What the well-dressed fieldworker is wearing this summer (i)

Planning a summer trip to a hot weather field site? Let’s punch up your wardrobe a bit prior to departure.

This is intended as the first in a short series of how-to posts for optimizing your clothing choices for the heat and humidity. The individual posts will be organized around a particular type of garment or gear, such as outwear and footwear. This post will discuss undergarments and headwear and neckwear. Prior to that, a few caveats about the series of posts as a whole:

  • The information is intended as introductory, not as comprehensive.
  • Brand names will be mentioned. I don’t know how I would provide any useful advice without doing so.
  • Trademarked technologies will be mentioned early and often, so much so that I have not bothered with the ™ or ® or related symbols. Trademarks are trademarks of the respective companies.
  • I will be focusing on how to optimize your clothing in terms of technology. This may or may not square with optimizing your clothing in terms of impression management.
  • Performance wear doesn’t have to cost a mint, but it doesn’t come at a bargain price. “Buy once, cry once,” as they say.
  • This is an anthropology blog, so archaeologists and primatologists are obviously within the scope of the intended audience here. Environment rather than discipline is the determiner. The information is equally applicable to linguists, geographers, geologists, ecologists, and anyone else planning fieldwork in swampy or arid conditions.

And now, on to the service part of the service writing.

SMALLCLOTHES

Underwear is a good place to start for a couple of reasons. First off, some components of an ensemble are more important are more important than others, and underwear are one of those. Antifungal creams are law enforcement; the right pair of briefs are crime prevention. Secondly, underwear are a good gateway garment to start you down the path of a high performance clothing habit. A poor grad student may scoff at the wisdom of parting with $20–$30 for a pair of underwear, but s/he can afford to do so. (If a twenty dollar bill doesn’t appear under a rock somewhere, another option is to calculate how many trips to the bar, coffeehouse, or sandwich shop would net you that amount and foregoing them in exchange for your new pair of skivvies.)

For reasons I will discuss in a latter post, cotton can be a good choice for outwear to be worn in arid climates. There is no reason to wear cotton underwear anywhere, though. Synthetic is one way to go in terms of materials. ExOffico makes a well-regarded line of nylon briefs. Patagonia also has some good options on the market. I recommend the rib-knit over silkweight models. Merino wool is the other big choice in terms of materials.1 There are a few companies out there who turn out excellent merino kit—Ibex, Icebreaker, and SmartWool all come immediately to mind. For hot weather use, 150 is the appropriate weight. Merino is typically more spendy than synthetics. Expect to pay $40–$50 per pair rather than $20–$30. But keep in mind when planning your budgeting and packing priorities that the natural anti-microbial properties of wool mean you are obliged to wash merino underwear less often. (And by all means, do wash your own underwear. Even if you hire out your laundry duties, it’s just good manners, and don’t be surprised if it is an expectation at your field site.)

I will not pretend to know enough about what to look for in bras to try and give advice about picking one out. Serious, non-titillating contributions to the Comments section are welcome from those who might be able to help out on the topic.

BEST PROTECT YA NECK

Headwear and neckwear help keep the sun at bay. They can also help you connect a bit with the people and place you are visiting. My undergraduate advisor wore an Orioles cap during his dissertation fieldwork in the Sierra del Nayar as a means of eliciting comments about the logo. And I unintentionally did the same after acquiring a keffiyeh during my visit to Burkina Faso in the summer of 2010. My favorite was hearing three Burkinabé boys whisper to one another, “Is he an Arab?” “Ask him, ask him!” while standing on a sidewalk in Ouagadougou one night.

kufiya ghutrah
The keffiyeh/shemagh, fieldworkers’ friend.

I recommend looking for a hat that can be rolled up (“crushable,” in outdoor industry parlance) or folded at the brim. A 360° brim will be especially appreciated by archaeologists. Cotton works well as a heat pump in arid climates. A synthetic material such as Supplex (a trademarked variety of nylon) will dry more quickly in humid environments and so feel less clammy on your head. Outdoor Research and Tilley turn out consistently high quality products, but in the end hats are like shoes: think fit first.

A shemagh is a great help in an arid climate. It helps keep the sun off your neck and head and the dust and sand out of your lungs. Airsofters love them, so they are easy to shop for online (As with bras, I do not feel qualified to speak to hijabs or other female headscarves. Again, anyone who does is encouraged to participate in the Comments section.)

If your field site is humid rather than arid, and/or you expect to spend a lot of time traveling on foot, a keffiyeh comes with a heat penalty. Consider going with a stretchy tubular neck scarf instead. Buff is the big name there.

It’s not impossible that you might end up separated from your hat or scarf mid-trip. Your hat might be stolen right off your head as you walk down the street. Someone might ask for one or the other as a gift, and you would have to judge for yourself the repercussions of saying “yes” or “no.” That possibility holds for a lot of items in addition to hats, too, of course.

Next installment: Outerwear (trousers, blouse, &tc.).

Matthew Timothy Bradley

NOTE

1. If the thought of wearing wool underwear in the summer sounds crazy to you, go visit a good outdoor goods retailer and have a look at what they have to offer. It won’t be what you were expecting!

9 thoughts on “What the well-dressed fieldworker is wearing this summer (i)

  1. Several years ago, before embarking on fieldwork in La Paz (not at all a warm weather destination), I bought a few pairs of women’s ExOfficio quick drying underwear, thinking it would be helpful to be able to wash and dry them quickly. However, I thought they were extremely uncomfortable, and ended up only wearing the few pairs of regular ol’ cotton undies I had with me. They took much longer to dry, but I didn’t spend all day trying to adjust them without anyone spying me. Obviously bodies are different, and others might find them quite nice, but my advice is to definitely know that you are comfortable in whatever undergarments you’re taking with you. I underestimated how much underwear affected my daily mood.

  2. Obviously bodies are different, and others might find them quite nice, but my advice is to definitely know that you are comfortable in whatever undergarments you’re taking with you. I underestimated how much underwear affected my daily mood.

    It’s true. Socks tend to have the same effect and to come with the same proviso, in my experience.

  3. For female bodied anthropologists, cotton underwear is a necessity. In many fieldsites, the “law enforcement” of metronidazole/yeast infection cream is not easy to find, and antimalarials etc. can mess with your vaginal flora to begin with. TMI perhaps, but if you’re going somewhere where the health services are crappy, you want to keep yourself healthy.

  4. For female bodied anthropologists, cotton underwear is a necessity. In many fieldsites, the “law enforcement” of metronidazole/yeast infection cream is not easy to find, and antimalarials etc. can mess with your vaginal flora to begin with. TMI perhaps, but if you’re going somewhere where the health services are crappy, you want to keep yourself healthy.

    This is a question that female thru-hikers worry at length. (And I’m an RN’s son, so there is no TMI with me as far as bodily functions go. ) The best preventative medicine underwear would be non-binding and made of hydrophobic, wicking, highly breathable, quick-drying fabric. No one fabric does all of those individual things equally well. Many but not all female hikers do choose cotton. Many choose to hike with no underwear.

    As you mention with the doxycycline, there are other factors to consider, as well. The right sleepwear can be a huge help in keeping fungal infections at bay.

  5. This is a great series and i will pass it on! Here in Burundi we do buy most of our clothing as part of the cheap and fantastic used clothing business: One of the best businesses in this part of the impoverished world

  6. Thanks for the reference, which I-m following up. We don-t get a lot of fancy stuff in the used clothes bundles that arrive here, I generally go for the cotton. In years that I bought for field work (in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, etc) I always opted for the Bananna Republic, whose styles were conservative enough and always 100 per cent. Don-t know how they are doing now.
    PS I enjoy your blog and only wish that you had an Email function, which perhaps you do have and only I cannot find it.

  7. When I went to Belize (ages ago), it was highly recommended we bring cotton underpants (or fancy wicking, but no guarantees that it wouldn’t get messed up.)
    The other recc we got that I pass along is- don’t wear thongs to locations with chiggers (such as Belize or the southern US) unless you know you are absolutely non-reactive to chiggers. Chiggers like tight spots, especially bands. Find some full bottomed drawers you like, or else get stuck with the drawstring broadcloth Victorian style Mennonite underwear and trying to shove all that fabric into your pants.
    .
    Bras are going to be very personal, but in general a quality sports bra will be wicking. For person with breasts of large size, I highly recommend Enell sports bras (I wear them as a J-cup), they are even available as custom-sized, they are my absolute most supportive bra and they do well in sweaty, high impact activities (bonus, they get tissue out of my pits so I can swing a shovel or pick more fluidly). As an extra layer of protection, I have sweat pads (I make my own of linen, but they are available for purchase on the web) to absorb sweat from under and between the breasts- if it’s really sweaty i’ll change them out a few times through the day. These are just a few layers of fabric shaped sort of like uu and sewn together; they stay in from pressure of the bra.

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