Polar Vortex Fashion: The Case for Long Johns

Our two-day stretch of Polar Vortex-induced weather didn't amount to much more than a brief, hard freeze, but even this Yankee was reaching for extra socks and sweaters on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning. Luckily I had just returned from two weeks in Alaska, so my cold weather gear was at the ready.

I grabbed up the usual items--a knit cap, a warmer-than-usual scarf, a couple of pair of those $1 stretchy gloves that I buy by the dozen and stick in coat pockets and backpacks--but I also threw a couple pair of thermal underwear (tops and bottoms) into the pile. What the hell, I thought--maybe I'll sleep in them?

Um, I wore long johns for three days straight, and you should be jealous. If you're a Texan, and you think long johns aren't for you, think again.

There was a time in my life when thermals were worn daily, for months on end, but I put them away when I moved to Texas and they have remained out of regular rotation for four years. But after I put them on Monday morning, I wore only long underwear until Wednesday afternoon. I'm not going to paint you a specific picture, but if you want to know what my freelance, work-at-home life looked like for the first two-and-a-half freezing days this week picture that Tom Cruise dance from Risky Business ... only in long johns instead of tighty-whities.

I wore long johns to bed. I wore them all day around the house as I worked from home; if I had to leave, I changed into a lightweight pair of silk thermals I own that go easily under jeans. We're dog-sitting, and on Tuesday I wore thermals under shorts when I walked the pups around the block and--I'm not proud of this--later that day I layered a big sweater over the (very opaque!) black long johns, as if they were leggings, and ran to the convenience store for milk. Even now I'm wearing them, if only to bed, or in the morning before the sun warms up the side of the house facing my home office.

If long johns feel like a totally weird thing to buy, I urge you to reconsider. Of all of the shopping lists I have made for you these last few years, the omission of long johns is a glaring one and I can only beg forgiveness--and offer you a few of my favorites to try:

Winter Silks

I spent a small fortune on silk long johns from Winter Silks before moving to Alaska in 2007; my concern was staying warm inside, during the day, without feeling like I was wearing too many layers. My lightest-weight silks lasted many years of skiing and machine washing in addition to everyday use. Also, they feel nice. These are the way to go if you want something to layer under clothes, or to lounge around the house in. WARNING: Opacity varies by color, weight, and fabric, so don't take the garbage to the curb in your silk thermals.


In anticipation of winter travel I updated my long john wardrobe at REI in December. I wasn't surprised to see a limited selection (it is Texas) until one of the sales guys told me the biggest pre-Christmas seller was hand and toe warmers. Huh? Of course I bought a bunch myself as stocking stuffers, but I would love to know why Texans were buying hand warmers by the fist-full in December. Anyway, I love both REI-brand pair of long john bottoms I purchased (around $40 each); these black pair were particularly great, with a lower rise and a non-binding waistband.


SmartWool thermal bottoms start at around $70 so we are moving up the price point scale. If you think you will get a lot of use out of your long johns, SmartWool are a good investment. Warm, durable, and--most importantly--soft, they are worth every penny. Throw in some socks, and maybe a pair of tights while you're at it. You should double check in a mirror, but I'm pretty sure these are a safe option to double as leggings, but only in an emergency because as we all know, tights are not pants.

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