Column
November 5, 2014

How to pick the right winter coat?

By Brett Yates

I’m asking you, not telling you. This isn’t a fashion advice column. But I do have some views on the subject.

The first thing I believe is that, if you live in a cold-weather state, there is no item in your wardrobe more important than your go-to winter coat, in terms of both fashion and function. It will be the thing that keeps you warm; it will also be the garment that people will glimpse you in more often than any other, the centerpiece with which the rest of your winter style must coordinate. Picking one—not that you necessarily need to pick just one, but they do tend to be expensive, and it’s useful to have a standard option regardless—is like picking a haircut: a slightly confusing, typically kind of arbitrary decision whose stakes, however, are pretty high, since, for the next few months, this is what people will see when they look at you. It’s always there.

I’m not a stylish guy; my goal is just to look like “a person.” I guess I’d prefer not to be conspicuously dorky.

In the fall, I often wear a brown leather jacket that my grandmother gave me for my fourteenth birthday, which means the jacket is now almost 13 years old; I’ve never once cleaned it, yet  it’s held up incredibly well, its durable material converting scratches into signs of wisdom and character, and stains into tastefully subtle shadings of the sort observable on handcrafted wooden furniture.

Though I didn’t have a choice about that jacket, I favor brown leather over black—the latter can make it seem as though you’re trying to look like either Neo from “The Matrix” or a Ramone. Unfortunately, when the real cold weather starts, it’s all irrelevant, because leather is not actually that warm.

What is the warmest kind of jacket, though? Maybe those seemingly bulletproof nylon-and-polyester Carhartt apparatuses? Real fur (I’ll never know, of course)? Or maybe those puffy quilted down jackets, which, in their fashion-oriented iterations, frequently appear to have been designed with the intention of making their wearers resemble either the Michelin Man or else those fat babies whose flesh is segmented into sausage-like rolls?

I really can’t say. For most of my adult life, I’ve worn a pea coat—which, composed as it is of heavy wool, is reasonably warm among fashion-oriented jackets. It’s a safe choice that never really goes out of style, though, since it’s significantly more urban than rugged, it doesn’t work in every situation. Last time I bought one, I made the mistake of picking black instead of “charcoal”—a delicate distinction, yet apparently all the difference in the world when it comes to concealing stray lint, hair, and dirt particles, which are glaring on my black coat.

As a consequence I spend roughly 30 percent of my life with a lint-roller in hand, and I’m getting kind of sick of it. I would buy a new pea coat, but nowadays I can’t find one that’s not double-breasted—a traditional feature that makes me feel as though I’m a 54-year-old businessman. There are too many buttons, and it has a fussy, tucked quality that I can’t stand.

Additionally, I own a tweed jacket (complete with elbow pads) that is surprisingly warm, but of course it makes me look like I’m on my way to a costume party dressed as a 1940s English professor, and that isn’t always the look I’m going for.

For years I’ve been kind of intrigued by bomber jackets, not just because they have a cool name but because those of the shearling variety in particular (with that incongruous tuft of fluffy sheep peeking out from the otherwise stern-looking garment) connote a certain devil-may-care old-school glamor. But since these jackets stop at the waist, I assume they’re not particularly warm—though I’ve never dared to sport a calf-length overcoat, either: too suggestive of a king’s robe and the accompanying certainty that you’ll never have reason to do anything physical or run away from anyone, I guess.

For some reason, men’s magazines are always advocating the purchase of a “duffel coat”— typically a coarse jacket whose most notable feature is those goofy dangling wooden toggle-fastenings that can be secured on the other end within a rope or leather loop. This method of fastening makes no sense: the toggles are just like buttons but with a bunch of extra junk trailing them. It looks as though your jacket was in a terrible accident and had to get many visible stitches.

While we’re on the subject of winter fashion, what do you think of those gloves that come with little fingerpads whose material allows you to use touchscreen surfaces—like your iPhone—without removing your gloves? They’re incredibly practical, but then again there can be no illusion of timelessness in your outfit when you’re wearing them, and maybe they’re really too openly useful—like a pocket protector or a glasses strap—to be cool, or too obvious a proof of our vaguely distasteful beholdenness to technology.

One solution to all this is not to care how you look in the winter, which of course, in Vermont especially, is totally acceptable for many. People are just trying to survive these temperatures; it’s not a fashion show—though the extent to which Vermonters are allowed to give up style is debatable (no visible long johns at a nice restaurant, perhaps).

With regard to what coat to wear, the easiest thing to do, obviously, is just to wear your ski jacket all the time—complete with your Killington pass still attached, so you’re always prepared.

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