On a hot day in the city, those who know the hot weather and its exhaustive dehydrating effects behave differently than on other days. They walk more slowly, they hug the sides of buildings to receive their shade, they eat juicy fruits and they carry fans. They dress differently, too. A quick study of the attire of non-western populations in desert or tropical climates, except for where western sartorial codes have been adopted, will show people almost entirely covered in cotton or other plant fibers, either fitted and brightly printed, or soft light colors hanging away from the body.
In the west we tend to go by the philosophy the less fabric the better, which directly contradicts the methods of the more savvy communities who cover up for protection from the sun while assuring ventilation and breathability through silhouette and textile selection.
While the cotton tunic and loose pant combo is not suitable for most western men or women because our sartorial sensibility is so different, they serve to suggest how irrational our thinking is when it comes to dressing for hot weather. The less fabric the better philosophy can only get us so far. While the billowy tunic is not a global solution, we have the resources and high-tech capabilities so that we don’t need to fall back on low-tech solutions that aren’t right for us. What we need are innovators in textile and fashion design who will think like active wear designers in that our bodies have functions that we need to work with not fight against or try to hide and contain.
In cities where we see all four seasons, the mentality is also very different because we don’t think of our environment as a hot or cold climate, it just happens to get very hot sometimes and very cold other times. So we have tiny little clothes for summer, and big puffy things for winter, and in between things that we try to adapt by looking at the weather and inferring, “maybe I should bring a sweater.” But just as down coats are better left on the ski slopes, mini short & crop top combos are better left on the beach, and if we thought more scientifically about our bodies, designing clothes thoughtfully for the weather, we could offer a much more balanced year round wardrobe.
I am not immune to miscalculated dressing, either. Today as I write this I am wearing a silk blouse with just a hint of a sleeve that puffs over my shoulders. It is a warm day, warmer than it’s been, and the sun is out. I was walking from one meeting to another, between 11 and 11:25. In that time, the sun is almost at the top of the sky, so neither side of the sidewalk offers refuge in the shade of the buildings. There was only the option of slowing down a bit so as not to break a sweat. That lasted all of a couple of blocks before I realized my pace had picked up, just out of habit, like your foot slowly pressing down on the gas pedal, and that I could feel the dampness of my back where the blouse was sticking between my shoulder blades.
I have sympathy for men everywhere who are required by society and corporate dress codes, to wear a suit all year round. I love the way men look in suits, and would never want that look to go away, but I understand the issue about finding the perfect undershirt, for example, to make it possible to maintain dryness and crispness all day, all year. And while the search for the perfect undershirt has a lot to do with the fit, so that it is snug and not sloppy, it is also about the temperature regulation and how it deals with sweat.
Men and women alike, we’ve all been in the situation where we get warm only to take off our jacket and reveal some awesome pit stains or spinal stripe of sweat down our back. Sweat is good, natural, healthy, but also socially taboo. Either we all learn to let it all hang out and embrace our moistness, or we accept that there is an issue with the way we cover our bodies. Other animals, on a hot day, must find us ridiculous. And think about all the clothes we’ve ruined by sweat stains that eventually become more and more difficult to erase from the memory of the fabric.
This might open a Pandora’s box of people jumping up with excitement that they have been granted the acceptance to spend their lives in athletic wear. In no way am I making that argument. I am suggesting not that we dress in clothes that exist for sweating in the form in which they exist today, but to problem solve as designers and find a way to make our clothes work more harmoniously with our bodies.
Next time you’re out in work or civilian clothes and your sweat glands start to go berserk, think about what you’re wearing, what’s working and what’s not, whether behavioral changes would help, or if it’s all about the apparel. Clothes that are made for the functions of the body, including sweat, not simply the movements of the body, will last longer and keep us more energized and more comfortable.
With problems like this to solve, and the technological capabilities to do so, the role of the designer has the potential to evolve past aesthetics without compromising those aesthetic values. This is our mission, should we choose to accept it.