Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fashion Goes Geeky: Travel Wardrobe Engineering

We just got back from a two-week two-climate trip, without convenient laundry facilities at either location. Hauling all that luggage led to a lot of Never Again thoughts, combined with bonus This Time I Really Mean It thoughts. It's time for the travel wardrobe. Really. I'm serious. Stop looking at me like that. (Edited to offer clarification: The Never Again was about the luggage. The size and weight. The failure to create a nice nimble wardrobe that could be carried in a nice nimble suitcase. Not about the traveling. I mention this to remove ambiguity.)

Now, when many websites and books talk about travel wardrobes, they focus on making stylish outfits, and ensuring variety in your clothes, and dealing with wrinkles. That's not the issue here. I'm talking about (1) carrying fewer clothes, while remaining (2) not-stinky. I love perfume, but I want it to be optional. As I see it, that's all about Sweat Layer Management.

Does that term already tell you what I mean? The Sweat Layers of an outfit are the garment(s) that shield other garment(s), and the world in general, from bodily substances. Including, but not limited to, sweat. When traveling, those are the garments that you have to pack enough of to change every day, and haul home again, in our case in that plastic bag that hotels provide for, but we never use for, their extortionately-priced laundry services. We call it the Toxic Bag, as in, "I'm out of underwear! Did you wash the Toxic Bag?"

Now, there are alternatives to hauling these garments back and forth, such as the one expressed by Christina Yang on Gray's Anatomy as "I don't do laundry, I just buy new underwear." The cost of a checked bag these days makes that sound more plausible than it did at first thought. But I'm not ready for that step. I want smaller and lighter suitcases, not disposable clothes.

And anyway, many apparently outer layer garments act as a Sweat Layer whether they like it or not. Shirts, for example; until antiperspirant commercials stop being fiction, a shirt worn next to your underarm is a Sweat Layer garment, even if it doesn't end up in the Toxic Bag. But it also has to serve for fashion, warmth, and not-being-naked. Those extra functions probably make it bulkier in the suitcase than it would be if it were strictly doing the Sweat Layer job. So why not split the jobs? Make the Sweat Layer as low-bulk as possible, or, if you're tolerant of hotel sink laundry, as washable as possible. And then float the outer layer above it, staying nice and clean and re-wearable.

So if I'm going to a cold place for a week I can pack seven heavy flannel shirts, or I can pack seven short-sleeved low-scoop-neck silk undershirts and two flannel shirts. (In theory, it could be one flannel shirt, but I like to keep the Tomato Sauce Risk Factor in mind.) Or seven undershirts, two little cotton or silk blouses, and a warm sweater that I can wear in transit. (The sweater would be black. Tomato Sauce.)

The problem is finding the undershirts. That's why this started out to be a sewing post, but, really, there's not much sewing about it. There are garments that I want, and I might have to sew them to get them or I might not. I want those undershirts, with a neck lower and the sleeves shorter than any sleeved garment that I ever wear, so that the shirt is invisible. I have yet to find them.

I also want a magic bra that rolls up tiny and packs small and holds everything up without an underwire and without those sturdy comfy jogging bra straps that always show just a little bit beyond anything but a snug crewneck shirt. That's not likely to happen, and neither is hand-washing underwire bras in the hotel sink, and I'm certainly not going to make my bras. So I'll just have to determine my rewearing tolerance, do the math, and pack that many bras in a little pancake in the suitcase. Or pay the extortionate hotel laundry fees.

Below the waist, my strategy depends on skirts. I don't care how many layers I'm wearing, there's a little too much....closeness with divided garments, for me to be comfortable wearing them day after day without a washer/dryer. Skirts also have the advantage that they can stop just below the knee, making a narrowish skirt far less bulky than a pair of pants. (Of course, they can stop well above the knee, but I'm sticking with a mainstream modesty level here.)

So my theoretical wardrobe could consist of (ignoring the conventional underwear layer):
  • Short sleeve scoop neck silk or microfiber knit undershirts (one per day)
  • Lightweight tights (one per day)
  • Shirts (two)
  • Skirts (two)
  • An optional opaque half-slip, if I object to looking the same every day. I could float a variety of gossamer-weight skirts over the opaque slip, and gauzy tops over the undershirts, getting variety with garments that, in a pinch, I could stuff in a coffee mug.
  • Shoes, sweater, and coat, worn in transit.
  • Gauzy silk scarves and jewelry and perfume to reduce boredom.
This all assumes that I won't be wearing heels. (For some other women it might instead mean that they're wearing only heels, but, well, yeah, very funny.) And that I'm staying in a hotel with an iron. Of course, sweat layer or no, there's a limit to how many times I can wear the outer garments, but it's a much higher limit. Extortionate hotel laundry fees might become tolerable.

For the winter, this still leaves a frozen-legs issue, which had me looking at leg warmers, but I just couldn't take the Eighties vibe. Long coat? Long boots? I can wear either in transit, after all, but do I want to wear boots my whole trip? Leggings? A long wool skirt? Get over it and embrace the leg warmers?

The summer is more problematic--while a half-slip is probably still fine, two layers above the waist, both with sleeves, would be painful. On the other hand, in the summer I might just be able to wear those short-sleeved silk undershirts as my shirt. That still leaves a shoe issue: I don't want to wear tights or hose in the heat, I don't like socks with skirts, I don't like wearing sandals in strange places, and I don't like the feeling of bare feet in most shoes. I suspect that the solution is to find a closed shoe that is friendly to bare feet. They have to exist; I just don't know where.

So it's a theoretical plan, with some products to find. We'll see what happens. Meanwhile, thoughts? Advice? Any moments in this post where you said, "Noooo!"? What are your travel packing strategies?

Image: Wikimedia Commons


  1. No need to be barefoot in closed shoes -- the answer is sockettes rather than socks. They are cut low enough to not be visible in most shoes. Mainstream hosiery brands like Secret make them and they can be found in most larger drug stores (and, of course department stores). Usually you can find them in nylon or cotton. If you want the broadest range in styles and colours check out the Hue brand.

    -- Lindaloo

  2. Hmm. I had forgotten those, because years ago the cheap nylon panty-hose-esque ones would fall off my feet and vanish like no more than a piece of lint. But looking at Hue, I see that they come in cotton and microfiber, and I see a mention of an adhesive-like area. I'll try those; thanks!