July is just around the corner which signals an increase in outdoor activities in full-sun for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere. One of the toughest parts of all those picnics, barbecues, outdoor concerts, and sporting events is trying to keep relatively cool and comfortable throughout the course of the day.
Last summer I had the pleasure of working a small vendor booth at a local Renaissance faire with a couple of friends and we were expected to dress up and act the part so as to perpetuate the fantasy of the faire for younger children. Hands down the most common question all of us were asked throughout all three summer weekends was “Aren’t you hot in that gown?”. People were shocked that we seemed perfectly content in full-sleeves and floor-length gowns while they were sweating to death in shorts and t-shirts. The secret (aside from the shade of our tent being lovely, and the grass being cool to rest on after a few hours) was the materials all of our clothing was made from.
If you pick up most articles of clothing today and inspect the tag, you’ll probably see a good amount of polyester, nylon, and synthetic blends in the mix. While these are the most commonly used manmade fabrics, they are not the most breathable. The key is that these synthetics are most often thermoplastics which, while they’re great for durability, are exactly what you want to avoid when you need moisture to be drawn off your skin when the sun is beating down on you. Instead of allowing the sweat to be wicked away from your body, these synthetics will actually trap a layer of sweat between the fabric and your skin. Their lack of breathability means that as you get warmer, you sweat more, but the sweat isn’t able to easily evaporate or be drawn off your body so instead you feel warmer and more uncomfortable than you otherwise would. Polyester, nylon, and other synthetics are also largely non-biodegradable which means that not only do they spell trouble for you during the summer months, they’ll spell trouble for Mother Earth when they get sent to the landfill.
Because Renaissance faires generally require workers to wear historical or history-inspired garments, many makers of these kinds of clothes try for authenticity by making them out of materials that would have been available at the time. For fabric this means that most of what we were wearing was either linen or cotton – both of which had great airflow and allowed our skin to breathe throughout the day. Even though we were far more covered up than most of the attendees, the most heat intensive parts of our bodies – our cores – were kept cool because any moisture was wicked away from our skin by the fibers and evaporated off by the heat. This isn’t to say that the heat had less of an effect on us – we kept many bottles of water on us at all times to keep ourselves hydrated through it all – but rather, our clothing helped us to weather the periods of oppressive heat better than those attendees who were almost wearing plastic bags. Where they felt a bit like steamed broccoli, our billowing sleeves and flowing gowns had us feeling like ice cream by comparison.
If you’re looking for some new summer clothing for that next big outdoor event, be sure to check the tags for all those breathable natural fibers: cotton, linen, and chambray. Admittedly, synthetics and synthetic blends seem to be more common especially with the fast fashion boom and our culture’s love for stretch-everything, but with the green movement becoming more popular, more and more brands dedicated to sustainable garment creation are also cropping up.
If you’d prefer not to take your chances in person, browsing racks and wrestling with a myriad of tags, here are a few online retailers who have a selection of natural fiber clothing:
Alternative Apparel – Men’s & Women’s clothing dedicated to using eco & organic fabrics and low-impact dyes which can be great for those of you with garment-related allergies. Free shipping and free returns which is great when shopping online.
People Tree – A UK sustainable and fair trade company that has a large selection of organic cotton products for women. Unfortunately returns are not free for international customers so they can be pricey if something doesn’t fit.
Sou・Sou – A Japanese retailer for men & women with a San Francisco store and a wide selection of high quality natural fiber products. Bonus points for the boxy silhouettes being even better for airflow than most traditional Western cuts. (Also a personal favorite of mine)
Eileen Fisher – A more common eco-friendly label with a focus on social consciousness and simplistic design for women. They have a good selection of different natural fibers and a range of organic products.
While shopping for natural fibers, it’s great if you’re able to get fair trade or organic varieties; either way your skin, and the Earth will thank you in the future.
Best of Luck,