NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Dressing (In) Down

Sometimes, like last winter, my old friend spends most of her life in the closet. Last week, though, she awoke from hibernation to the first truly bone-shattering cold ushering in a new season. When I opened the door to the downstairs coat nook, there she was, waiting to warmly greet me: the World’s Ugliest Coat.

That anonymous-looking garment has been part of my life now for more than 20 years, faithful and true. She’s light years out of mind while the planet makes most of its annual circle around the sun. Yet when days grow brief and temperatures dip, I begin to yearn for her comfort. It’s something only we natives of the great frozen North Country can really understand, I think — the love-hate relationship between a Minnesota girl and her parka.

Forget fashion. Ignore cute styles. Never mention “chic” again. Only one quality makes serious deep-winter garb like mine really cool. Warmth.

This is no ordinary department-store jacket. Run-of-the mill outerwear may come and go, sating one’s everyday appetite for name brands, puffy silhouettes and the hottest trendy looks during winter’s more temperate moments — trekking to work, say, in a heated car, or trudging across the blustery parking lot at the mall, or styling along that frosty college campus. Those are the flighty fashion choices of neophytes who disrespect the season. They’ll either be forgotten by spring or left to languish in the back of the coat room, doomed to molder due to a pesky popped zipper or a mere fall from fashion’s favor.

Not so, the for-real, forever North Country parka. Forget trivial pursuits like dressing for success or to make a strong impression. This is about survival. Invented by Inuit mothers, the familiar hooded, puffed and padded silhouette was perfected for soldiers engaged in the frigid fight in Korea. Military surplus stores introduced it to American civilians afterward, and we’ve loved it ever since.

Real Minnesota parkas are the next thing to immortal. After all, they seldom face the pedestrian wear and tear of more humdrum wardrobe choices. We only break them out for special occasions fraught with thought-provoking impact, like death. They have one purpose, and one alone — ensuring human survival. Entirely apart from the frivolous vagaries of executive apparel, they are cherished as the winterwear equivalents of sturdy St. Bernards — not much to look at, perhaps, but faithful to a fare-thee-well.

The World’s Ugliest Coat, my own pet, is a trophy-quality specimen of the breed. Back when Cabela’s opened its first doors in Minnesota, I spotted it languishing on the out-of-season, deep-discount rack in their pioneer location in Owatonna. At first glance, it reminded me of one of those sad, neglected pups in that heart-wrenching SPCA TV spot (you know the one I mean) — the lone member of the pack left behind as winter turned to spring … odd-sized, odd-colored, picked over and unloved amidst the lighthearted pastels of the emerging season.

Honestly, I had no trouble figuring out why it had been left behind. In length alone, it smacked of alien dimensions, stretching down to nearly touch my ankles. Instead of highly prized authentic goose down, it was stuffed with some lightweight fluff probably spun from a petroleum byproduct. Its hood was spacious enough to encase a Bison football helmet — then embellished with a strip of long-haired pelt rescued from a molting coyote.

Not to mention the color! How can I describe its glory? Imagine a murky bottom-of-the-barrel sludge of greyish greenish tan. It goes with absolutely nothing — a weirdly neutral shade that’s aligned with no other color in the spectrum. Its one and only good quality is that it doesn’t show cat hair or stray fibers when the coyote ruff sheds.

But Ugly was reliably rated to withstand the Arctic cold. Moreover, it was 70 percent off. While I wouldn’t call it love, exactly, those sterling qualities launched what’s become a decades-long marriage of convenience.

For decades now, when weatherman John Wheeler gleefully has announced the onset of every polar vortex, thoughts of the World’s Ugliest Coat have maintained my will to live.

Like an old, impossibly faithful dog, it’s been at my side through thick and thin. It swaddled me through the legendary winter of 1996-1997. It gave me many a reassuring hug me as I fumed in a freezing car at curbside, awaiting our daughter’s emergence from the high school. It has soothed me as I’ve waited in endless lines for endless trains to clear endless downtown crossings. It even swaddled me down the highway through the scariest blizzard ever, its hood keeping ears attached to my head as I leaned out the open passenger window watching for the ditch while Russ navigated near-blind.

That coat is like an old, dear friend. We may not get together often when the weather’s going well; that’s when mere mortal outerwear fills the bill. But when the going gets tough, it saves the day. We’re always there for each other.

And even old friends may hide surprises. Such as: Was my old pal cleaned up before it went to sleep at the end of last winter — or, after one last journey in the car, did I abandon it dressed in a drizzle of coffee? Did it make it back to the washing machine after that unfortunate trip down Interstate 94 when I shut it in the door and it flapped in the slush all the way to Mandan, N.D.? Chances are, spring snuck up when we weren’t looking last year, as it’s wont to do … and the tolerant, long-suffering garment faded from thoughts without a whatsoever. It knew I’d be back — last week, as it happened, when it could exact its revenge with a last-minute slosh in the washer.

First of all, though, I had to go through its pockets. That’s when Old Ugly never fails to amaze me. What treasures lie within? Are my ratty old Isotoners still balled up in its zippered pockets? Yep … along with the Kleenex inventory from last March. But what’s this? Thirty-two cents in coins? A crumpled Costco sales slip? An orange Post-It note with a smeared address I’ve never heard of? And, of course, that handful of valuable Herberger’s coupons … good through Dec. 31, 2014.

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