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Mighty tights

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Czech babies must be among the warmest-dressed children in the world. When we meet a Czech friend for a play date in the winter time, it takes several minutes of unwrapping before little Honzík becomes visible. Under the multiple layers, most Czech babies share a common denominator: regardless of gender, tights are obligatory. If you come from another culture, this tight-wearing fanaticism can take awhile to get used to, particularly for those of us raised to believe that any kind of tights or pantyhose belong to the feminine gender.

Anna Lee spent her infancy in New Jersey, where most babies in her daycare wore a one-piece body shirt and snuggly cotton sweatpants (or perhaps even pajamas) under their winter snowsuits. Although New Jersey winters are just as cold as here, I never thought to try to stuff her unwieldy baby legs into a pair of tights. Moving her tiny limbs to dress her was challenge enough, without the constriction of snug-fitting tights. She traveled most places by car or stroller; under her snowsuit and blankets she wore just one layer of clothes.

After we moved to Prague, Anna became a skirt-wearing toddler, and tight were a natural accessory. She quickly acquired several different colors of thick, warm tights to pair with cotton skirts. Still, she never wore her tights under pants or jeans, as many of her Czech contemporaries did. Maybe her legs were just too chubby, but the combination of tights and pants was uncomfortable enough to be tear-inducing. When we would arrive at a play center or a dětský koutek, the first order of business for my Czech friends was to strip their little ones down to their tops and tights and exchange outdoor shoes for a pair of sturdy, indoor slippers. With these changes accomplished, Czech toddlers were considered appropriately dressed for “indoor” play. Although I also stripped Anna down to her top and pants, she wore only one pair of indoor/outdoor pants, unless the cold weather necessitated a snowsuit. I did conform to slipper culture, whenever I remembered to bring them along.

Two years later, when Oliver was born, I’d already gotten used to seeing small boys wearing tights, since most of Anna’s toddler friends did. Since he was a spring baby, we had several months of warm weather before the tight-wearing culture took root. Yet even in the spring and summer months, Czechs are a bit obsessive about keeping their babies covered, either from the sun, with wide-brimmed hats that hang down to cover the delicate neck skin or with wind-breaking knit hats that ward off potential ear-infections. Babies wear socks at all times, and it’s generally understood that they shouldn’t show skin, unless they happen to be swimming, and then nude seems to be the preferred choice. I remember getting a stern reprimand one spring afternoon from a babička who happened across a cross-walk at the same time as I did. She wasted no time pointing out the exposed skin between Anna’s sock line and the start of her pants, which was visible because I was holding her on my hip to cross the street. Even though the day was mild, she warned me against letting my daughter catch a cold.

Keeping Czech babies covered so completely seems at odds with the rest of the culture’s views on clothing, especially in the warmer months of the year, when Czechs customarily sun themselves in Prague’s parks stripped down to nothing but boxers or a bra and panties. Still, I found it convenient to have a few pairs of tights handy for Oliver during the winter months. He typically wore them under his snowsuit or, on days I didn’t want to waste time with the snowsuit, then he wore them under his pants. I don’t know if the Czech culture had already infiltrated my child-rearing habits, or if, being a slimmer toddler, it was just simply easier to squeeze the tights under his pants. Whatever the case, Oliver’s tight-wearing days lasted approximately from age one-and-a-half to age three, when he started attending Czech preschool.

Preschool days are the height of tight-wearing for most Czech boys. Since the children are required to change in and out of clothes several times a day, depending on whether they are inside or outside, outfitting a child with a first-layer of tights does seem both practical and convenient. Yet, this time, my Czech-husband was the one to voice his disapproval. Remembering his own tight-wearing days with distress, Radek argued that Oliver should wear sweatpants indoors at school and exchange them for a pair of heavy snow pants for the daily outdoor time. I agreed, but when Oliver’s teachers later confronted me that he was not able to change in and out of his clothes by himself, I wondered if we hadn’t inadvertently made his preschool experience more difficult than it needed to be. Now, at four-and-a-half, Oliver hasn’t worn tights in years and doesn’t seem to miss them. He has a pair of long underwear like his dad to wear under his snowsuit and he seems to get by with his outdoor pants just fine at school. I feel a bit chagrined when the children at his preschool spend several long minutes wrapping themselves in their outer gear, but Oliver doesn’t seem to be cold with the winter clothes he wears.

I’m not the only non-Czech trying to wrap her brain around the country’s tight-wearing culture. Another friend told me that she’s always curious to see in which state of dress/undress she’ll find her infant son when she arrives to pick him up from daycare. He arrives in a soft cotton top and lounging pants, but she’s come back several times to find him in just a top, kicking his bare legs, while the other Czech babies sport their tights. She noticed that the only other non-Czech baby at the center also doesn’t wear tights and often has his pants removed, too. She tried to decipher the system by putting her son in tights under his pants one day and returned to pick him up only to be cautioned by the daycare worker against making the baby too hot by leaving him inside in multiple layers. She’s still working on figuring out that one.

Nowadays, our family’s primary tight-wearer is one-and-a-half-year-old Samuel. Although he takes after his sister with his chunky thighs, I’ve found myself putting him in tights more days than not this winter. When we go by car, it’s easier to add tights than to wrestle with his one-piece snowsuit. And, I’ve found the extra layer often comes in handy when he takes a tumble into the mud. He’s been stripped down to his tights more than once in public in order to shed sopping outer pants and seems no worse for wear. In fact, I believe he enjoys being one-step closer to free.

Interestingly, despite my reservations about the Czech tight-wearing culture, my sister-in-law back in the States was delighted to discover the custom. She bought right into the convenience and practicality of wearing tights, and each winter we send a fresh pair of tights over for her two young sons. I’m sure they’ll outgrow the need for tights at some point, but I think it’s neat that a little piece of the Czech culture has infiltrated life back home.

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