April showers may bring May flowers, but they can also soak your wool suit and destroy your shoes. These days, no matter the season, extreme weather events have become more common. In this article, we provide some tips on how to prepare and what to wear when rain is in the forecast.
The good news is that dressing for a rainy day is straightforward since you’re really only thinking of a few things: footwear, outerwear, and an umbrella. In addition, it helps that in one of classic style’s most influential nations, the UK, wet weather is all too common; the local tailoring tradition has long addressed the needs of men dressing for the wet weather. So, from experience, we have a considerable knowledge base on which to draw. If it’s the rainy shoulder season when cold weather hasn’t fully gone away but warm weather hasn’t yet arrived, a water-resistant overcoat is essential.
1. Trench Coats
If you’re wearing tailored clothes, the first overcoat to reach for is a classic khaki trench coat; this is an item with a storied history and iconic details that are designed specifically for wet weather. A proper trench coat features buckle straps on the sleeves, a stand collar with throat latch, and a back saddle, all intended to keep water away from your body. Similar to Sven Raphael Schneider, I think the most useful earmark of a trench may be storm pockets, which are made to enable you to carry small items without getting them wet. Even if you don’t use all of these features, they certainly look fantastic. Lastly, your trench coat is likely to be made of natural cotton gaberdine, a durable twill that provides water resistance without making use of fibers derived from plastics or petrochemicals.
An alternative to the trench is a regular raincoat. These tend to contain synthetic materials like nylon or polyester for water resistance, blended with cotton, so are less traditional in that sense. The advantage of a non-trench raincoat is that it is likely to be lightweight and packable and thus perfect for travel; you can compress the entire coat into a briefcase or weekender bag without wrinkling and whip it out when the skies begin to open up. Plain raincoats are also often minimalist in terms of design, having covered front buttons and no belt. So if you want to present a clean contemporary look or emphasize what suit you’re wearing when you have the coat open, they’re a fantastic choice.
Raincoats also come in reversible versions, with one side navy and the other khaki for versatility. This gives you a good set of inner pockets as well. I have an entirely navy blue variant that is lightweight wool on one side and a waterproof synthetic on the other. I wear a more elegant fabric side out until it starts to rain, at which point I just flip to the impermeable side.
3. Casual Jackets
Recently, there has been a movement toward some hybridization in the form of wearing casual outerwear, such as a waxed cotton canvas field jacket, over smart casual clothing like a sports coat, tie and OCBD, or instead of a sport coat. If you’re strolling in a country garden or visiting a historic house on a rainy weekend, this is a great option. The wax treatment gives these jackets an appealing sheen and the fabric itself is both rugged and natural. Some of the most well-known makers are Private White and Barbour, both British companies. The Barbour Beaufort and Sapper models seem to lend themselves best to accompanying more formal clothing while translating easily to completely casual wear.
If you do go with casual rainwear, try it first to see if it works with whatever tailoring you want to wear; something like an Australian oilskin duster would certainly be effective but incongruous. The same applies to things like Gore-Tex windbreakers and generic parkas. These will keep you dry but aren’t specific to a classic style aesthetic, so we won’t address them here.
4. Performance Fabrics
The technological innovations that have shaped 21st-century society have not passed over the menswear industry. A recent innovation is Loro Piana’s Storm System fabric, where wool and cashmere are made windproof and waterproof. though still breathable, through the application of an “extremely light micromolecular and microporous absorbent membrane.” This can be made not only into overcoats but into sport coats that you can wear alone when the weather is wet but that chilly.
Shoes and Shoe Care for Rainy Weather
If you get caught without an overcoat and don’t have an umbrella, a damp suit will usually dry out just fine if you hang it properly and don’t expose it to strong heat in the drying process. However, soaked leather shoes are another story. Stories abound online of shoes that have been irreparably damaged due to rain. So, how do you prevent this?
As with many gentlemanly pursuits from ironing to setting a handkerchief just right in your breast pocket, preparation is the key. Check the weather forecast and choose your approach to footwear accordingly.
1. Pre-Treating Your Shoes
When rain is light or occasional, you can still wear your regular calf leather shoes with a natural oil-based sole treatment like Saphir’s Medaille d’Or Sole Guard. You apply this to the leather soles of your dress shoes and after it dries, it helps prevent water from permeating the shoe through the underside. The fact is that most shoe damage occurs from water wicking its way up through the sole and warping the leather, so, again, preparing ahead of time is the key.
If you know rain is in the forecast, as a rule, you would also generally forego wearing suede or nubuck shoes, which are particularly prone to water damage. However, with another Saphir product, the Super Invulner Waterproofing Spray, you don’t need to. With an application of the spray perhaps every month or so, depending on use, water should run right off of suede. What’s more, along with the Sole Guard, these treatments provide stain and salt resistance in addition to waterproofing.
2. Dress Shoes with Rubber Soles
If you’re simply not into keeping up with treating your shoes, a step up in terms of protection that requires no maintenance is to buy some dress shoes with soles made of Dainite or an equivalent rubber. These are not the same rubber soles that appear on cheap shoes from Cole Haan or Kenneth Cole, which wear out quickly and are difficult to repair. Rather, these are durable, impenetrable, and slip-resistant and are used by high-end makers. Anyone who has worn shoes with leather soles knows the experience of slipping on a few droplets of water on a supermarket or office floor; with rubber soles, this annoying and embarrassing occurrence is a thing of the past. Dainite has long been a godsend for dress boots and is becoming more popular with dress shoes as well, such as those by Allen Edmonds. Crockett & Jones has a proprietary version developed in partnership with the Harborough Rubber Co. as part of their “city sole” range, first released in 2016.
3. Overshoes or Galoshes
When it’s raining cats and dogs, you may need sacrifice style points in favor of wearing utilitarian rain shoes or galoshes. The French galoche, which originally meant a wooden last for shaping shoes, later referred to wooden clogs and, more recently, to overshoes made in rubber. If you visit a historic house like the Bronte Parsonage Museum or the Bata Shoe Museum, you’ll see examples of overshoe that go back at least to the early 19th century.
For some reason, rubber galoshes or overshoes seem less common these days than a generation or two ago, either because men are becoming more indifferent to protecting already low-quality shoes or because men simply find these “shoe condoms” ugly. The fact is, galoshes will never look terrific; they add thickness and bulk to your feet, but, at the same time, they’re light and portable while providing optimal protection for your shoe investment. You can leave a pair in your briefcase, in the car, or in a drawer at the office. Galoshes should be thought of as a functional item more than an aesthetic choice if you choose to buy them.
Perhaps some men are put off by the cheap black rubber versions that are available in any shoe repair shop. These can be notoriously difficult to slip on and take off and can tear through in one season. You might as well tie plastic shopping bags over your shoes (which I have done in a pinch). However, as part of the revival of interest in menswear, some innovative companies have taken the lead and designed better galoshes. One of these is a Norwegian company called SWIMS, which makes them in multiple colors beyond the usual black.
The appeal of SWIMS overshoes is not just the color choice–you can match your shoes or get a standout shade–but also how easily they go on and off while staying firmly in place when you want them to be. They come with a carrying bag as well, but at a price tag of $95. A disadvantage that they and most overshoe designs is that they leave the facing, where the laces are, uncovered. Another Scandinavian company, Fred & Matt from Sweden, has galoshes that are made of a handsewn, breathable material that cover your entire shoe. This eliminates the issue of other galoshes, including SWIMS, of leaving the area of the laces exposed to the elements. However, the range of colors is more limited–only the nondescript black will work with classic style–and the price is higher at $145. Both brands are positively reviewed online.
5. Rain Boots
Lastly, you can abandon all pretense of elegance and simply wear some sort of rain boot. You then carry your dress shoes in your briefcase or keep a pair at the office to change into. Rain shoes from L.L. Bean seem to be a popular choice in the US. I personally find them unattractive with tailored clothing, but you could say that you’re emulating the sprezzatura of Gianni Agnelli by wearing boots with a suit. They are made in shades of brown, so they kind of pair with the staple menswear colors, like gray and blue, if only in terms of color and not aesthetics. On the other hand, you may be able to track down something less likely to catch the eye; ultimately, you need to think of these as primarily functional items.
When I visit the UK, I like to do a bit of country walking, and I still like to wear a sports coat (perhaps a tweed jacket) and maybe a casual tie, so my rain boot of choice is a Wellington or “wellie.” These actually pair quite nicely with tailoring, as they are part of traditional British hunting attire and make you look something like a proper country gent. Obviously, they aren’t as portable as shorter galoshes, but a definite benefit is their height: you can tuck your trousers into them and dance in a muddy puddle with no need to visit the dry cleaners afterward. You’ll see a ton of them worn everywhere too, albeit mostly with more casual outdoor wear, so they don’t look out of place. You could try the look outside the UK too, but, following the rule of dressing for the environment, you likely would not wear these with tailoring in the city unless you’re Nick Wooster.
The Debate on Shell Cordovan
When conditions are wet, many swear by shell cordovan shoes, even going to ridiculous extremes to test their response to water. Cordovan is special leather that is made from the flank leather of horses. However, for every testimonial trumpeting their water resistance, there is an equal number of horror stories about cordovan shoes developing persistent water spots after the slightest exposure to rain. The consensus seems to be that the resistance to damage depends on the cordovan and perhaps how it has been treated, so one shouldn’t view cordovans as specifically something to wear in the rain, especially considering that cordovan is usually far more costly than calf leather. Taking the usual precautions is the wisest approach.
What to Do if Your Shoes are Soaked
Should your shoes get wet, whether their cordovan or other leather, the first priority is to dry them out, though gradually and in a way that doesn’t warp their original shape. Stuff the inside with crumpled newspaper and turn your shoes on their side to facilitate drying of the soles. Change the newspaper as it absorbs moisture and replace them with cedar shoe trees when the shoes are mostly dry. Whatever you do, avoid applying strong heat to the shoes. For instance, do not put them on a heating vent, as this will damage them. For water stains on the uppers of the shoe, try vigorous brushing with a horsehair shoe brush along with an appropriate cream or wax polish (non-turpentine for cordovan).
Lastly, though it’s not something you “wear” in wet weather, we would be remiss not to mention the primary accessory you need in the rain. First, when it looks like rain carry an umbrella, and make it a good one. All too often, out of laziness, lack of preparation or a sense of machismo, you’ll see well dressed gents walking (or running) in the rain without an umbrella. Others may prefer a portable $5 version from Duane Reade. However, the true gent appreciates a proper full-length umbrella with a curved wooden handle and a point, one that can double as a walking stick. Not surprisingly, some of the world’s top umbrella makers are based in the UK, such as Fox Umbrellas and James Smith and Co., whose shops are also worth a visit. There, the chance of rain is so omnipresent that a tightly rolled umbrella is virtually mandatory with morning wear at formal outdoor events. Italy boasts two historic umbrella makers as well, with Francesco Maglia in the north (Milan) and Mario Talarico in the south (Naples). Their solid-stick umbrellas with hand-steamed grips are truly a thing of beauty.
Portability can be an issue, but the full-length umbrella is meant to be displayed, and the artisanal umbrella makers do sell short ones that still have beautiful handles. I personally have my eye on a packable version made by Fox Umbrellas, which combines the best of both worlds; it features a tip and handle that unscrew, allowing it to fit in your luggage.
Dressing well doesn’t have to be only a fair weather proposition. With the proper preparation and protective clothing, you can laugh at storms and look good doing it. How do you dress on rainy days? What do you do in terms of your footwear when it’s wet outside? Tell us your approaches in the comments below.