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Climate & Clothing in the U.K.

The British are obsessed with the weather and, after a few weeks on your newly chosen course in the UK, you will be too.

September may find you eating your lunch on some grassy spot in the sun one day and trying to shelter from the rain under an umbrella that has tuned itself inside-out in a howling gale the next! It is this changability that lies at the root of our national anxiety and passion.

Contrary to popular belief, reading the weather forecast carefully in the daily paper will not help you to predict how the day will turn out. Although it is possible to become a star in Britain just by reading the weather on TV, our most famous TV weather man, Michael Fish, is most renowned for getting it wrong. In October 1987 he failed to predict a gale that swept across the country causing thousands of pounds worth of damage to the unprepared. Don’t be alarmed - gales of this strength are rare and there are some general guidelines to help you survive and enjoy the climate in the UK!

Freak hailstorms in the summer and scorching winter days aside, there are four seasons in Britain, in the order of an academic year, these are autumn, winter, spring and summer. Each season has its own beauty and watching the seasons change has for centuries inspired Britain’s writer’s, artist’s and composer’s. The passage of the seasons are marked by the transient rusty reds of the leaves in autumn, the bright and crisp winter days with the occasional blanket of snow, the first flowers of spring and the growing warmth of summer which eventually over-ripens as the fields turn golden brown. However to fully appreciate the poetry of nature in Britain, you must first be dressed practically so that you are not distracted by wet feet or sunburn!

Confusingly none of these seasons can be described as the ‘rainy season’ since it rains all year round. So whatever else you do, you will need to acquire an umbrella and a plastic waterproof coat with a hood (for the days when your umbrella has turned inside-out!) Ideally the waterproof should be light enough to be worn on hot rainy days and to slip inside a bag just in case what appears to be a beautiful day turns nasty. Such essential all-weather gear is easily and cheaply available everywhere in Britain.

For autumn and spring you will need layers of clothes that can be put on and pulled off according to the weather: vests, long-johns or tights and socks, waterproof closed shoes or boots, long-sleeved shirts or T-shirts, jumpers and cardigans and shawls, coats, scarves, hats and gloves. With all these combinations to co-ordinate, it is not surprising that the British have always found it problematic to match the colours of their clothes in an orderly manner.

During deep mid-winter you will need all these layers and might even consider investing in some thermal underwear. These vests and long-johns made out of fabric constructed to keep in the maximum amount of body heat. Ten years ago thermal underwear was the subject matter of jokes, being cumbersome, unsexy, and frequently made up in the most garish colours. Today all that has changed and thermal underwear is indistinguishable from everyday underwear in every characteristic other than its greater warmth. But perhaps more important than clothing in the winter months is making sure you have heated accommodation! It is not unknown for shampoo to freeze in the bathrooms of students who unwisely rented unheated houses.

Summer is a different story and when the temperatures start rising you will find yourself reaching for open sandals, shorts, T-shirts, sundresses, sunhats, bathing costumes and sunglasses. If you forget your hat you can always indulge in a national improvisation. The British holidaymaker, on finding himself at the seaside without his sunhat, ties each corner of his handkerchief into a knot and wears it as a hat. Although very pragmatic, the hanky-hat is not considered the height of fashion by our European neighbours!

Of course, the British obsession with the weather is far more than just a practical concern about how to dress to avoid being roasted alive or soaked to the skin. It is at the centre of British etiquette and acts as an important social device for bridging gaps of class and region. Perhaps this is why a friendly call of "Nice weather for the time of year" to a stranger is described as ‘breaking the ice’!

And if the weather is used to make political points, then so of course, is clothing…. The one essential and multipurpose item of clothing for modern Britain is, of course, denim jeans. Worn by everyone outside working hours from royalty to the woman in the street, jeans are the symbol of a casual and classless approach to life. In the informal environments of universities the only suits are worn by administrators - hence the pejorative name for these bureaucrats as ‘the suits’. Everyone else from professor to undergraduate can be seen carrying out their tasks in blue denim in various states of repair. The most fashionable young men and women will be seen in jeans that are either far too big or far too small for them, with holes, patches, badges, sequins or drawings on them. However, most of us prefer our jeans plain, draught proof and comfortable!

Despite the preference of many for this denim uniform, almost anything goes in Britain. A person’s choice in clothing is seen as a reflection of their character and individuality. The most unusual sights are to be seen in the more fashionable reaches of London but university campuses offer a more accessible second best. For many young people, university is the first opportunity to experiment with developing an individual dress sense unhindered by parental eyes. Add these students’ desire for self-expression to their restricted budget and you will find the innovative reworking of second hand clothes to maximum effect!

All of the clothes you may need for living in Britain without getting too cold or too hot can easily be bought from high street stores in every town and city. However there is no need to leave your own clothes behind in an enforced change of style. Britain is not only tolerant of individual dress senses but everywhere displays the multicultural character of its population in the saries, salwars, and other national dresses worn in buses, trains, supermarkets, churches, galleries, concerts, libraries and other public places.

Whatever you wear, one thing is certain: after a year in the UK you will be unable to prevent yourself from bringing the weather into every conversation come rain or shine!

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