Brutal Winters in Willa Cather: Why Aren’t Women’s Clothes Warm?

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_Winters can be brutal in the Midwest.  Think  Willa Cather. She was the first writer I read who described the bitter winters of Nebraska (and  contiguous states).  I spent winter nights my senior year in college reading her books in a chilly rented room in a run-down house.  One of the pleasures of winter is reading about winter.

In one of Cather’s most brilliant novels,  A Lost Lady, the heroine, Marion Forrester, can hardly bear winter in Nebraska. She and her husband, a railroad magnate, used to winter in Colorado Springs.  He was an officer for a bank in Denver, and when it failed, he  compensated the bank customers’ losses with his own money.

Marion Forrester is gracious and sophisticated, but she wishes he had kept some of the money.  Temperamentally she is unsuited for country life.

“Oh, but it is bleak!” she murmured. “Suppose we should have to stay here all next winter, too,… and the next! What will become of me, Niel?” There was fear, unmistakable fright in her voice. “You see there is nothing for me to do. I get no exercise. I don’t skate; we didn’t in California, and my ankles are weak. I’ve always danced in the winter, there’s plenty of dancing at Colorado Springs. You wouldn’t believe how I miss it. I shall dance till I’m eighty.… I’ll be the waltzing grandmother! It’s good for me, I need it.”

I have known desperate women in small towns, and who isn’t desperate in winter?  Gradually Marion compromises herself in her association with Ivy Peters,an exploitative lawyer she has known since boyhood who speculates dishonestly.  All of Cather’s characters are vivid, perhaps because they were her friends and acquaintances in real life.  Cather based the Forresters on a gracious couple in her hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska.  The model for Captain Forrester was Silas Garber, the fourth governor of Nebraska, and the founder of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank in 1889.  When the bank failed in 1893,   he gave his own money to the customers. (Would anybody do that nowadays?)   Like Niel, the narrator of A Lost Lady, Willa frequently visited Mrs. Garber (the model for Mrs. Forrester), a charming woman who, in the words of my guide on a Cather tour of Red Cloud, ” brought sophistication to the town.”

Keeping warm is half the battle of liking winter.  All of my friends had trouble keeping warm.  None of us had a car. We all walked and walked.  Our rooms were within walking distance of downtown and campus.  We wore  parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, or layers and layers under wool coats from thrift stores.  The best thing about working–and everybody had part-time jobs–was that we were temporarily in a very warm building.

The thing is, it is harder and harder for women to find warm clothes.   You can’t get them at the mall.  You need to order from outdoorsy catalogues.  Here’s what I’ve noticed.  The jeans and corduroy pants from Lands End are thinner than they used to be, and no longer have pockets. When I walk out the door, my trunk is warm because of the parka, but I need long underwear under these thin girlish pants because my legs are freezing even when it’s over 30 degrees.   These clothes are made for women who walk from the house to the car, and then from the car to work.  For long distances, you need warmer clothes.

It’s like saying to women, “You aren’t supposed to be outdoors.  You’re supposed to be ornaments.”

Nobody should say that to women ever.  Not if they take walks and bike. And we do.

8 thoughts on “Brutal Winters in Willa Cather: Why Aren’t Women’s Clothes Warm?

    • How could we have known? Now they have “insert pockets,” such an insult! The pockets are not deep enough even to rest a kleenx. I wonder if Bean is beter these days.

  1. The passage also reminds me of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street where the main character, Carol, now married and “stuck” in a smallish town in the middle of the US becomes wild with boredom, isolation, and having to accede to and obey hegemonic norms. I am on a good reads group where they almost read Cather’s A Lost Lady — it was “beat out” in their election by the usual preferred long classic novels by men. I might have it. We are fortunate in the DC area to have a shortish winter and if sometimes fiercely cold there are intervals usually of warmth and sun.

    • I’m all in favor of shortish winters. Ours are certainly shorter than they used to be, but the dreaded snow can strike even in April. Cather’s women are strong individuals and Niel feels disillusioned when he realizes that she is no longe Second Fiddle but seriously trying to get out. What looks like weakness is also a kidn of strength. I love this book and am sure you’d find much to admire.
      Poor Carol Kennicott in Gopher Praire! I love Sinclair Lewis, too.

    • Yay, so do I! I’m a non-driver and usually walk or bike, unless the weather is really grim, in which case I take the bus. So everybody waiting for the bus is all bundled up and then too hot in the mall where people leave their coats in the car and want the heat cranked up.
      I’m going to try different catalogues and see if anybody makes real corduroy pants anymore. Otherwise I’m going to have to write a letter to T—-P, ha ha, asking him iif their outsourced workers can make a thicker corduroy.

  2. Re Lands End: I knew they were doomed when back in the 90s their original company sold them to Sears who promptly offshored the manufacturing efforts. (that was a bad sign to me since I could see what was coming, cut costs across the board and all that entails) Since Sears is in such bad shape now, maybe their original parent will buy them back. Also, you have hit a favorite issue of mine. Women’s clothing. I am an engineer and work out and around a power plant and have been wearing men’s clothing for decades. Womens clothing is skimpily cut, trendily designed and totally unsatisfactory for my life. I choose Polo/Lauren’s mens rugbys and khakis when i can find them in the classic cut, they too have gone to the skinny european cut for some of their men’s lines. My husband hates the skinny cut too. What are working people supposed to wear? I am perilously close to tipping over into the Carhartt zone! its going to be 20 here tomorrow morniing. When i lived and worked outside a good bit in Michigan in the late 90s i wore silk jersey long underwear that i got from a shop in Bath, England, and it saved my life and my skin.

    • Brrrrr! You do need warm clothes. Good analysis of the Sears-Lands End “merger.” I had forgotten all about that. It is very disappointing that the quality has gone down. I still swear by my parka, which I’ve had for about five years now, but am suddenly getting very thin cotton corduroys with what they like to call “pocket inserts.” Just dreadful! I’m wondering if Bean is still a hold-oout? It’s really exasperating. I like the idea of tipping over into the Carhart zone, though honestly I’m not sure those clothes would fit over my hips. Not only cannot I find warm, clothes I have trouble finding them in my size!

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