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.


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Some of the most comfortable pants around are Carharts. They have lots of pockets and they are indestructible canvas. A Carhart lined work jacket is indispensable in the winter. I also like Merrell's climbing pants, as there are extremely comfortable to squat down when wearing, they are tough, but they're expensive (>$50).

I do a lot of fruit picking for the jams I make, and I swear by overalls, which have lots of pockets and no waist so it's easy to bend, squat, etc. A little more complicated if you have to pee out in the field, though... :) I find mine at the Goodwill.

My mother wore bonnets like the Old Dutch Cleanser Girl. She made them, of course. They had strips of cardboard slid into panels around the front to give them their shape. I think maybe Amish and Mennonite women wear them. No idea where to get a pattern or a store bought one.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Jul 2011 #permalink

I am now in my 70s. As a youngster I noticed that my parents and grand parents were always totally covered with long sleeves, shirts buttoned at the neck, and hats or sun bonnets even on the hottest summer days. I thought that they were just being modest. Now I know better as I must visit my dermatologist twice a year to be examined for melanoma and removal of pre-melanoma skin growths. On a farm one must dress to protect yourself from the sun.

By Ricahrd McGee (not verified) on 12 Jul 2011 #permalink

Don't forget pockets for ipods. My clothes seem to always be in rotation. What was good clothes a few years ago are garden clothes. They become garden clothes after I cook in them and then stain them. Oops. Thank goodness my work clothes all come from consignment shops.

By DiElla Fisher (not verified) on 12 Jul 2011 #permalink

I live in the suburbs but garden in my yard and in my community garden and my uniform is Hanes Mens v neck undershirt and what ever leggings are handy. Short , cropped or long-what ever is clean at the moment., with a visor for sun protection. Also I love how my husband looks in his work clothes, usually holey jeans and a white sleeveless T and covered in sweat and some kind of wood debris from sanding or digging etc. We are always working on some project on our house or garden. We live in a very conservative town so we do try to clean up before going to the store but not always and then we get THE LOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By karen from CT (not verified) on 12 Jul 2011 #permalink

One thing to add, considering the 'cold climate' part is to dress in a couple of layers instead of one thick, comfy winter-coat. First moments out in freezing weather you probably want to be dressed as warm as possible. Doing chores will warm you up, and will lead to 'shedding' layers after a while.

Having multiples doesn't hurt in that case either -- often one of my jackets will be left in the barn, a sweater at the back-gate (under a layer of snow :( ) etc.

I find it utterly hilarious that, while reading this article, the sidebar ad on the right is for "Lolita Fashion" and displays a civil war-era corseted dress with full hoop skirt. Oh, sweet irony.

I love these guys: http://www.duluthtrading.com/. You have to adore a company that features Longtail T's (to "fix plumber's butt), Fire Hose Work Pants ("tougher than an angry beaver's teeth") and "Ballroom Jeans" (insert your own conclusions here). Women's stuff is made for real women in real sizes.

By Jan Nunley (not verified) on 13 Jul 2011 #permalink

Reminds me.. on a recent visit to NYC on a drizzly day, I was amazed to see very glamorous yuppy girls marching home from work in wellies (farmers' knee-high rubber boots for the non-Brits), while above the knee they maintained the 'Sex in the city' image.

Ideal for puddle-strewn streets, but it seemed odd to me that such fashion-conscious people were prepared to ruin the image that they'd probably paid thousands of dollars for.

And the reader who inspired Sharon's post reminds me of my South American city slicker wife: her reaction to wellies - So Brits love mud so much that they even have footwear designed to let you get out there and jump in it? Does not compute!

By Phil Anderson (not verified) on 13 Jul 2011 #permalink

:-) Thanks for the smiles.

You do realize; you do great damage to the new farmer/land movement- by making newbies and others involved expect sanity and rational, humorous thought.

Alas, such is not always the case. :-)

My gardening / outdoor work clothes are either clothes that I wore for years previously as everyday clothes that got too worn for that use, or too-short pants that someone gave me because they don't fit them anymore. I don't buy clothes just for outdoor wearing, except for hiking boots (which I use as winter boots; St. Louis doesn't usually get several inches of snow at once). I just rotate clothes into farm use once they become too ratty for use where other people can see me. True, the neighbors can see me in my ratty outdoor clothes (and I mean ratty ... badly stained, holes in the shirts, ripped-out knees in the pants) ... but they seem to be used to it by now.

I wear jeans on the bottom (lined in cold weather, unlined otherwise), or shorts if it's above 80F. On top will be a T-shirt in warm weather. As it cools down I add more layers top and bottom. I farm only plants and St. Louis isn't real cold in the winter, so the most I wear involves long underwear under the ratty lined jeans and about 4 layers on top, plus a hat and gloves. I don't wear a winter coat for outdoor work because I don't want to get my coats dirty and because the physical labor keeps me warm enough that the long underwear-cotton turtleneck-sweatshirt-ratty heavy cotton jacket combo is sufficient. But someone farther north doing less labor may need more than I do.

I wear steel-toed boots (used, given to me by a neighbor whose feet they didn't fit) when I'm mowing the lawn. Otherwise I wear ratty leather work shoes or, in the summer and when I have them, ratty sneakers (my current sneakers aren't ratty enough yet). I wear ratty cotton socks in summer, wool socks in winter - not ratty only because my wool socks haven't worn into rattiness yet.

(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?!!!??!)


It's an attempt to deprive women of economic equality on the most basic level.

What I really like for work clothes? BDUs. You can find them at army surplus stores and the like. They're very tough, they have little tabs and things that make them adjustable (more than most clothes), if you drop a little varnish on them (the camouflage ones anyway) no one will ever know the difference, and they have enough pockets to house a chipmunk colony. I got a couple of sets from a friend who was cleaning out his closets, post deployment, and they promptly became my clothes of choice for the boat shop or dirty jobs like crawling under the house to spread vapor barrier plastic. In summer they're too hot (this is Tennessee) but for the rest of the year they are great.

By Cat Faber (not verified) on 14 Jul 2011 #permalink

+infinity to the request for pockets for women. (confession: I had pockets sewn into my wedding dress, refused to get married without pockets)

+1 to the make-up for the not having to wear pantyhose.

I wear overalls and mens longsleeve shirts for most work. Gardening (light duty stuff) I shop Le goodwill for lightweight nylon or cotton pants and roll up the cuffs till my knees when it's hot out and drop them down as soon as the mosquitoes come buzzing around.

As a redhead I invested in a pile of REI sunprotection long sleeve shirts. They and my pile of sunhats have been a wonder. Lighter colors are better - they do get hot but have zippered vents. I don't think I'd survive middle of the day gardening otherwise.

I garden barefoot, as well as work house repair (aka demolition and rebuilding) barefoot (don't ask, I was raised by wolves) but for anything around animals or the chainsaw I wear a pair of hiking boots - leather, have held up for years with proper oiling.

I think the lack of pockets on some women's pants has more to do with tendency for the pocket lips to flare out unbecomingly when worn a half size too small over hips. It's a tough design challenge that gets solved by eliminating the pocket, not some nefarious anti-woman plot.

That said, I can't recall the last pair of Levi's, Lee or other basic jean I saw without pockets. I am unlikely to work outside in ladies' slacks, knaki's or even "designer" jeans -- they'd never survive -- so it's been a non-issue for me.

On the other hand, I fabricate and sew deep, sturdy pockets inside all of my jackets. Standard issue on a men's jacket, but not on a women's jacket because it might affect the bustline.