Proper winter attire a matter of choice for Pittsburghers

Standing in front of Posvar Hall on the University of Pittsburgh campus Wednesday morning in 11-degree temperatures, John Schwende was a sight to behold: Carhartt jacket, blue jeans -- and no hat.

"I don't want to mess up my hair," joked Mr. Schwende, 32, a Pitt graduate student who also works part time at a snowmaking company, where, he noted, he has been known to wear a hat. "But seriously, it's just a short walk to my car from the building."

In this car-centric culture, it's relatively easy to move from one climate-controlled environment to another (for bus commuters, not so much).

In Pittsburgh, we experienced our fifth below-zero morning in a row Wednesday. It has been 17 years since the country experienced such a deep freeze, with the average daily temperature for the lower 48 states dropping to 17.9 degrees on Monday, according to government forecasters. That hasn't happened since 1997.

Retailers aren't making it easier. At L.L. Bean in Ross Park Mall, the store was all sold out of its warmest down coat, the Acadia (warm to minus-55 degrees) and had only two "Baxter State Park" parkas (warm to minus-33) available, in extra small and large.

Given the mixed-up weather calendar in stores, plus years of being coddled by double-digit winter temperatures, have Pittsburghers forgotten how to dress properly for bitter cold weather?

Exhibit A: John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, who arrived at President Barack Obama's appearance in West Mifflin Wednesday wearing shorts.

"I love the cold. It's who I am," he said. "Just the way someone would love lying in the summer sun, this cold weather really winds my clock."

Maybe, but U.S. Steel officials weren't having any.

"They pulled me aside and gave me pants to put on in their locker room," said Mr. Fetterman, who met Mr. Obama once before at Carnegie Mellon University -- and he was wearing shorts then, too. "It was like I was going into the Duquesne Club or something, but hey, I'm cool with U.S. Steel. They were very helpful."

Then there's Shawn Cessna, who grew up in Erie, and whose friends "believe I am a basket case in terms of dressing correctly for the season at hand."

As a child, he always loathed wearing coats, pants and boots, and since the age of 10, "I have been on the run in shorts, no coat and sneakers year-round. I never really gave it much thought when people would ask me if I was insane, or couldn't afford a coat."

Mr. Cessna, 34, now of Washington, Pa., just doesn't mind the cold, "although if it is zero or below, I wear jeans, I'm not dumb. But coats are a burden. You go to somewhere, you have to put it on, button it, zip it, put on a hood, scarf it up, put on clunky boots, put on gloves you lose function of your hands with, and lumber out into the outdoors. Then when you get there, you have to take all of that stuff off, find a place to put it, or you have to lug it around with you like you're carrying a child or suitcase."

The John Fettermans and Shawn Cessnas of the world perhaps do react differently to cold than others do, although there isn't much science that tells us why.

Alan Stewart, a psychologist and atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia, is trying to figure out that question, collecting data from more than 3,000 people. He has developed a measurement of something he calls weather salience -- "a construct that pertains to the psychological value, significance and attunement that people have for the weather and its changes."

In a survey of 946 students at the university, Mr. Stewart found, perhaps not surprisingly, that women are more "weather salient" than men, based on such questions as whether the survey participant owned and used a thermometer, whether they had evacuated from a hurricane or not and -- perhaps most telling -- whether they could "correctly distinguish between weather watches and warnings."

"I remembered that Ben Franklin once said, 'Some people are weatherwise, most people are otherwise,' " he said. "People lived a lot closer to the wind then than they do now. They were a lot more invested in keeping track of what it was like outside, and I wanted to find out who those people are today."

Those who are weather salient "seem to notice that the air smells differently after a thunderstorm, they notice the clouds, it affects their moods," he said. And they're more likely to check the weather report before planning a trip or even just taking a drive.

"I think some of the orientation and preparation just doesn't seem to be as intense in men as in women," he said. "Perhaps they don't have as much a sense of danger or risk."

In another study, Mr. Stewart measured what kind of weather people prefer. Predictably, the majority opted for the prototypical mild, sunny weather day, while about 20 percent preferred snowy, wintry weather.

Mr. Stewart, who is from Charlotte, N.C., is one of them, along with his wife, who grew up in Florida.

"We love cold weather. We like to go to Chicago in the winter. We love Maine. And Pittsburgh? I'm a Steelers fan, big time," he said.

He might want to talk to Mark Vento, a materials manager at Quest Diagnostics in Green Tree, who always wears just a golf shirt to work.

"I did wear a sweatshirt to work once when it was minus 30, but that was an exception. I walk from my car to my house, I walk from my car to the restaurant, I walk from the Giant Eagle. I usually get yelled at by some little old lady," said Mr. Vento, who claims he once walked in a snowstorm Downtown from his daughter's office on Stanwix Street to a restaurant on Sixth Street -- in a short-sleeved shirt.

"And suddenly, there's Hines Ward coming out of a building. He sees me, points at me, and starts laughing. But hey, he's from Georgia."

That's where on Wednesday commuters in Atlanta and other parts of the South discovered it can get pretty cold when your car is stuck for 12 hours on the freeway in an ice storm.

Mackenzie Carpenter:, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @MackenziePG.

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