Fashioning replies to March's whims


The mercury is stalled near 40 degrees, but Anne Offermann is the very vision of spring as she picks her way through the parks of Mount Vernon Place in a pale lemon jacket so thin it's almost see-through, featherweight khakis and a wide-brimmed straw visor. Yet now, as the wind rakes frozen fingers through just-blossomed cherry trees, she barely shivers. Her sartorial strategy?

"Long underwear," she says, hiking up a cuff to reveal an ankle armored in thick black fabric.

Offermann is visiting from the harsh climate of Buffalo, N.Y., but even she is unsure how to dress for the atmospheric free-for-all that is Baltimore's early spring.

No one is, which is why there are some strange outfits afoot - in summery suede moccasins with extra-thick socks, no less. Corduroy pants paired with barely-there cotton T-shirts, down parkas with denim skirts. Lime green fabric Longchamp bags slung over the furry arms of faux-beaver jackets.

"It's still freezing, but we've all got spring fever," said Alexandra Calvert, who was walking her dog on Wolfe Street one nippy morning this week, wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt under a short-sleeve T-shirt and hot-pink clogs perforated with dime-size holes.

"Great ventilation," the 16-year-old explained. "I'm fine, unless it snows."

Who's to say it won't? Mother Nature is having major mood swings. A friendly sun coaxes out the daffodils, then the wind knocks them flat. During the morning commute, the only sign of late March's proverbial lamb is the sheepskin collar on a leather jacket. But by noon, downtown resembles the new Scores, with people shucking excess layers left and right.

Baltimoreans have more trouble getting dressed now than during any other season, said Ray Mitchener, a manager for Ruth Shaw in Cross Keys.

Starting in early March, "I get these calls: `I'm in my closet, please help me,'" he said. "People just get sick of waiting for winter to be done, and they don't know what to do. They ask: `Can I go to a dinner party with open-toe shoes and stockings?'

"And, no, you cannot," he said.

The bad news is that some of the season-spanning looks that passed muster in other years, such as the Mischa Barton Ugg boot and miniskirt combo, are out. You shouldn't wear flip-flops with flannel, unless you're headed for a pedicure. Instead, fashion magazines feature a glittering array of spring-transition pieces: butterfly tunics, flutter sleeves, leather espadrilles for men.

But those without the time, money or inclination to purchase polyester crinkle shirts or snake-print lace camisoles must dress by their wits. And they do.

Nowhere in the glossy spreads of GQ, for instance, is there the slightest suggestion of the following ensemble: a puffy brown silk jacket zipped over a Chinese character-printed T-shirt, chino shorts and hiking boots.

"This is going to sound weird, but I have really warm legs," said Mark Williams, the wearer and a Baltimore pianist. As soon as he realized that the temperature might creep higher than 50 this week, shorts became an obsession.

But trudging about a block away that same morning, Tawanna Davis' legs were bound in leather pants. To walk just a few steps to her office, she dressed like Sir Ernest Shackleton traversing Antarctica, in a heavy parka, wool hat, shantung scarf and Timberland boots.

This get-up, she explained, was fallout from of a foolish foray into spring fashion a few weeks earlier, when she misjudged the March weather.

"Instead of turtleneck sweaters, I started with the cute tank tops," she said. "As a result, I've been sick for a week."

The trick, she said, is "staying consistent." Her thermal wear is staying on "until it gets drastic, like 80 degrees."

A few people have little choice about what to wear. Crossing guards, for example. The reflective, super-bright orange vest remains a staple, "and the only thing that really changes is whether or not we wear a scarf," said Catherine Anderson from her post at Washington and Gough streets.

Then there are the four-months-pregnant people, such as Stacie Ebersold of York, Pa., who knew when she bought all short-sleeved maternity clothes that she would be sorry for a few weeks in March and April. (Talk to her in the dog days of August, though.)

But there are also those who embrace the way this season's discombobulating bursts of breeze and sunshine redefine their wardrobes and their awareness of the outside world. They study forecasts and pore over

Before getting dressed, Linda Dembo of Baltimore likes to throw open her 11th-floor apartment's window so that she can gauge the worst of the wind.

David Griffin, a Baltimore janitor, just goes outside and breathes. If there's condensation, he grabs a jacket.

Even if the senses scream otherwise, sometimes you just have to grin and wear it, said Alyson Hettrick, a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University student who knew perfectly well Monday morning that she shouldn't be caught in a chino skirt and thin Polo buttondown when temperatures were expected to dip into the 30s.

"But the sun was out, and I couldn't help it," she said.

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