It's January. Your instincts tell you to wear flannel pants and a sweater, but the temperature outside is 80 degrees. And the five-day forecast promises more of the same. You're beginning to wonder if your favorite tweed suit will ever make it out of the dry cleaner's bag.
This time of year in Southern California, the great communal fashion experience is buying a stunning winter blouse/sweater/blazer combo that looks wonderful in a magazine but risking heat exhaustion if you wear it.
In other parts of the country, seasonless dressing--the fashion industry's buzz phrase for clothes that work year-round--is a nice option. Here, it's mandatory. Fortunately, the quest to look neither too wintry nor too summery has been made easier by fabric innovations and by the loosening of fashion rules (such as wearing patent leather or pastels regardless of the calendar).
Still, especially for people accustomed to more diverse weather, it can be difficult to overcome years of wardrobe conditioning. "I have a seasonal clock I haven't been able to ignore," says Abby Van Pelt, a social worker who moved to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania a dozen years ago. "When football season comes around, I get out the sweaters stored under the bed. I wear clothes just because it's the right season."
But she has made some concessions to her adopted climate. When wearing a coat, Van Pelt leaves it unfastened. And when layering, she makes sure the bottom garment is as presentable as the top one.
"In Philadelphia, the bottom layers could be grungy because no one would ever see them," she says. "Here, I've peeled down to the last layer by the afternoon."
Los Angeles designers know the challenge of creating clothes that can span our temperature swings. "It's harder to dress in L.A. than it is in New York," says Allen B. Schwartz, owner and design director of a.b.s. "Here, it's cold in the morning, warm in the afternoon and cold at night. You're dressing for 8 to 11:30, noon to 5, and 6 to 11. In New York, if you wake up to a cold day, it'll be cold all day."
Schwartz says seasonless dressing starts with the right fabrics; he recommends such middleweights as tropical-weight wool and all rayons (one form of which is viscose). But blends should make up the backbone of an all-year wardrobe; fine-gauge gabardine and crepe are two wool/rayon hybrids that work well in tailored designs.
Cashmere can be worn six to eight months of the year, but only the thinnest weights, with short sleeves, make sense when it's warm, Schwartz says.
Other traditional winter fabrics can work in summer if they're the right colors and weights. "Corduroy, believe it or not, is seasonless today," he adds. "In winter it's brown and in the summer it's light blue, white or apricot." Leather works year-round. And "a velvet cocktail dress in one of the new pastels like aqua, apricot or lavender is very attractive for summer."
And the list goes on. Synthetics blended with natural fibers represent a whole new category of seasonless fabrics, says June Rau, fashion director for Nordstrom. And these man-made materials take on distinctive personalities. A triacetate/linen blend, for example, looks like neither synthetic triacetate nor fragile linen. "The beauty of it is that it's very lightweight, easy to move in," Rau says.
Southern Californians generally have more latitude in wearing bright colors, but year-round wardrobes should lean heavily on a base of such neutrals as navy, beige, gray and black, the experts say. White is strictly for summer, but ivory, or winter white, is seasonless.
When traditionally warm-weather sleeveless sheaths, some with matching jackets, were introduced last spring as a style option for fall and winter, women in many parts of the country ruled them out for fear of chilly arms. In California, bareness made sense.
"It was the surprise of the fall 1995 runways," says Rau, noting that the look continues in spring collections. Get too hot and you take off the jacket, or the jacket can be worn over layers of slightly warmer separates, she says.
Rau, a former Seattle resident, admits that she used to participate in the cold-weather ritual of "switching closets"--bringing out her winter wardrobe to exchange with summer clothes, or vice versa. Now, except for a handful of cashmere sweaters and summer whites, her closet looks the same year-round.
"I probably won't wear my heavy wool boucle suit this year at all," says Rau with a sigh of regret. "It hasn't been cold enough."