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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fashion Versus Frostbite: A Primer

The Real Russian Winter has now truly descended: "Yeah, it was 35 below on New Year's. We roasted some shashlik out at the dacha", you say nonchalantly to your friends back West, exaggerating only slightly in order to prove how tough you really are.

Along with the plummeting temperatures comes the vital question -- how can you save yourself from frostbite without sacrificing your fashion integrity?

The Russians dress for their famous winters in many different ways, according to social classes and economic means. Take, for example, the young dudes on the Arbat, the ultimate slaves to style. They don't care if they live in a hovel and don't eat as long as they look like Real Men. Which means that even in subzero climes they wont wear a hat, unless it's a rabbit-fur shapka they can whip off and sell to a passing foreigner for vast profit. They model themselves on their customers; the required attire includes American nylon jackets with football team logos, high-top sneakers, bandanas, and Ray Ban sunglasses. So what if there's only two hours of sunlight a day?

Equally disregarding of the weather are the "commercial girls", the ornaments on the arms of the black-leather clad kiosk owners and biznesmeni. They don't wear hats, either. Why should they? They're always in cars anyway. Instead they wrap big printed Turkish scarves around their necks -- not their heads, they dont want to mess the hair -- and wear soft leather jackets and boots.

Boots for people who actually walk places, take public transportation, or stand in the cold, are necessarily sturdier. The really proper ones, valenki, or felt boots, are rarely seen in Moscow without protective galoshes, as they are meant for deep, clean snow. Valenki, along with two or three grey-brown fuzzy scarves, a battered black overcoat and a green army rucksack, constitute the classic Russian peasant-in-the-city gear. The police wear valenki too, further enforcing the belief held by most Muscovites that the militia and the traffic police are just country bumpkins that do the work that city dwellers refuse to do.

A more refined, but equally traditional look for women brings back memories of the romantic Russia of "Doctor Zhivago": the rosebud face framed, by the flowery scarf, the little fur or Astrakhan hat, the long flowing woollen coat with a fur collar; the feminine, long-fingered gloves. It's a pity a muff is a bit impractical for modern-day Moscow living. The only jarring note used to be the bright red or pink high-heeled Soviet boots, but the influx of imported footwear now provides the well-turned out devushka with more options.

Moscow is not only snowed under by foreign footwear, but also by the Chinese down jackets on sale all over the city for the first time. The Chinese have managed to practically corner the market on coats with their puffy hooded garments. The old Communist bureaucrats wouldn't be seen dead in such items, however. They have stuck to the old uniform of the grey woolen coat, with a matching black Astrakhan collar and hat.

But even the many Muscovites who buy the Chinese jackets and end up looking like sleeping bags don't come close to emulating the "I live in the Arctic" dress code of the paranoid foreigner.

People who arrive here from Florida are obviously going to be worried about how to shield themselves from the winters that defeated Napoleon and Hitler. So along with their Vicks VapoRub, they bring over every cold-weather item in the L. L. Bean and Eddie Bauer catalogues. Gore-Tex gloves, polypropolene thermal underwear, ski masks, six-inch thick wool socks, and a hooded parka you could fit a bear under. Not a square inch of skin is involuntarily exposed in the quest to defend themselves from the great Russian winter. They'll soon learn. After a few winters here, they'll stop fretting about fashion and just warm up with vodka like everyone else.