Three years ago, when I was shopping for a winter coat at the L.L. Bean store in Skokie, Ill., I told the sales clerk, “I want a coat that can take anything a Chicago winter can dish out.”
He sold me a $299 goose down jacket known as “the Windstopper.” The Windstopper is, to borrow a term I once heard a Manitoban punk rock singer use to describe her parka, a Winnipeg tuxedo. The “fill power,” a measurement of the down’s density, is 700 cubic inches per ounce, higher than most mummy sleeping bags. The shell is not just Gore-Tex, but an even more outdoorsy composite L.L. Bean calls Rugged Gore. Most importantly, unlike the ostensibly more stylish North Face down jacket, the Windstopper’s hem falls below the hip, providing some protection for a fellow’s most vulnerable bits.
The Windstopper is advertised as comfortable to 40 below zero. Monday morning, its moment finally came. At daybreak, the temperature in Chicago was minus 13, the coldest in nearly 20 years. As the day wore on, the wind chill settled in somewhere between 30 and 50 below. The city’s snow-day nicknames were Chiberia and AntarcDitka. When I got dressed, my first layer was a union suit, the red one-piece underwear with the opening in back. My second layer was a pair of corduroy pants and a waffle-iron shirt. My third layer was an Andean wool sweater. Above all that, the Windstopper.
Chicagoans have a term for the wind off Lake Michigan. We call it “The Hawk,” an apt description of its swiftness, and the clawing sting it inflicts. But Monday’s wind was something more than a predator. It did not attack, it insinuated. It was distilled pain, needling every nerve in my face—the kind of cold that killed the unnamed frostbite victim in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Within a few steps out the door, I could feel the wind seeping through my cotton underwear and my Thinsulate-lined wool gloves. My nostrils flapped shut, just as they had when I delivered newspapers on Sunday mornings when the wind chill was 40 below.
But between my neck and … you know … I was not cold. In fact, I was warm. I could feel heat radiating from my chest. I walked the dog for 10 minutes, about as much as my face and hands could endure. Then I drove to the beach, because I wanted to remember what 13 below zero looks and feels like. The lakefront looked like the cover of a science-fiction novel about a planet whose sun is a high-magnitude star. The water temperature was in the low 30s, so Lake Michigan exhaled steam. Crunchy snow was piled into dunes at the tideline. In the frozen zone between the beach and the water, the surf had hardened into rocks and globes of ice. On the beach, I was a little chilly. Underneath the Windstopper, I felt like I was wearing a windbreaker on a raw spring day. Although, frankly, I could have used a third wool sock.
I’ll never get to test the Windstopper at minus 40 unless I go to the Antarctic, but if I do, I’ll be outfitted better than my grandfather was when he took part in Admiral Byrd’s 1939 expedition. Admiral Byrd, as an officer and an aristocrat, explored the boreal region in a fur coat. My grandfather, as a rank seaman, wore a wool mackinaw, a family heirloom now in the possession of my brother, who lives in Maryland, where he never has to deal with 13 below.
Down has come a long way since the 1990s, when George Costanza’s Gore-Tex coat was so bulky that he knocked over wine bottles at a liquor store when he tried to turn around.* At the same time that episode of Seinfeld aired, I owned an L.L. Bean model that was just as stiff and uncomfortable. When I wore it, people called me “George.”
The Windstopper, by contrast, is light and supple enough for all social and professional occasions. I wear it everywhere, all winter long. (I own a wool topcoat, but I almost never put it on. Like most dressy clothing, a topcoat is a deliberately impractical garment whose function is to advertise that the wearer spends his winter days commuting between heated garages in a heated car.)
L.L. Bean actually makes a warmer down coat: the Baxter State Parka is rated to minus 45, but it’s bulkier and comes with a fake-fur fringed hood, and honestly, there aren’t too many situations where you’re going to need those extra five degrees. If you’re uncomfortable wearing down that once belonged to a goose, the PrimaLoft-lined Rugged Ridge Parka is also rated to 40 below. But I can’t imagine that either of them repel the wind chill as effectively as my Windstopper. I wouldn’t go to the beach in January without it.
Correction, Jan. 7, 2014: This article originally misstated that George Costanza knocked food off of shelves at a corner store with his bulky Gore-Tex coat. He knocked over wine bottles at a liquor store. (Return.)