Chapter 1 – The Revolution of a Woman in a Raincoat
As a woman I consider myself fortunate to have been born in the early 1930s with respect to wearing raincoats. I might have liked to have been born perhaps 30 years earlier so that I could have experienced some of the flapper era and the long heavy rubber coats that women wore along with men. We forget that before large numbers of women went to work as teachers, secretaries, and nurses, the occasions for a woman to wear a raincoat were rare. Before women advanced to professional positions, by and large a raincoat was not needed in her wardrobe if she were primarily a homemaker. Additionally, those women who worked in factories probably could not afford more than one coat: that was certain to be a winter overcoat.
Before the 1920s, raincoats were the province of men who were fishermen, police, sailors, and just about any man who had to go the work and be exposed to wet weather. The rare student who might advance to high school might have the means in his or her family to own and wear a raincoat so that bad weather would not be an obstacle to their attendance. Raincoats were definitely a luxury item.
By the 1920s, it was increasingly common for unmarried women to go to work. These women often worked in professional positions. Suddenly women had a work wardrobe and a raincoat was no longer a luxury item but a needed protection.. Pouring rain did not excuse anyone from their job and this included women. As I have learned over the years walking to school or commuting to work or going shopping nothing stopped on account of a downpour. And with the frequent gusty wind that accompanied rainstorms especially in coastal regions like the New York Metropolitan Area, an umbrella was often useless. You relied solely on a raincoat and a rain hat much of the time.
As she learned to embrace her raincoat and got used to getting quite wet, these city slicker women discovered their freedom. With her raincoat, terrible weather no longer confined her to home. Having places to go and a wage to earn, a raincoat enabled a woman to live her own life even when the weather was at its worst. Her slicker was her armor. “I need to wear my raincoat” was a powerful statement of self-assertion.
My own mom and my aunts saw their raincoats as an expression of their new identity and personhood. They certainly wanted to share this experience with their daughters, and also for that matter, with their sons. A raincoat quite understandably came to be regarded as a second skin and the outer garment of a self-actualized adult. It was easy to go out when the weather was fine. There was no great challenge in that. But when she heard the rain hammering against the windows, she couldn’t wait to get her raincoat on. Every downpour raised the bar, and just made her grit her teeth and eagerly pull on her trusted raincoat. A modern woman was not going to let any rainstorm stop her. The rain would neither impede her nor come through her raincoat. In her raincoat she was impermeable not only to the weather but also to confinement. She could venture outdoors and the rain could pour on her without let up. And just as she found strength in the rain pounding down on her raincoat, the world became hers. She could walk blocks and blocks to school, stand at parades and watch sporting events and take in the lights of Times Square all in soaking downpours. A mother might share this experience by allowing her sons and daughters to escape the confines of tight city quarters and go out and play in the rain in their raincoats. A mother’s command to “wear your raincoat” was an invitation to something exciting indeed!
Fortuitously, this was the world into which I was born.The raincoat was a sign of other things as well. A woman and her wet raincoat signaled determination. Dressed for the storm, she proved as reliable as a man. Up until 1940, raincoats for women quite naturally had a feminine cut and style. Feminine expressions in fashion rainwear continued. But with the emergence of the balmacaan raincoat, a woman could adopt a men’s style as her own. If she had to weather torrential rain storms and get wet In order to take her place in the marketplace alongside men let it rain! Let it pour! She now had the coat to do it all in. She traded her rubberized coat for rain shedding poplin. Being all-weather it became her everyday coat for every occasion. And on every occasion her coat was a sign that she was always prepared for the rain, always prepared for something to go awry and it would not faze her. She could wear or carry her raincoat with her and could fold it, even crumple it, drape it around her shoulders or tie it around her waist. For high school and college women and even younger students who wanted to look like their big sisters, her raincoat went everywhere!
When I received my first Balmacaan raincoat with the reversible tweed inner facing, it was a godsend. My metabolism ran hot and by wearing my old rubber raincoat at anything above 65 degrees I would sweat my raincoat and my dress. I could wear even summer shifts and be bare armed under the steamy slicker. Nothing worked for me under the rubber coat. By contrast, I could wear my new raincoat virtually everyday. And if it started to pour, I was ready. I could fan it when I was feeling sultry and hot and cool both the New Jersey humidity and my emerging adolescent maturity. I did up silk scarves and rain hoods and tussled with umbrellas in the wind over my raincoat – in two inch rainstorms from fifth grade to adulthood I soaked it, drenched it – truth be told I soaked the hell out of my raincoat whenever the rain came down in buckets over Jersey City and Manhattan. For fun and for practical reasons – there were times I would borrow a dry raincoat from my girlfriends – we flared and shared our raincoats with each other. Our raincoats were beloved and indispensable. In dry weather we were adult sophisticated and fashionable; when it was drenching we were making our way in our raincoats no matter what!
It was also World War II. Especially in heavy rain, I felt closer to our combat forces in Europe and in the Pacific. My beige Balmacaan felt some thing like a uniform raincoat and I took it as something of an honor to get drenched going back-and-forth to school and feel like I was joined with the troops soaking their own raincoats in North Atlantic downpours or in torrential Pacific typhoons .
I kept my raincoat and wore it on my commute into Manhattan after graduating high school in 1949. As time went on. I replaced it with a fuller sweeping style that accommodated the dresses and skirts of the 1950’s. Yes, I was letting a little femininity back in. These were years of drought but my raincoat stayed on at least until the temperatures fell into the 30s or below in December, January, and February when I would wear a wool overcoat. If it was a winter rain, I would wear a sweater underneath my raincoat. If the forecast was for “rain, heavy at times” I might wear a plastic raincoat over my Balmacaan or I would just drench it and with great show sweep off my most soaked raincoat whenever I reached wherever I was going. With the pervasive drought, the rare day of heavy rain when I could commute with all the men and women in their raincoats was a major turn on. But I really wanted a raincoat that I could wear year round in any condition and I was getting frustrated waiting for that perfect raincoat to emerge.
Stories and fantasies about rainwear.
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