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How to Actually Layer Clothes to Keep Warm

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Section: Dressing for the Occasion - Blog

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Which keeps you warmer in cold weather, one thick jacket or several thinner layers of clothing? Surprisingly, several layers of thin garments beats a solitary jacket for keeping you warm. Here's the nuances of layering your clothes to keep warm and stylish when the weather turns frigid.

Decoding Layering Techniques

What's the key to cold weather dressing? Understanding how to layer your clothing properly, of course. Wearing several layers of garments, one on top of the other, can keep you quite warm. In fact, one thick garment cannot provide as much warmth as a few layers of lighter garments can.

The reason for this is the air that is trapped between each layer of clothes. Your body heat radiates and warms this air. Therefore, each surrounding layer becomes a self-generated heat shield that protects you from the cold. Successful layering depends on understanding these three parts of the puzzle:

  • Base layer
  • Insulating layer
  • Outer protective layer

The Base Layer

This layer lies next to your skin and must be capable of moisture removal. Staying warm and active can lead to sweating. If your clothing can't wick the sweat away from your skin, it can be dangerous. In cold weather, moist skin can lead to rapid heat loss. So, the base layer must have moisture absorbing properties.

Athletic and specialty cold weather garments provide the best balance between lightweight construction and moisture wicking properties. They add little bulk, if at all, and allow a lot of flexibility in movement. Here's some ways this can work:

  • Wear thick socks over liner socks to keep your feet dry
  • Use fingerless liner gloves or thin woollen gloves as a useful base layer for hands
  • For enhanced warmth, wear an extra pair of gloves

The Insulating Layer

This layer must have heat retention properties such as those possessed by natural fibres like goose down and wool. Wool can absorb about 30% of its weight and not feel wet. It can even provide some insulation when soaked, unlike down, which loses its effectiveness when wet. However, down is lighter than wool and has better insulating properties.

Woollen sweaters, like those made of angora and cashmere, are warm and dressy garments. A good woollen sweater paired with a regular cotton business shirt can provide adequate warmth on cold days.

Any artificial fleece garment (also called performance fleece), is lightweight and a proven insulator. Even when wet, it provides insulation. However, it needs to be layered with a tightly woven, wind resistant fabric to provide protection from the wind.

For leg coverings, consider wearing thick woollen or fleece trousers over a base layer. Jeans are good as light protective wear but should be avoided in cold areas as they do not have any insulating properties. You could combine them with an inner insulating layer though, for added warmth.

The Protective Layer

This layer keeps all the inner layers protected from the elements. This layer may not have any insulating properties, but it must stop the wind and trap air. It should also be able to allow moisture out.

Most outfits in this category are not fashionably styled. Therefore, if you're interested in business clothing that provides warmth as well, wear treated woollen overcoats that have a wind proofed layer or have been treated with GOR- TEX.

Wear a layer of weather proofed gloves or mittens, a wool stocking cap, an insulated headband, a scarf and good winter boots. The best winter boots are soft-sided pieces, lined with natural fibre, with in-built insulation and thick, flexible soles.

Situation Based Needs

Cold Weather Active – Running, Cross-Country Skiing etc.

If you are a winter sports enthusiast, wear lightweight gear that is weatherproof and provides good insulation. Go for high-performance outdoor gear that is best for cold weather conditions. Synthetic fibres can provide much lighter weight comfort than heavy wool and down. Two or three thin layers of warm jackets and leggings are ideal; pair them with an insulated headband and weatherproof gloves.

Cold Weather Non-Active – Snowmobiling, Hunting etc.

If you will be sitting still for long periods, you need gear that can trap warmth without focusing too much on letting moisture out. Therefore, the best cold weather gear relies on thicker insulation and weatherproofing.

If water is not a concern, wear a down layer paired with thinner woollen layers and an outer covering made of artificial fibres. Also, wear socks with varying levels of thickness, a moisture wicking sock liner and thick, insulated boots for keeping your feet warm. Wear the thinner pair of gloves beneath a thicker pair. Over the thicker pair of gloves, wear an insulated pair of mittens, until you can resume your work.

Cold Weather Business Dress

Since you probably won't be outdoors much in the winter, wear your business shirt and tie over a long-sleeved moisture wicking underlayer. Avoid cotton as it traps moisture well, and you do not want to be wet.

Here's how you could finish out your ensemble for maximum warmth:

  • Wear a thin sweater (perhaps cashmere) over your shirt and tie.
  • Layer on a worsted woollen jacket.
  • Wear woollen suit trousers or odd trousers worn with thick long johns.
  • Wear liner socks and woollen or synthetic blend dress socks in conservative colours with dress shoes.
  • Optional but nice: Wear an insulated headband under a dress hat or wear a plain, dark stocking cap.
  • Finish off with a long, heavy woollen tailored made overcoat.*

*Bonus points and extra warmth for treating your overcoat with a durable water repellent, GOR-TEX etc.

The Importance of Fit

Layering clothes must allow freedom of movement; hence, the fit is important. Your base layer should always be as closely fitted as possible. It needs to touch your body to be effective. Such garments usually have elastic or other stretchable material in them to give a skintight fit.


The insulating layers of clothes must range from thin and tight to thick and loose. A light woollen sweater will not provide effective insulation if worn over a bulky vest. For the outermost layers, choose ones that have a little looseness between them and the insulating layers. This will help with airflow and wetness.

Cold Weather Gear – Piece by Piece

  • Hats: Wear insulated headbands for active exercise and warmer days. Wear stocking caps for colder weather and light exercise. For the coldest days, wear balaclavas and ski masks.
  • Goggles: These provide protection from the wind, which can cause your eyes to tear up and the lashes to freeze. In lots of snow and sun, consider wearing dark lenses.
  • Scarves: These provide wind protection; wear them beneath the outermost layer.
  • Parkas: These usually reach down to the knees or lower and are bulky, but effective. For extra warmth, buy parkas with hoods.
  • Ski Jackets: Buy waist-length insulated jackets with a waterproofed exterior.
  • Weatherproof Shells: These are soft garments made of treated fabric which stop wind and water. These need to be paired with thick insulation layers as they have little insulation of their own.
  • Sweaters: Woollen sweaters are best. Thick, natural wool, which contains lanolin, is durable and water-resistant, while lighter cashmere wool provides good insulation, while being lightweight.
  • Performance Fleece: These are breathable, bulky and excellent for exercising in the winter.
  • Snow Pants: These are big, insulated pants with a waterproof outer layer. While these can fit over regular trousers, they are bulky and extremely warm.
  • Woollen Trousers: These provide utility as dress clothes and cold weather gear. The thicker the wool, the more wetness it can handle and the greater its warmth.
  • Flannel-lined Pants: These are common in blue jeans and add insulation to regular pants, even though they fail to provide insulation when wet.
  • Snow Boots: These are waterproof soft-sided boots with flexible soles and insulation on the insides.
  • Woollen Socks: Socks come in a variety of woollen and synthetic blends. Buy a pair of thick woollen socks with extra padding to trap more air for warmth.
  • Liner Socks: These are synthetic socks meant to be worn under warmer socks. They can wick moisture away from the feet.
  • Long Underwear: These keep the legs warm.
  • Under Armour: These are athletic-style moisture wicking undershirts. Avoid the versions made of plain cotton as they trap moisture.
  • Woollen Gloves: These are thin sock-style gloves meant to be worn beneath thicker gloves or mittens.
  • Ski Gloves: The most basic winter gloves, these are fingered gloves with padded insulation and weatherproof exteriors.
  • Mittens: Big, fingerless gloves, these are made from synthetic liners or natural sheepskin with the leather side out and the wool still attached to it.

Dressing for cold weather may seem complicated, but we hope we've provided you with a simple solution: Layer. Your. Clothes. If you'd like more help staying one stylish step ahead of Mother Nature every time, visit Montagio Custom Tailoring, your cold weather dressing specialists.

Original idea for article from Antonio Centeno, author of the internet's most actionable men's style guide. We recommend a read!

Image Credits: © George Mayer | Dreamstime.com © Fashionstock .com | Dreamstime.com


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