8 Things to Wear in the UK in Winter
It’s often been observed that while British people love to talk about the weather, we’re not very good at dressing for it.
Perhaps that’s because – in most situations – you don’t need to plan too much for bad weather in the UK. So long as you’re not trying to climb one of Scotland’s highest mountains in flip-flops, you’re unlikely to encounter much by the way of extreme weather. Snow is rare enough in most places that schools get closed and planes grounded if there’s more than the lightest of dustings. There are seldom particularly strong storms, let alone a hurricane. There are some areas where annual flooding is becoming a growing problem, but floods that require evacuations are still unusual enough to make front-page news.
Britain may have a reputation for rain, but even that varies considerably across the country; in Oxford, even in the rainiest month of the year, January, there are just 11.5 days on average with rainfall. In London, it’s just 11.1. No wonder British people are so often caught in rainfall without an umbrella. It helps that the UK is well-designed for rainfall – if it suddenly starts bucketing it down when you’re in any city centre, there are usually covered shopping centres or department stores that you can nip into until it eases off.
So why do British people talk about the weather so much? One theory, expounded by anthropologist Kate Fox in her book Watching the English, is that it’s nothing to do with the weather itself. It’s just that British people are uncomfortable with talking about personal subjects with people they don’t know (and some subjects – such as religion and politics – might not be discussed except with the closest of friends). The weather is ideally impersonal; it’s always happening, it’s variable enough to provide a changing topic, and no one is going to be offended by talking about it.
Fox notes that in weather conversations, British people always agree with one another. If one person says “it’s lovely and warm today, isn’t it?”, the other will almost always say something like, “yes, it’s nice to get some sun.” If there’s disagreement (“I thought it was quite chilly”), then the conversation becomes awkward, and the first person might try to salvage agreement (“I suppose there is a bit of a cold breeze”). This isn’t the conversation of people who are trying to exchange useful information; it’s social glue that encourages people to agree because they’re talking about something too trivial to disagree about.
That’s important to remember if you’re asking a British person about the weather – they’ll be prioritising the social dance of talking about the weather over giving you a truthful answer. And that won’t help you much in deciding to wear. So if you’re coming to the UK in winter, here’s what you should be packing.
Above all, weather in the UK is changeable. A day that starts out sunny and delightful might be grey with showers over lunchtime, only to perk up again in the afternoon. Temperature changes of five degrees or more are normal in a single day; you shouldn’t be surprised to encounter changes of ten or more in any given week. That means you shouldn’t make any assumptions about what the weather will be like on the basis of what it was like when you got up.
How do you dress for that sort of changeability? The key is layers. How you interpret that depends on your own style – you might like vest tops under shirts with a jumper over the top, or favour cardigans that you can fold up and put in your bag if the sun starts shining. And layers don’t just help with the shifting temperatures. Several thin layers will also typically keep you warmer than one thick garment, as they trap more air between them. It also means that if the top layer gets soaked by an unexpected rainfall, the rain shouldn’t soak you all the way through to the skin.
2. A big, warm coat
That said, it’s also worth having one thick layer as well. If you come from a cold country, such as Canada, then this will seem blatantly obvious, but if not, then it’s worth thinking about how warm your coat really is. You definitely don’t want some kind of fashion coat that’s essentially an oversized hoodie, or one with three-quarter length sleeves. Look instead for one that makes you feel uncomfortably warm when you’re trying it on, suggesting that it’ll properly keep you warm when you’re out in the cold.
British people have a lot of sentimental feelings about their warm coats. One particularly iconic design is the duffle coat, which is made of heavy woollen cloth, often in a bright colour, and fastened by toggles. Most duffle coats will be thick enough to keep you warm in the worst temperatures that the British winter can throw at you, though they can becomes uncomfortably heavy and sodden when it rains. They have a patchwork of associations: with left-wing politics, 90s music, and the fictional character of Paddington Bear, who wears a blue duffle coat, a red hat, and red wellies.
3. A raincoat
So you’ve got your heavy coat for winter, but that’s not all you’ll need. British weather has the tendency to be rainy without necessarily being cold, and that can make it useful to have a lighter, waterproof raincoat as well. If it’s cold and rainy, then you can layer up underneath the raincoat. Outdoor stores will sell you expensive raincoats with lots of pockets, breathable fabric and various other nifty innovations designed for people going on long hikes in the rain. But if you’re just planning on wearing it to the shops, you don’t need to worry about spending that much money. You might want to opt for something just as expensive and waterproof, but a bit more stylish. Alternatively, you could get a foldable mac that you can just pull out of your bag at the point when it starts raining. Just make sure it has a hood!
You might encounter some people in the UK whose rain planning is a bit more elaborate. If you really hate getting wet, you can get things like waterproof overtrousers as well – you’ll look silly, but you’ll definitely be dry from top to bottom.
Hats aren’t a wardrobe staple in the UK; until the very depths of winter, most people just do without them. But then, it’s also an odd social norm in the UK to pretend that it’s a lot warmer than it really is, especially when you go further north. A warm snap in April that nudges the temperatures over 15 degrees for the first time that year will see people out and about in t-shirts and shorts, perhaps even attempting to sunbathe. If you’re from a warm country, it’s probably best not to follow suit, and instead to wrap up as warm as you’d like to be.
That means being prepared to stand out from the crowd and wear a hat. British weather frequently combines wind and rain, so you probably don’t want something broad-brimmed and floppy – think instead about a tight-fitting beanie hat that isn’t going to come off in a strong wind. You might even like to consider a hat with ear-flaps to make sure that your ears stay cosy as well. But what you shouldn’t wear under any circumstances is a balaclava. Yes, it might seem sensible to cover not only your ears but your neck and mouth as well, but it’s best not to do that with a single garment. Balaclavas in the UK are strongly associated with crime, especially terrorism, especially the terrorism committed by the IRA and the modern-day organisations that seek to emulate them. Best not to go down that path – even if your balaclava is brightly coloured with a cheerful pattern.
Thankfully, there are no such uncomfortable cultural associations with wearing a nice, warm scarf – and you can wrap it around your neck or bury your chin in it to keep extra warm if you’d like. Scarves are worn as a fashion statement much more by women than by men in the UK, but all genders wear them when it’s cold enough to need to keep your neck warm.
Universities also typically have scarves in their own pattern and colours; there’s a scarf for each of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. You can usually spot them because they’re woollen and stripey, although the scarf for the University of Oxford as a whole is single-colour Oxford blue. You can also look out for the college or university crest embroidered on the scarf. In some cases, there will also be distinct undergraduate and graduate scarves.
A similar tradition is scarves associated with different football clubs, which, like university scarves, tend to be striped in team colours. If you’re a fan of stripey scarves, it’s worth finding out what the local team colours are, so that you don’t accidentally wear the colours of a rival team on a day when there’s a match!
6. Gloves or mittens
Even if you don’t think that British weather gets cold enough for you to need a woolly hat or scarf, you’d be foolish to go without a good pair of gloves or mittens. The typical levels of rain in Britain mean that cold temperatures in winter tend to be damp, rather than crisp, and that can leave your fingers particularly chilly. Gloves leave each finger separate, while a mitten has one section for your thumb and one section for all your other fingers, which is usually warmer but less practical if you want to hold something, or send a text. While gloves don’t usually work with smartphones, you can get some that have tips on the fingers and thumbs that will allow you to use your smartphone while wearing them.
Worried that you’ll lose your gloves? British schoolchildren are sometimes given ‘mitten minders’, which is essentially just a piece of string that goes through one sleeve of your coat and out the other sleeve, attaching to a mitten at either end, so that when you take your gloves off, they just dangle from the arms of your coat and can’t get lost. Or you could just put them in your pockets.
Wellington boots, usually abbreviated to wellies, are waterproof, durable, knee-high rubber boots that let you wander around on muddy ground, through puddles or even through a flood without your feet getting wet. Traditionally, they’re khaki green, but you can get wellies in just about any colour, and bright colours and patterns are popular. They’re a must-have in British weather if you plan on going anywhere that might be damp and muddy, such as an outdoor festival.
Wellies are named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who is famed for his defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. At the time, standard military dress included Hessian boots, made of leather, with a low heel and a semi-pointed toe, reaching to the knee. Wellington favoured a modified version where the front extended upwards to cover the knee. Though it didn’t have much in common with the modern rubber wellie, Wellington’s boots became fashionable, and the name stuck right through to the boots we wear today.
Wellies are ingrained enough in British life that they even play a role in a niche sport called wellie wanging, where the object is to kick a wellie from the end of your foot to as great a distance as possible.
8. An umbrella
From huge golfing umbrellas that fit four people under them, to tiny handbag-sized umbrellas where you have to choose which shoulder you prefer to keep dry, the umbrella lets you ward off the worst of the British rain in a radius around yourself – so it’s not only your hair that doesn’t get wet, but your bag, smartphone and anything else you might be carrying. An umbrella is not an item of clothing, but it’s so indispensable a part of coping with the vagaries of British weather that it couldn’t possibly be omitted from this list.
Images: layered clothes; big fluffy coat; yellow raincoat; knit hat; chunky scarf; girl with mittens over face; wellies; red umbrella; mittens and coffee; yarnton manor in snow