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So you want to be a scandinavian?

How to dress for a Scandinavian winter

About a month ago I got the following message on Facebook from an English friend of mine:

“We are probably moving to Stockholm/Uppsala in the next few months and I thought maybe you could give me some tips on how to dress for Nordic weather. What should I buy before I leave and what are the most important pieces of clothing and accessories that I will need to see me through the long winters. My wardrobe is pitifully in need of updating after spending the last 10 years living as a student so I really need to get buying some new pieces, so any recommendations about how to start putting together a nice wardrobe would be very handy too!”

Furthermore she had this to day about English weather:

“We very rarely get snow here at all, like maybe once a year at most. Its just rains incessantly. And the problem with British people is that we don’t know what to do about cold or snow or rain or sun so we just keep wearing the same clothes and moan about it more.”

And of course I would love to help! I complain about our winters a lot, but I sure do know how to get through them without being wet or cold.

 

First of all: Find out what the climate is like where you are going, because there is no such thing as one Nordic climate. Where I live it doesn’t get very cold all that often, but it rains for 2/3 of the year and our summers are a joke. In other places it might not be that rainy but instead be cold as hell. Do your research and save yourself a few sartorial headaches!

Socks

Let’s start at the bottom first, shall we? If you Brits really are as hopeless as you say you are then I bet you only own cotton socks. Cotton socks are fine, but when it gets cold you really want wool. Now, I know what you are thinking: Maja, you are crazy, wool socks are thick and bulky and can’t really fit inside my shoes! Wrong my shivering Brit! Buy yourself a couple of pairs of thin wool socks for those extra frosty days. Trust me, it makes a huge difference. That doesn’t mean I’m against the thick bulky ones, but I find they are best used inside the house (or worn inside boots that you accidentally bought too large).

How to dress for a Scandinavian winter

Shoes

For a Scandinavian winter you really need proper boots. Do not buy synthetic leather – your feet will get sweaty and disgusting and they will smell and you will hate your life. Trust me, you want leather. Get a pair that is lined for all-around toastiness: I have a pair of fleece lined Doc Marten’s, but other people swear by brands like Sorel. You could also get unlined boots, but in that case you should make sure you can fit those extra thick wool socks inside them. Also, don’t get Uggs. Just don’t. They are bad for your feet and they are not made for rain and snow. You probably need a pair of wellies as well, but trust me, they will not double as winter boots.

How to dress for a Scandinavian winter

Base layer

So you’ve got your wool socks and you are hopefully wearing underwear. Congratulations! You don’t need any special underwear to become a Scandinavian, but you do need something between your underwear and your everyday clothes, namely either wool mix or thermal tights and tops. These will be your best friends. You will wear them under sweatpants when walking the dog, you will wear them underneath your lighter and not-quite-winter-appropriate tops once it gets colder, you will wear them when hiking, you will wear them ALL. THE. TIME. Sometimes you might slip into the bathroom at work and peel this layer off because it is too warm inside. This is why we layer: it’s not a fashion statement, it is a necessity. Just remember to keep the layers many and thin instead of few and bulky, okay? This makes it easier to adjust from street to office.

How to dress for a Scandinavian winterMid layers

I can’t speak for the whole of Scandinavia here, but with the exception of shorts, summer skirts and thin summer tops, you will mostly wear the same clothes all year round (see: layering). That wool sweater you wore to death in January? You might need to break that sucker out one July evening when your newfound Scandi-friend wants to take you crab fishing. Your jeans will be worn all year round (so please don’t buy the ones with large rips in them, because you’ll effectively have less jeans in rotation come winter). Sometimes it will be 12 degrees and raining in August. Sometimes it will be 12 degrees and raining in December. You never know. It happens. Learn to love your clothes, because they will always be in the loop. Skirts can be worn with 20 denier nylon tights in summer or double wool tights in winter. T-shirts can be worn with long-sleeved wool tops underneath and a plaid shirt on top.

 

A word of caution: Spring and fall will be a confusing time for you. You will be freezing in the morning and boiling by lunch, courtesy of the huge floor-to-ceiling windows that we love to equip our office buildings with. Layers are your friend. Say it with me: Layers are your friend. Peel them off and go on your merry way.

How to dress for a Scandinavian winter

Outerwear

Okay. We have established that you need good socks, proper winter boots, some light wool/thermal tops and tights and that you need to be prepared to wear the same damn clothes for most of the year, so now it is time to pick out your winter outerwear.

First of all: A warm coat or parka. Screw jackets, get a coat or parka. Something that will keep your butt and upper thighs warm. A coat will need to have a high wool content (preferably 70% or higher) and be practical for your needs. I don’t know whether you need to look dressy or if you need to be waterproof and practical, but define your need and keep it in mind when you go shopping. There’s no need to waste cash on a beautifully flared Disney princess coat if you spend 45 minutes walking to work in the rain every morning, and there’s no need getting an arctic-proof Canada Goose parka if you drive everywhere (although I’m sure someone will argue me on that one). Most of us need both a practical and a stylish option during the colder months, so you might find that you need to own both a Disney coat and the kind of parka that could survive the tundra. You know this better than I do. Either way, you will be wearing this garment for a huge chunk of the year so pick a good one! And for goodness’ sake, if you’re buying a parka make sure it is waterproof. Non-waterproof parkas are pointless.

Second of all: hats, gloves and scarves. They’re not mere accessories, oh no. They are necessities in their own right. The wool content rule also applies here, i.e the higher the better. I’m a simple girl: I own three wool scarves, a gray and a black beanie, and two pairs of knitted fingerless gloves plus a pair of lined leather gloves. They are my workhorses and I would be an icicle without them.

Before I continue I will leave you with an honorable mention: The wool Buff. It can be a headband, it can be a scarf, and it takes up no space at all. Invaluable if you like to be in activity outdoors, or if you would like to keep your ears warm without ruining your hairdo. I always wear one when I go hiking or running in the winter.

How to dress for a Scandinavian winter

Other things to keep in mind

  • Rain gear might be a good idea. This depends on where you will be moving, but a rain jacket and rain pants might very well prove themselves invaluable. I wear my rain pants so often it makes me want to weep. Remember: snow is water, too!
  • Do you run? Fleece-lined running tights, baby.
  • Need a new everyday bag? Save yourself the headache and make it a waterproof one.
  • Embrace unsexy sleepwear. Wool socks, sweatpants and a longsleeved tee is perfectly acceptable in the winter. No shame.
  • Buy a hardcore lip balm and hand cream. And a good moisturizer. And a hair mask.
  • Remember to treat those leather boots! They will keep you dry and warm through rain and slush and ice, so buy a good leather conditioner and give them a pampering every 4 weeks or so in the roughest months.
  • Buy a Moomin mug. They check your luggage for Moomin mugs on the border and they won’t let you move here unless you have one.

And that was it: you are now prepared and ready to become a full-fledged Scandinavian.

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  1. It is so true about there being no such thing as one kind of Scandinavian kind of weather. I own none of these items, except wool scarves. I live in the south.

    A few years ago we did actually have 11 degrees and cloudy weather on both June 25. and December 25.! Ha!

  2. I kid you not, I read this while sipping coffee from my Moomin mug, wearing still two wool layers from my morning walk.

    I would also add that summers might be tricky too. Like it might be almost tropical in June, or it might be so cold that you keep wondering if it’ll start snowing. Which might actually happen if you’re not so lucky.

  3. I mostly agree with you, although Oslo (where I live) seems to treat its inhabitant a bit nicer than Bergen – at least weather-wise..
    My winter wardrobe is therefore pretty similar to my autumn/spring wardrobe, except from the mandatory wool base layer tops. Also I would not survive without my super awsome Aecteryx parka. Seriously, my life quality improved so much after buying a proper winter coat for the first time.

    On the shoe front, however, I prefer it cheap and easy. Every time I buy leather boots I seem to ruin them within a few months.. I choose to blame it on the salt that they always pour on the winter roads. So, this year I wore sneakers with extra thick wool insoles – worked perfectly (but then again, it rarely rains here).

  4. Great guide! I’ve usually had a great fun every August when new students came to study at my university in Tromsø. No, you can’t wear wellies in winter, you’ll freeze to death and also will always be slipping and sliding. No, hoodie isn’t outerwear, and neither are two hoodies worn one on top of another. And your Uggs will be destroyed after just one way of walking in knee-deep snow.

    Ironically, I’ve made lots of mistakes myself when moving from Tromsø to Ireland and then Scotland. Like getting rid of my dawn parka and Sorels, because “yay, I’ll never see snow again”. Nope. I don’t know about other parts of the UK, but a warm parka is a must-have when you live in Edinburgh.

  5. This applies totally to German winter too, and after years of trial-and-error my winter gear is almost exactly like what you recommended.

    A couple for extra tips from me:
    * If your winter parka doesn’t have a really nice warm hood, get an extra warm cap that will protect you from those times where the strong wind is trying to fling snow down the back of your neck.
    * Ear-warmers is a tip I picked up from Amsterdam. It is great for spring and autumn since it keeps your ears warm but doesn’t mess your hair up like caps do. For winter I often wear ear warmers under the hood of my parka (the hood doesn’t fit snguly).
    * Knee-length socks are amazing, I often layer them over my thermal leggings and under my trousers.
    * Merino wool shoe inserts keep my feet extra warm.
    * Hot water bottles to sleep with!