Here in Seattle, we’re at the tail end of a rare, multi-day break of much sun and no rain. The wet stuff is supposed to resume falling tomorrow, the start of what the weather dogs predict will be five straight days of precipitation. But it’s a good bet you won’t know it by watching the good folks of Seattle as they go about their daily business.
In this city of persistent light rain, people simply don’t dress for it. They generally don’t wear raincoats or hats, or anything that repels water or directs it away from the body. Umbrellas are more commonly seen in commercials for Travelers Insurance than on the streets of the Emerald City.
I have no hard data for this proposition other than my own highly unscientific observations. But on the last few days where we had rain, I made a weather preparedness tally of people out and about (as I drove in my car, of course). By my count, maybe one out of every dozen people wore what I would call rain garb. The others got by with light jackets that did not look to me especially water resistant, or no obvious outerwear at all. A fair number of pedestrians sort of looked drenched to me. I’m not sure I spotted more than two umbrellas. I actually saw a far higher percentage of rain garb on dogs being walked.
Now, I grew up on the soggy East Coast, where I once came down with pneumonia after getting caught unprepared in a cold New Jersey rain. But I became New To Seattle in 2011 after living 19 years in the desert climates of New Mexico and Southern California. So this is a pretty wet climate for me. I don’t venture out in rain without wearing at least a rain jacket and a white, broad-brimmed hat made in Guatemala from water-repelling palm leaves.
I am not the first to ponder this soaking issue. “Why are Seattleities anti-umbrella?” asked the headline over a story in 2011 on the website of KPLU, the NPR affiliate down the Sound in Tacoma. This highly entertaining account traced this antipathy all the way back to 1851, when the Denny party of gringos from Illinois arrived sans umbrellas and got soaked while trying to put a roof over their heads so they could get rid of the Indians. Current answer: Umbrellas aren’t cool.
A few years ago, someone moving to Seattle queried a Yahoo answer site about how to deal with the rain. “Most people just wear hoodies or wool coats,” responded someone going by the handle of Chelsea79. “People here are so used to getting rained on that they don’t care anymore. If you wear water resistant clothing, you look like a tourist.” I have to think that’s sheer heresy to the people running VisitSeattle.org, the marketing organization gearing up for an onslaught of pot-seeking visitors.
In January, a question on Reddit–“Can someone explain why so many Seattle people shun/abhor umbrellas?”–drew an amazing 41 responses. A large number explained that umbrellas take up too much room on a sidewalk and are anti-social. This was a complaint that I found rather amusing, given my stated belief here in the existence of the anti-social phenomenon known as the Seattle Freeze.
“How is it that Seattle doesn’t have a raincoat store?” whined another newcomer on the website of Seattle radio station KNDD in a post that included a cute shot of a poncho-wearing bulldog. “Seattle without a raincoat shop is like LA without a bikini shop. It just doesn’t make sense!”
But as I reflect on this, maybe it does. There’s far more of an outdoor orientation in Seattle than in many of the other places I have lived. The tough-it-out mentality fits into the local narrative of humankind’s harmony with nature. Also, despite the northern climate, the winters aren’t really all that cold, and the rains rarely that soaking. I think Seattleites just layer up, figuring that whatever moisture comes down won’t wick through to their skins until they’ve made it into yet another warm coffee shop to dry out a bit and use the Wi-Fi.
With my weather gear, I stick out like a sore thumb. My hat and beard, I have been told, make me look like I’m Amish, an especially rare sight in famously unchurched Seattle. I don’t ride a horse and buggy, but at least I stay dry.