Last Friday I was bombarded with the link to this Yahoo! story about Anchorage being voted the Worst Dressed city in America by Travel & Leisure magazine readers. Having lived in Alaska for three years before moving to Houston, I'm used to people sending me Alaska-related news items. (August 29, 2008, was one of the most annoying days of my life -- I was trying to move from Anchorage to Fairbanks that day, and everyone I knew in the Lower 48 was calling to ask me who the hell my governor was, anyway.)
I am usually pretty patient, and happy to answer questions because I get the fascination -- Alaska is fairly exotic to most people, and sparks the imagination of those who have never been. But after the eleventy billionth time the "Anchorage is the Worst Dressed City in America" story was e-mailed, IMed and Tweeted to me, I started to get pretty pissed off. I only lived in Anchorage for one summer -- I lived in Fairbanks the rest of the time I was in Alaska -- and this poll's conclusion really started to irk me. Who the eff do these people think they are, voting Anchorage the worst-dressed city in America?
It's obviously Fairbanks, dammit! Also, this:
If you are in Alaska looking at people's clothes, you are doing it wrong. And by "it" I mean "Alaska." If you are noticing what people are wearing, it's quite possible you just missed a moose. Or a mountain. Or a bear. Not to mention that Alaskans are very "honey badger" (as in, they don't give a shit) about what you (read: Outsiders) think of them. So, let's talk about Alaskan fashion.
Instead of looking cute, Alaskans are focused on one thing for more than half the year: not freezing to death. Weather varies widely throughout the state, but generally speaking winter lasts from October to April. (Native Texans might even say August to June -- depends on your threshold, I guess.)
It's incredibly difficult to be stylish when the weather is minus-50 degrees for weeks on end. Trust me, I tried. At those temperatures, even when you're inside you're cold, so pardon the ladies for not busting out their cutest skirts. And even in the summer -- when the sun shines all day and all night -- temperatures drop quickly.
In Alaska we bundle up, and we stay bundled up for six or more months: long underwear, jeans or Carhartts, long-sleeved tees under short-sleeve tees, all under sweatshirts and sweaters, and usually with a scarf and a hat, too -- even inside.
We ski and sled and snowshoe when it's warm enough, and we stay inside and drink when it's not. We huddle around roaring bonfires at minus-30 degrees and drink cans of PBR and flasks full of scotch, held between hands sheathed in mittens and gloves.
We trudge from building to car, car to building, and back again. The cold, and the dirt, and the stones that are thrown down to give us traction when we drive (road salt doesn't work at 50-below) worry the bottoms of our pants to shreds. So pardon us if we skip buying the latest cut of jeans -- we would rather just bang up last year's crappy pair of jeans that we bought at Value Village, anyway. We wear our flair as outerwear -- hats, gloves, scarves, mittens, and balaclavas are more important and more stylish than our footwear.
Do Alaskans always look like shit? No, of course not. But the rough climate and the active, outdoor lifestyle combine to create an extremely laid-back atmosphere. I've attended business meetings with a bandana on my head because I didn't have enough time to wash and dry my greasy hair before walking outside, and I was never the only one with a bandana on at any of those meetings. (Have you ever had wet hair freeze and break off? I have, it sucks--bandanas are better.)
In Alaska, you can wear hideously ugly bunny boots anywhere you like, because no one is going to give you the side-eye for not wanting to lose your toes to frostbite. Even the nicest restaurants don't have dress codes, because it would eliminate pretty much any local from becoming a customer.
And you know what? It's an incredibly fucking freeing experience, not worrying about what you look like all the time. I go back to Alaska at least twice a year, and you know what I pack? Underwear, tee-shirts, a sweatshirt, sneakers, hiking boots, two bandanas, waterproof coat/pants, jeans, socks, and a scarf; in my toiletry kit I pack a toothbrush, face wipes, moisturizer, Q-tips, and deodorant.
No mascara. No bras. No lipstick. No slips, or tights, or non-practical footwear of any kind. I don't get a manicure. I don't buy a cute new swimsuit. I don't wear jewelry other than my wedding ring. The bottom line is that, more than in most places, Alaskans dress with utility and survival in mind; add that to the lack of shopping options -- at my fingertips in Fairbanks were a Sears, a Fred Meyer, an Old Navy, and several REI-style sporting goods stores--and you don't get a recipe for a high-fashion population.
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Oh, and as a former-and-always Fairbanksan, I REALLY take exception to the idea that Los Anchorage--the slick, "big city" part of Alaska, where there is a Gap and a Nordstrom and a Banana Republic; the city where, if you stand in just the right place you might even be able to see the "real" Alaska? -- is the worst dressed city in Alaska.
I posit that Fairbanks, that city at the end of the road, is far worse dressed than its well-heeled sister to the south. And happily so. We'll take our endless days of summer and seize the opportunity, not to look yanked from a fashion magazine, but to spend every minute enjoying the 24 hours of sunlight on trails, mountaintops, and canoeing down rivers full of fish that we'll catch and eat for dinner. Who needs Louboutins for that?