Along with a crowd of morning commuters, I stepped off the light rail to be met by six young women in front of us. They were 15 maybe? I stutter-stepped as they passed in front of me. My eyes followed them as they walked by. I stared and shook my head in wonder. The crowd just cleared in front of them, Moses parting the Red Sea, the Electric Company opening up holes for OJ Simpson, that dude who forgot to wear deodorant sitting on the subway.
I’m at an age where this behavior is especially creepy. It’s creepy at any age, but it’s especially creepy at an age when the group of women you’re staring at is half your age. So let me explain. These women were in uniform. Not a military uniform. Or a nurse’s uniform. Or a delivery uniform. They were in the Swedish winter uniform.
Black pants. Black boots. Black puffy jackets. Four of which had (fake?) fur hoods. Three of which were identical with the same design and the same logo. The other two were puffy and hoodless. It was like some sort of armed force coming at me. I was waiting for them to either assassinate someone or break into synchronized song and dance. Those were clearly the only two possible options. I didn’t stick around to find out which one did happen. I don’t like assassinations OR musicals.
Lest you think I only stare creepily at young women, men wear a uniform as well. You may be surprised to find out that the color of choice is black. A common uniform includes a black pea coat with dark jeans, black gloves, a black hat, and then an understated (but dark-colored) scarf.
Of course variants of this national folk dress occur. Scarves are a popular accessory. As are hats and gloves. Sometimes the pants are replaced by a skirt and tights. Sometimes the jacket is not puffy. Sometimes the jeans are blue. Sometimes the gloves are brown. And sometimes, but only sometimes, the coat is not black. These non-black coats generally fall into three different categories: dark blue, brown, and oh, you’re not from around here, are you?
Much of these variants seem dependent on age and perhaps even socioeconomic status. You won’t see too many people over the age of 30 or 40 wearing puffy coats. They’re out there, of course, hanging on desperately to days gone by, but the puffy style belongs to the youth. Walk around Östermalm and you’ll see a lot of brown leather gloves. Walk around the university and you’ll see a lot of knitted gloves. Walk around central station with the masses and you’ll see just the classic black gloves you grew up with.
But there are brave souls who walk among us. They dare to be different. Instead of eschewing color, they embrace it, making it a part of who they are. Or at least what they wear. I pass them on the streets and I smile. Not at them, God no, this is Sweden, but I smile straight ahead thanks to these contrarians.
I’ll admit it. I’ve succumbed to the uniform, albeit with a dash of color. I wear a black pea coat with dark blue jeans. I’ve got a pair of clodhoppers that are dark brown and keep me from slipping on the icy sidewalks. I even wear gloves that look to be knitted (they are not. I bought them at H&M). So far, it’s all pretty standard. And then, as if to look Sweden straight in the eye, throw back my head, and laugh the laugh of the pretentious foreigner who focuses on all that is wrong with the country so as to hold on to any and all feelings of superiority, I wear a bright orange hat. Like don’t-shoot-me-while-I’m-hunting orange. Like look-at-me-I’m-different orange. Like U-S-A!-U-S-A!-U-S-A! orange. And while I’ve assimilated in quite a few ways, I have limits. And my orange hat shall remained perched atop my head, a beacon of color in this dark Swedish winter.
Welcome to Sweden. And little acts of winter rebellion.