too cold to want to sit outside with you. So make it easy for them. Bring extra blankets and pre-portioned hot beverages to share. If you’ll be on a deck or stoop, plug in an extension cord and make that blanket an electric one. And buy a hot water bottle in a cute little turtleneck sweater. Carry it around as if you’re performing a scared-straight teen pregnancy exercise in health class. Your loved ones may not be able to cuddle your real babies this season, but at least your bag full of near-boiling water will keep them warm.