We're a long way from the days of galoshes that iced up over the buckles, and your fingers stuck to the metal trim.
But while there may be better boots around, the misery of cold feet is still with us.
Because it may feel like the North Pole in the morning as you wait for the bus or walk to the Metro station, the advice of some of the men who have been there (or other freezing zones) is worth sorting out for suggestions on surviving the cold. (For those heading to the Olympics in Lake Placid, where the mean temperature for February is 15 degrees and the temperature dipped to minus 33 about this time a year ago, this advice might be taken quite literally.)
Essential for keeping warm -- feet or anywhere else -- is to be dry, insulated and wearing garments loose enough for easy movement.
The best insulator is air, thus the constant recommendation that you wear layers: several pairs of gloves, socks, long johns, to trap the air between each. And in the keeping-dry department, cotton (worn closest to the body) absorbs moisture.
Several visitors to the Great Wall in China last spring, caught in an unexpected snowstorm, used plastic bags not only to add a layer of warmth but to keep their socks dry. Fine for an emergency, but hardly on the list of suggestions offered by outer-gear experts. What they do agree on:
Feet, like knees, nose, fingers and head, have the least protection of fat and therefore need to be paid attention to the most to keep warm.
The most important layer is the outer layer, which should repel the wind, insure against dampness and yet permit the escape of body moisture -- no easy task.
Moist skin should be avoided at all costs because it lets body heat escape 20 times faster than dry skin. (If feet, therefore, become damp from heavy overshoes, shoes and socks should be channged in the office.)
Any article of clothing that is too tight, shoes included, cuts off circulation and increases risk of freezing. "Boots should not fit (too snugly) or be laced too tightly," says the National Science Foundation in its booklet, Survival in Antarctica.
When wearing more than one pair of socks, the size should increase to the largest on the outside, to prevent pressure or constriction, says the NSF booklet.
Wool socks won't compact if your feet perspire, says George Ledyard at Eddie Bauer, so he recommends them strongly. And while synthetic liners have the advantage that they will not soak up moisture from your feet, he doesn't discount silk or wool liners for warmth.
"The most important thing is to wear boots with thick soles," says Tom Andersen of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee as advice to anyone who has to stand out in freezing cold for a long time. While most people wore rubber boots with felt liners at Lake Placid events last winter, in Andersen's opinion "moon boots" with 3-inch foam soles are unbeatable.
According to Woodward & Lothrop shoe and boot buyers: greatest advancement for city wear are "slush-molded" rubber boots that have no puncture or airholes. (But they are only absolutely waterproof up the fabric or closure.) They are just as waterproof as the pull-on rubber boots.
And if you are caught in bad weather and must trek through it in your best leather boots, dry boots away from heat, then clean with saddle soap or foam and top with waterproofing suitable for dress leather -- not too greasy. (The bad thing about snow is the chemicals used to dispel it which will discolor and ruin boots.)
For an instant comfort boost, add a shoe liner like the sheepskin innersoles stitched to leather offered by L. L. Bean and others. Scholls offers a variation, one made with a cushion and an insulating foam, the other with wool and poly fleece insoles.
And a final note: Don't count on brandy to warm the feet (only, perhaps, the heart). According to Dr. Charles Ireland, former hospital director of Howard University Hospital, the warming effect will be temporary at best: "Brandy," he says, "will dilate the blood vessels and then constrict them."