Working clothes

Humans are excellent adapters. They live happily in rain forests, the Arctic, even in desert lands. One reason humans can thrive in so many climates is the clothing they wear. Specialized clothing, cleverly suited to weather and tasks, keeps people comfortable even when environments are extreme. Here are a few examples of clothing well-suited to a particular place or lifestyle.

Have you ever petted a black-and-white cat that's been lying in the sun? If so, perhaps you noticed that the black spots felt warmer than the white spots did. Dark colors absorb more heat energy than light colors do.

Bedouins are an Arab people who roam the deserts of the Mideast and Northern Africa. They wear long, loose-fitting robes (called burnooses) that cover their entire body. The long robes protect against wind and blowing sand.

Bedouin robes are mostly black. That doesn't seem to make sense when you recall the cat. A black robe feels warmer to the touch than a white robe does. So why do Bedouins wear black robes?

Scientists were curious about this, so they did an experiment. They had a man stand in the hot desert sun. First he wore a long, black Bedouin robe. Then he tried a long white one. The scientists made measurements.

The scientists found that the black robe absorbed 2-1/2 times more solar radiation than the white robe did. The surface of the black robe was up to 6 degrees C (11 degrees F.) hotter than the surface of the white robe.

But the temperature of the man's skin was the same whether he wore the black or the white burnoose. More important, the man said he felt cooler in the black robe than he did in the white one! Why?

Warm air trapped beneath the black robe rises faster than the air beneath the white robe. The movement of the warm air sets up a breeze that sucks cooler air up from the bottom of the robe and pushes it out the top. The loose-fitting burnoose is like wearing a mini-air-conditioning system.

Arctic winters are dark and cold. The weather can change quickly. Clothing worn by people living in the far north must protect against severe cold, high winds, and moisture.

Not all the traditional clothing worn by Inuits (sometimes called Eskimos) is the same. Some live near water. Others live on the tundra or on the ice cap. Clothing differs according to what materials are available. But the same idea underlies all cold-weather clothing: the air-capture principle.

Arctic people wear loose-fitting clothes made from nonporous material. This traps air that's heated by body warmth. Clothes are designed without side or front openings - coats are slipped on over the head - so the warm air doesn't escape. The temperature inside the garment is regulated by the hood opening. Without such clothes, humans would never have been able to survive the Arctic climate.

The Inuit make their clothes from the materials at hand.

Fur is good protection against the cold. Fur traps air to provide insulation. Animals with longer fur generally provide warmer coats. Some fur, like that of Arctic foxes and polar bears, is made up of hollow hairs. This may trap more air and make the fur feel even warmer. Garments of polar-bear-fur, with its thick hide, were highly prized.

In areas where there are caribou, their skins are preferred because they are very durable. In coastal areas where sea mammals are numerous, natives have tended to use the skins of these animals for clothing. Where reindeer herding is important, garments have been made of reindeer pelts.

In some areas, bird skins were sewn together to make undergarments.

Gut skins - the prepared intestines of seals, walruses, and sometimes whales - were sometimes fashioned into coats. Siberian natives even used fish skins from salmon, sturgeon, and carp to make outer garments. Fish- and gut-skin coats were light and impermeable to wind and moisture. They weren't very warm, though, so fur was worn underneath them.

The neat thing about a fur coat in the Arctic is that it doesn't get very wet. Moisture does collect on the outer layer of fur, though, and a wet coat is a cold one. So before someone goes indoors, they take off their fur coats and leave them outside. Any moisture on the coat will freeze.

Before slipping their coats back on, they beat them with a wooden beater to shake the ice loose.

You've probably seen movies about the American West where cowboys ride horses and herd cattle. The design of the clothes worn by cowboys hasn't changed that much. Today's cowboys would feel right at home at a roundup a century ago.

In the 1890s, the typical cowboy wore a Stetson hat, called a "JB" (for John B. Stetson, the hatmaker). Stetsons were admired for their durability. It was said that you could soak a JB, get it dirty, stomp on it, even shoot a hole through it. Then you could just put it back on your head and it would still have its original shape and character.

Around his neck, a cowboy wore a red or blue bandanna. He used it to wash his face and put over his nose and mouth to keep out dust. It could also be used as an emergency sling or a way to signal friends.

The long-sleeved shirt was made of linsey-woolsey (a blend of wool and linen) or wool in the winter and cotton in the summer. It slipped over the head but could be opened partway because it had three to five buttons down the front.

Collarless shirts were preferred.

Cowboys often wore vests year-round. Vests came in black, gray, blue, or brown. You'd buy then at the dry-goods store in town. The pockets in a vest came in handy.

Early on, cowboys wore heavy wool pants in the winter and cotton pants with a leather seat and legs for riding in the summer. Around the turn of the 20th century they started wearing blue jeans.

Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant, came to San Francisco in 1853 to open a dry-goods store. He had cloth for sale, but his customers really wanted sturdy pants that could stand up to hard use in the gold fields. Mr. Strauss obliged them.

It was Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor, who came up with the idea of reinforcing trousers with copper rivets at the stress points. He took his idea to Strauss, and the two of them were issued a patent in 1873. Soon, "those pants of Levi's" had gained a reputation for durability.

When cowboys started wearing blue jeans, they complained about the rivets on the back pockets. They tended to scratch up their saddles. The rivets in the back pockets were covered with cloth.

Material shortages during World War II eliminated the rivet in the crotch entirely, which was probably just as well. The rivet tended to heat up uncomfortably when cowboys squatted around a campfire.

Gauntlets (gloves extending above the wrist for extra protection) made of deerskin, horsehide, or elk were worn to protect the hands from rope burns and cold. Heavy fur mittens were worn in the winter.

Chaps, or seatless leg coverings, protected the legs against rope burns, brush, horse bites, and bad weather. "Shotgun" chaps had straight legs, with or without a fringe. "Bat-wings" or "Texas legs" chaps were loose in the leg and wide in the front so they were easy to put on and take off. "Woolies" were step-in chaps with sheepskin or Angora goat hide fronts.

Cowboy boots replaced cavalry-style boots. Cowboy boots had higher heels to keep feet from slipping out of the stirrups. Heavy decorative stitching helped keep the soft leather upright. Spurs might have lots of jingle bobs, janglers, and boot chains on them (they make all that noise when a cowboy walks around in the movies).

In the 1930s, dude-ranch vacations became all the craze among wealthy Easterners. Pretty soon, the whole country was obsessed with wearing western clothing. Movies about the West became an obsession that we as a nation still haven't entirely shaken.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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