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What not to wear, Farmer Edition

A reader, who asks to remain anonymous writes me that her graduate school boyfriend (soon hopefully to be fiance) has decided he wants a farm. He's looking for jobs in rural areas, and wants them to buy land together. The boyfriend grew up in rural Albania and is apparently pretty comfortable in agriculture. My reader, who grew up in suburban Michigan, is not. This is all new to her - she thought she was marrying a plain old potential academic (botany). The thought, as she puts it, that he might look at real plants in the dirt, rather than under a microscope and that said dirt might come to her house is a little disorienting to her.

Our fearless reader is game and willing. She's just nervous as heck. One of the things she is nervous about is what to wear. She worries she'll sound frivolous, but notes that she has spent decade of college and grad school acquiring the kind of cool, deliberately casual but artsy wardrobe that makes her look like the person she's intent on becoming (economic historian), and she doubts that this will be appropriate for her new life as a farmwife. What, she asks, do farmers wear?

I'm so glad she asked - after all, I am famed for my role in fashion. Actually, I really am, which is both funny and confusing. Despite the fact that I have no fashion sense to speak of, I did, in fact, coin the term "slow clothing" and am the official founder of the "slow clothing movement." Thus, although my clothing motto is (stolen from the late, great Molly Ivins) "Woman who wears clothes so she won't be nekkid," I do, in fact, get emails every year during fashion week from Milan, which just shows that the universe is a very weird place ;-)). With these qualifications (ie, none) I do feel I can help our reader - perhaps not by telling her what to wear in her new life, but by offering guidelines about what *not* to wear.

I have real experience to offer here - my loved ones assure me that I have worn just about every conceivable thing you shouldn't wear. Whether for reasons of aesthetic merit, appropriateness to the work involved or even minimal modesty (let us try not to recall the time I ripped the strap off a tank top I was wearing on some fence and well...)

This Saturday, for example, I certainly modelled what not to wear at my own farm. Coming home from synagogue and a lovely lunch with old friends, we found that Licorice, one of last year's doelings, had given birth to two gorgeous twin does (Tequila and Margarita). Not pausing to change my clothes in my excitement to check the new little ones out (cream colored pants, brown shiny t-shirt, bright Grecian blue short sleeved shiny shirt to go over the brown, blue and gold necklace, brown sandals), I went in to assess gender and health of these little babies. By the time I had ascertained they were incredibly cute, incredibly healthy and female, one of them had pooped all over my lovely cream colored pants, brown shirt and blue shirt. This would be a fine example of what not to wear.

The next day, when we had friends over for brunch, Marshmallow, Licorice's twin sister gave birth to the largest doeling I've ever seen, a breech with a huge head. By the time I had finished helping extract Kahlua from her mother (wincing with sympathy all the way, since I've also given birth to a kid with a huge head and bad positioning - fortunately this was the only time I've ever really had to pull a kid in 4 years of kidding), my khaki pants and previously clean blue t-shirt were covered with amniotic fluid (clear), Betadine solution (yellow), placenta (reddish brown when dried) and both goat and chicken manure (brown for the first, white and brown for the second).

All of this is just a way of saying "don't wear anything you like too much." A book I once read described the working clothing of a farmer as "schmatta" and that's about right. The clothes you wear to do serious farmwork bear little resemblance to the clothes you would see a farmer wearing in a picture of them doing farmwork, You want to wear your rattiest clothes for most of this. They will get filthy, sweaty, muddy, and gross in every conceivable way (and a few you probably haven't conceived of.)

My favorite summer working outfit on a day when we are definitely not having company is a pair of cotton pajama pants and a man's v-neck undershirt - light, comfortable and cool, not constricting, and I don't care what happens to them. If someone might see me, my favorite outfit is a brown cotton skirt (with a pair of shorts underneath it) and a t-shirt. My hair goes either up into a pony tail or under a scarf. The main exception to this is ifI am haying or loading hay, when I wear light colored, long sleeved cotton clothes - because hay and sweat mixed together are itchy. Exposed skin is bad when haying. Actually, my favorite haying clothes are white hospital scrubs - bought used, of course.

This is a matter of taste - my husband likes shorts to work in during the summer, but I do not, because I do most of the weeding, and I prefer to work my garden beds on hands and knees. i dislike picking little rocks out of my kneecaps, so something long enough to cover my knees is necessary (if you farm in the midwest where a large crop of glacial stone does not come to the surface every single winter, you might not care). Skirts are cooler than pants, and also, if not tight, more flexible for those inevitable times when you have to climb something.

I also like skirts in the winter, with leggings underneath them - warmer and more flexible. With the skirt and the headscarf I look, I think, rather Amish or old-fashioned, like my wardrobe has Laura Ingalls Wilder's stamp of approval, but it is very comfortable and convenient and there's no political flavor to it - just what suits me. I have a friend who does all her farm work in a bikini top and short-shorts (at least in summer) because that's what's most comfortable for her.

My reader mentioned LL Bean as the "supplier of agricultural clothing" - at least the one that she's familiar with. I do own some LL Bean clothes, and they are very nice, but the things you use for actual farming you will want to wear for other purposes for a while first. LL Bean is pricey - the clothes you are going to trash on the farm should be cheap. My favorite brand here is Le Goodwill (actually plenty of them do come from LL Bean, Abercrombie, etc...) There is absolutely no point in wearing new clothes into the field, unless, of course, you are in a photo spread that day.

There are a few things you will want. First, a big hat - the kind that keeps the sun off your face. if you have long hair, make sure you have plenty of ties to keep your hair out of your face, also. Second, you will want good winter clothing. Remember, you will be spending a lot of time outside in the winter. Third, good shoes. This is one thing we don't skimp on. Some people like muck boots, and I do for some things, but what I generally wear are solid men's (because they are cheaper as a men's size 8 than a women's size 10) slip-on work shoes. I like slip-on because my hands are often full of stuff. I like sturdy because every creature on the farm is inclined to step on toes and all of them are heavy (including my children). I get mine from Lands End, and wear out a pair a year, but it is well worth it to be comfortable.

If you are going to do a lot of winter outside work, Carharts are the fine clothing manufacturer that make winter coveralls - basically giant, super-warm snowsuits for grownups. These are worth the money if you are going to spend long hours outside cutting wood in February, or plowing. I have some (bought used again - if you are tall enough, as I am, it is much easier to find used mens Carharts than used women's), but I rarely wear them for routine winter chores. It just is too much work to get all dressed up in them just to spend half an hour doing chores. But different people feel differently about these issues.

You will want one each summer and winter "I am a farmer" outfit in case someone wants to take your pictures while handling your sheep or working in your garden or while running farm tours. Mostly, however, you will want a lot of cheap, sturdy clothing that you can wreck. Since most farmwork is done not in front of hundreds, but quietly off by yourself or with someone equally grubby, you can get away with this. Personally, I feel that never ever having to wear pantyhose again amply compensates me for the loss of income from my prior professions.

Male wardrobes have the same basic requirements female ones do - in fact, in my husband's and my case, we tend to share a large portion of the more fungible clothing (Eric is an inch taller than I am at 6'1 and thinner, but both of us can wear a man's large shirt pretty comfortably). The "take off the decent clothes first thing when you get home" rule should apply to both (It took multiple cleanings to get Eric's best suit pants clean on the day we came home from Yom Kippur Services in a rainstorm and he slipped in the mud while herding the goats out of the pasture.) This is one of those "duh" things, but it is harder to do than you'd think, because so often things are happening just as you arrive.

Some clothing articles are specific to different kinds of agriculture. If you are keeping bees, you will want some light colored clothing and to avoid polar fleece and fuzzy sweaters that make you look like a bear to the bees. If you are ranching and doing much of your work on horseback, you may want appropriate clothing for that. Different climates and cultural mores will probably shape what you wear as well. In my case, the most ubiquitous item of clothing is the headscarf I wear most of the winter - not because of religious or cultural issues with hair covering, but because my chickens roost in the rafters of the barn in the winter, and you don't want to walk underneath without a head covering. I advise clothing with pockets - another reason I so often end up in men's clothing, rather than women's (May I just say to any clothing manufacturers out there - what the hell are you thinking making so many women's pants with no pockets?!!!??!). Where else are you going to keep the jacknife, the eggs you picked up out of the hayloft (do not forget they are there, trust me), the pair of pruners and the hoof pick?

Another thing not to wear is most jewelry. This is not hardship for either Eric or I, who made a mutual pact early on in our marriage that neither of us had to wear our wedding rings if we didn't want to - and neither of us do. It has nothing to do with our marriage, but a great deal to do with our mutual distaste for cleaning crud out from under our rings. Some jewelry is actively dangerous, other bits are just annoying (my goats like to nibble anything dangly), and all of it can collect crud. This is again a matter of taste - I know people who farm in elaborate jewelry but it seems risky and inconvenient to me. If you are working with heavy machinery, it may be actively dangerous. I know two different women who were injured by catching necklaces in machinery in the last year.

I recommend a lot of spare gloves and mittens for winter wear in a cold climate - things get wet and iti s nice to be able to trade out. Extra work gloves are great too, since they tend to go missing. A firm household policy against tromping across the floor in one's barn boots, even though you are going right back out...is also worth achieving (I'm guilty of this too).

My correspondent plans to locate in a cold climate, and they hope to buy a property with an extant farmhouse. The other bit of advice I'd give is that farmhouses are cold - old buildings tend not to be well insulated, and old houses tend to be designed so that you can warm central public areas, but where there is minimal or no heat in sleeping areas. Warm PJs, fleece bathrobes, down blankets and knit hats are the key to being comfortable in a badly heated house. Long johns are nice, although I do fine with cheap leggings and shirts I find at goodwill.

I do hope my reader finds this helpful - in short, what not to wear on the farm is anything that she's accumulated for any other aspect of her life. The good news is the acquisition of appropriately ragged clothing to do farm work in will not cost her much money. The question "what do you have in my size that is comfy, ratty and cheap" will get you pretty far in agriculture.

It would be easy to think of this as "letting yourself go" and maybe there's some of that. But I think Eric looks sexy swinging a scythe and soaked in sweat, or holding a baby goat in stained jeans and a decade-old t-shirt while I am doing vaccinations. And I'm lucky - on Sunday after I struggled to pull Marshmallow's baby while Eric held the doe, streaked with blood, manure and betadine, Eric hugged me and said "You were amazing! You are so beautiful!" You sure as hell can't buy that!

On the other hand, there's no need to get rid of all the other clothes. In a sense agriculture has made me appreciate the ritual of dressing nicely to go out for an evening or to shul - of putting on what we jokingly call "drag" (our civilized grownup people clothes) and noticing that we clean up good. When both of us dressed for teaching every day, I don't think we really noticed - the study in contrasts is part of the joy of the thing. Just as a shower feels glorious after an afternoon cutting hay, in a way it never can after an a day in front of a computer, there's something about farm clothes that make the occasional foray into dressing up more pleasurable, more delightful. Might as well save those funky outfits for a rainy (or sunny) day.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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