Alexandra Kleeman finds a colorful cure for the winter woes.
Illustration by Sara Singh
When I moved from California to New York City a few years back, I eyed the East Coast with anticipation. Finally, there would be summer, and winter, and a true fall, in which the leaves turned yellow and red in synchrony, rather than the awkward, muddled phenomenon of autumn in Berkeley, in which each tree turned brown at a seemingly random time, surrounded by peers who maintained a disapproving green. Instead of a single season in which winter was distinguished from spring only by a mildly rainier, grayer overtone, there would be ice skating and ski lodges and days that truly warranted hot beverages topped with whipped cream. I craved winter most of all, and the outfits that accompanied it: not just shirts, skirts, dresses, pants, but sweaters and scarves and hats, coats and boots in a multitude of forms and colors, each crafted like a tool to address a different species of winter weather.
As my first fall turned to my first chilly October, I realized my Technicolor vision of winter in a big East Coast city was off-trend with the general public sentiment. When I stepped
out of my apartment and onto the street, the world had an undersaturated look, like a photograph or a film not fully in color. People bundled up in dim shades that matched the graying, cloudy weather; they wore thick, dark knits that had a practical but unmirthful bent to them. A sweater can be an expressive piece of clothing, but these sweaters were business-minded and tight-lipped. If they could have spoken, they would have mumbled, “I’m trying to get indoors again as quickly as possible.” I had moved to the city with a suitcase full of West Coast clothes in bright beachy colors: striped T-shirts and sweaters in sunny shades of yellow and peach—clothes you would feel at home in while eating an ice cream cone in the mono-seasonal sunshine. Here, among charcoal grays and solemn black wool, I felt as out of place as an evening gown at a midweek office party.
Through October and November, I wore my California colors under a gradual accumulation of layers, but on the morning of my first New York City snowfall, my hopes were dashed. At 5 a.m., the snowplow roared past my ground-floor window, shocking me out of sleep. By 9 a.m., when I left my apartment, the snow was already gray and downtrodden. The sky above me was murky white, and if I dared look up at it as I walked around, I found myself stepping right into a pool of dark, icy slush. It was then the thought fell upon me like a cartoon anvil—I had gotten it all wrong! Winter wasn’t magical; it was hard work—trudging, slogging, shivering-in-the-cold work. For millennia, man had struggled against the slings and arrows of Mother Nature, had learned to soldier grimly on. And who was I to pretend otherwise? Reader, I surrendered. I bought myself a stiff winter uniform of black wool and lived inside it for the next three months, until it was time to emerge into the bright light of spring.
I might still hold this grim man vs. nature mindset today, if it weren’t for a winter coat that appeared to me one January afternoon like an epiphany. It was a round-shouldered cocoon coat in a vivid powder-pink shade that reminded me of a vintage photograph of Jackie O come to life, and among the more practical winter grays that surrounded it, it caught my gaze like a crocus poking through the snow. The moment I saw it, I knew that I would be happy and content and impervious to seasonal affective disorder, as long as I had this magical pink coat on me, near me, or even simply in my line of sight. When the saleslady rang it up, I asked her to take off the tags. Into the shopping bag went my dull, dark winter coat, as I slipped the soft pink bouclé over my shoulders. Walking out the door and into the January sleet, I felt supercharged, propulsive, like I had just strapped a rocket to my back.
As I wore my brilliantly bubblegum-pink coat among the sullen skyscrapers and streets, I realized that the feeling it gave me was something other people could sense too: It was real. Yes, I smiled more and felt more energetic, but I also watched the faces of total strangers brighten as they passed me on the sidewalk. A toddler patted the nubby fabric as he sat beside me on the subway, and one barista told me fondly that the color reminded her of the Miami house she grew up in, petal pink and surrounded by palm trees. For myself, the coat was a reminder that even in the grip of this cold, harsh weather, there was more to my life than discomfort and utility. To my fellow city-dwellers, the coat sent a message that the bleakness of the season was only temporary and that spring was on its way.
If the warmer, friendlier seasons allow us the freedom to dress however we like, winter calls for grander, quirkier, more generous fashion choices. We need to dress to keep our morale up, to boost the spirits of those around us. So, with this noble mission in mind, wear your favorite, most cheerful, most vivid colors! Drape your practical winter coat over an impractical, joy-inducing silk slip! Wear the glittery or shiny or thrillingly crafted boots that make you smile every time you see them! This long, dark season calls for us to make our own joy, to bring beauty and warmth to those around us. After all, a roaring fire is made even cozier when it’s freezing outside, and there’s nothing more cheerful than a flash of bright color set against crisp, cold white.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and Intimations, a short story collection. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.