Thursday, June 3, 2010

Free the Shoulder

Photo courtesy Flickr

When Queen Victoria was scheduled to inspect a British Royal Navy vessel back in the day, one of the officers decided to conceal the underarms of the crew when they saluted her majesty in hot weather. He had the men sew cap sleeves onto the jerseys they wore and in doing so, he brought the world the T-shirt.

Noted cultural historian and fop Tom Wolfe explains how a suit works when he examines the fine points of men’s tailoring in one of his books, perhaps The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Wolfe points out that a custom suit is engineered to make the body of a sedentary man look like that of an athlete, while a fit man will look like a gorilla in the same gear. Wolfe adds that the set of the sleeve in a formal garment precludes raising the arm to do much of anything, while the sleeve of a workman’s jacket is set horizontally to allow a full range of motion.

Wolfe adds that, counter-intuitively, the arm is freer in a jacket whose sleeve is set in high and close to the torso. A bad fit in the shoulder inhibits movement much as sagged trousers hobble and distort the gait of the person who wears them.

Last week I casually shopped for a raincoat, and the woman who helped me mentioned that having a couple of inches to spare under the arm indicates that the coat is cut generously enough to go over a sweater. Something clicked when she said that, and I realized why deciding what to wear has been much easier since I began to layer clothing from underneath.

A more or less formal rain-proof shell works best in Seattle’s climate, and one or more layers of warmth beneath the upper garment allow one to adapt to a day’s frequent changes of condition. Fine washable wool is my under layer of choice, but there are days when one undershirt is not enough to stay comfortable outside. A third wooly layer just adds irritating bulk. One morning not long ago I grabbed the cashmere shell of a twinset and tossed it on before I put on whatever it was I had decided was going to show. That little shell turned out to be an amazing thermal workhorse, and its cotton and acetate cousins from two other black twinsets are equally useful in different weather.

I doubt I would have learned this had my wardrobe been multi-colored, but nearly everything I own is black. A monochrome collection makes it easy to design a day’s costume for the weather and the mission.

I mentioned to my partner that a sleeveless shell adds warmth without bulk under the arms, and that even though it might look like a muscle shirt, I think it’s worth a shot. He’s not conditioned to whipping into a restroom to pull off an underlayer like Superman in reverse, however, though biting cold weather in the field may make him curious someday.

-30 More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr
Several years ago I read a book about a Navy Seals team that was preparing for a mission in Afghanistan. The rigor of their training and the elegance of their field gear were awe-inspiring. How can one second-guess an outfit that refers to a sleeping bag as “snivel-gear” and is preparing to go up against guys who fight in the winter Himalayas in tennis shoes? I found much to emulate in the descriptions of battle kit.

As I recall, the team that was the subject of the book carried off-the-shelf hiking gear. They cut internal pockets and baffles out of the packs they chose. In a moment of consumer courage, I did the same thing with a brand-new ultra-light pack. Relieving the dedication designed into the piece made it much more versatile. It’s far faster and easier to build a pack from kits stored in traveler’s nylon cubes and plastic bags than it is to load and excavate the countless nooks and crannies of an over-designed retail goodie. Using kits and a shell makes it simple to shift from one form of luggage, like a field kit, to the daily side bag for running around town. For me, half the battle of travel is trying to remember where the shampoo is, and kits solve that problem.

Eviscerating that pack and the various side bags that succeeded it was so liberating, I began looking at the assumptions that were manufactured into other portable items. I never use the snazzy case that came with my hand-held computer game, so I put it aside for a few months and finally let it go. Did the same thing with a little light-therapy appliance and an electric toothbrush. All three of these things came with elaborate, costly packaging meant to protect them in transit. The shells simply take up space, add weight, inhibit use, and jack up the original cost.

In the Sixties, novelist Norman Mailer used to rail against plastic. Plastic was a perjorative term for a long time. Whatever its shortcomings, plastic has hugely increased the payload of everyday life. Just an inch or so larger in every direction than a laptop, my slash-proof side bag contains the equivalent of a dressing table, graphic artist’s working studio, side table with water carafe and drinking glass, lunch box, and small suitcase.

-30- More after the jump.