Dressing for Hot: How a Warming Planet Is Changing What We Wear

A climate reporter in Washington set out to test clothes designed for keeping cool. He found a few good (but pricey) options, along with some questionable claims.

Shirts made from the same polymer as plastic bags. Jeans infused with crushed jade. Garments constructed using computerised knitting for superior ventilation, or made with cooling technology designed for astronauts by NASA.

As climate change brings more intense heat waves, the next frontier in climate resilience is the clothing we wear, with innovations that promise to cool and dry the hot and sweaty masses. They could make life more bearable for construction workers, farmers, soldiers, and others who can’t retreat indoors as days and nights get hotter.

Clothing designed for heat is moving from a niche product into the mainstream, said Lorna Hall, director of fashion intelligence for WGSN, a company that tracks and forecasts consumer trends.

But the industry’s response to rising temperatures also illustrates the challenges of adapting to climate change. The most promising options tend to be the most expensive. Consumers must navigate confusing or questionable claims. And improvements in one area almost always entail trade-offs elsewhere.

Here’s a look at some of the garments already available, and others on their way — and what they reveal about the challenges of dressing for a warming world.

In some ways, less is best when dressing for heat, according to George Havenith, a professor of environmental physiology at Loughborough University in England.

“A lot of bare skin,” Dr. Havenith said. “It tends to make quite a bit of difference.”

Witness the push to make shorts acceptable officewear. Or the rise of “hoochie daddy” shorts, which have been defined as having an inseam of 5 inches or less. Or note Brad Pitt’s response at a July film premiere in Berlin on a 95-degree day when asked why he was wearing a skirt: “The breeze,” the actor replied.

Even unbuttoning a collar can help. During a heat wave this summer, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, asked public officials and private sector workers to stop wearing neckties, which he said would reduce the need for air conditioning and thus save energy.

In the past five years, changes in weather alone have increased sales of shorts and sandals by half a percentage point, while reducing sales of fleece and outerwear by 1 percent, according to Evan Gold, executive vice president at Planalytics, a company that quantifies the impact of weather on consumer demand.

Given the size of the market — Americans spend roughly $25 billion each month at clothing and shoe stores — those changes represent a significant amount of money, Mr. Gold said.

But showing more skin only goes so far as a coping strategy for the heat, Dr. Havenith said, noting that skin needs sun protection. So those who can’t stay out of the sun entirely — or who work in an office with a dress code — need other options.

Staying Cool Isn’t Cheap
Whether clothing keeps you cool revolves largely around breathability — the amount of air flow that permeates the fabric, carrying heat away from the skin. There are any number of ways to improve air flow, including the selection of fabric, the space between the fibres and the thinness of the material.

But clothing must also be dense enough to shield against ultraviolet rays. And it needs to be tough enough to endure multiple washings.

Some cultures in historically hot climates, such as in North Africa and South Asia, have instructive traditions for dressing in heat, like loose fitting clothes or covering much of the body. Though recently, designers around the world have been trying to solve the heat problem with technology.

Among the most affordable examples is Uniqlo’s AIRism T-shirt ($15), which comes in a polyester-and-spandex version, and another made of 71 percent cotton, mixed with 25 percent polyester and 4 percent spandex.

The polyester-spandex version is clingy, creating a sensation uncomfortably close to wrapping one’s upper body in Saran wrap. (Uniqlo describes the texture as “sleek.”) The cotton version, by contrast, feels pleasant at first, creating an initial cooling effect. But when worn in the heat, it sticks to the skin, producing a sensation akin to cold sweats. A spokesman for Uniqlo said the shirt had been positively received by customers.

Slightly higher up the cost curve, Dickies’ Cooling Temp-iQ T-shirt ($20), a 50-50 blend of cotton and polyester, promises “INSTANT COOLING SENSATION.” A spokesman for the company said it employed “an advanced body temperature technology that is designed to either cool or warm in response to your body’s signals.” But the garment, though comfortable against the skin, created no perceptible cooling sensation, instant or otherwise.

One shirt that had a noticeably cooling effect was made by LifeLabs, a company that emerged from a research lab at Stanford University. Its $49 CoolLife Tee is made from polyethylene, the same polymer used in plastic bags. It produced a cool feeling, not unlike walking barefoot on a tile floor.

Computerised Knitting and Spacesuits
For a similar price, Ministry of Supply, a company in Boston founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, sells the Atlas Tee ($48). The shirt is constructed using computerised knitting, a technology similar to 3-D printing that makes it possible to create additional space between the strands of material, according to Gihan Amarasiriwardena, the company’s co-founder and president.

The result is a garment that feels slightly thicker than a standard shirt, as if wearing light padding. Yet it also feels cool, even under other garments.

But the process means the shirts can’t yet be mass-produced, which means higher prices. Each Atlas shirt costs Ministry of Supply $9.60 to produce, Mr. Amarasiriwardena said — four times what it might cost a typical clothing manufacturer.

Other garment makers use different high-tech tools.

Kontoor Brands, a North Carolina-based company that owns Wrangler and Lee, said it will begin selling “Insta-Cool” shirts in the United States next year with an updated version of a technology called phase-change material, first designed by NASA to cool astronauts.

The technology involves printing ink made from wax and other materials on portions of the interior of the shirt, which act as a heat sink, according to Dhruv Agarwal, the company’s senior director for innovation, sustainability and product development. The approach creates a noticeable and lasting cooling effect, based on a sample provided by the company.

(A spokeswoman for Kontoor declined to say how much the shirts, already available in Asia, would sell for in the United States.)

Kontoor also sells jeans in Asia that are infused with bits of jade crushed into powder and blended into the fabric. The idaea is to transfer the cooling sensation of stone into the garment, Mr. Agarwal said.

Designers are also rethinking their use of natural fibres.

Suit makers are shifting away from pure wool toward blends of lighter fabrics, such as linen, silk and cashmere, according to Fokke dae Jong, founder and chief executive officer of Suitsupply, a men’s wear company.

The difference in feel created by those fabrics is hard to miss: The lighter blends retain less body heat than pure wool. But so is the higher price tag. While Suitsupply’s wool-only suits start at $449, its summer-weight suits made from a blend of wool, silk and linen range from $779 to $1,029.

Are his customers willing to pay that premium as temperatures rise? “One hundred percent,” Mr. dae Jong said. The company declined to provide figures, but said sales of spring and summer fabrics have almost doubled in recent years — and moved up in the calendar, now picking up as early as January.

To Wick or Not to Wick
Sweat is the body’s natural cooling mechanism. And it poses a complicated challenge to manufacturers of cool clothing.

Most garments that companies market as cooling also promise to keep their wearers dry by wicking sweat away from the skin. But too much wicking can be counterproductive, according to Glen Kenny, a professor of physiology at the University of Ottawa.

Sweat cools through evaporation, a process that transfers heat from the body into the air. The closer to the skin that evaporation takes place, the more heat energy it consumes in the process; when clothing moves sweat away from the skin, it keeps the body dry but renders evaporation less efficient at cooling, Dr. Kenny said.

“There’s a misguided belief that wicking away that sweat from the skin is somehow going to keep the body cool,” he said.

Sweat-wicking clothing primarily makes people feel comfortable — a different goal from cooling. Dr. Kenny recalled hearing from miners who tried to deal with the heat by coming to their jobs wearing sweat-wicking undergarments. “It made the situation worse,” he said.

Climate Trade-offs
In some cases, making clothing better suited to heat can exacerbate other climate problems.

One of the most breathable natural fibres is cotton. But growing enough crop for one pound of cotton fibre requires almost 350 gallons of water in a good year, according to data provided by the Agricultural Research Service at the United States Department of Agriculture.

The best type of cotton for heat is often called Pima or Egyptian cotton, which makes garments that are thinner and lighter. Yet growing Pima requires even more water than lower-quality cotton, according to the U.S.D.A. — in some cases, twice as much.

That trade-off between breathability and sustainability is a conundrum, said Sara Kozlowski, vice president at the Council of Fashion Designers of America, an industry group.

Still, natural fibres like cotton are at least biodegradable. Sweat-wicking polyester, by comparison, is made from petroleum, and can take decades or more to decompose — another challenge for clothing manufacturers already under pressure from environmentalists.

For designers, navigating those competing demands “is incredibly hard,” Ms. Kozlowski said.

A New Uniform for Hot
In Hong Kong, where summer days frequently reach the mid-90s, researchers enlisted volunteers willing to sweat for science.

To find the ideal outfit for the city’s construction workers, researchers tested 32 fabrics for air and water vapour permeability, thermal conductivity and UV protection, then ran computer simulations to determine the most promising combinations. In 2011, 12 volunteers wore the prototypes on treadmills in a hot and steamy room.

The volunteers wearing the new uniforms had lower skin and core temperatures than those in standard construction uniforms. They also sweated less, and that sweat evaporated more efficiently, according a paper published in 2015 in the journal Ergonomics.

In 2018, Hong Kong’s government adopted the new uniform for all public works contracts, according to Albert P.C. Chan, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the study’s lead author.

My colleague Alexandra Stevenson, The New York Times’ Shanghai bureau chief, tested the uniform with a brisk 30-minute uphill hike. She gave high marks to the shirt, a light-blue polo with mesh strips under each arm.

“When I first went out, I felt cool standing in the sun,” Ms. Stevenson said.

But the pants, a thicker cotton-polyester material, were less comfortable. “It wasn’t breathable at all,” she said.

When it comes to managing trade-offs while keeping the customer happy, the best example might be the United States Army.

In 2014, the Army’s Soldier Protection Directorate, part of the Combat Capabilities Development Command, began working on a new uniform for soldiers to wear in hot conditions. At the Jungle Operations Training Centre in Hawaii, soldiers tested uniforms made from nine different materials.

The result is the “improved hot weather combat uniform.” The fabric, 57 percent nylon and 43 percent cotton, is lighter and more breathable than the standard uniform. It has been in use since 2019.

There are drawbacks. Because the fabric is lighter, it leaves soldiers more vulnerable to insects, according to Melynda Perry, a textile chemist who worked on the uniform. “You don’t get quite as good protection from mosquito bites,” Ms. Perry said.

Still, the response has been positive from soldiers with a choice between the hot weather uniforms or the standard type, said Al Adams, who leads the directorate’s soldier clothing team. “It flew off the shelves,” he said.

This article is republished from The New York Times under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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