Over the past several months, events have swirled around me in such a way that I have been thinking constantly about something I thought just six months ago I thought I’d given up for good, that I had no longer had any use for, that would never be a part of my life again.
I have been thinking about buying a winter coat.
When the pandemic turned fashion’s trend winds into a confusing squall, the one thing that seemed obvious is that we wouldn’t need a new coat this year. 2020 was poised to truly end the era of the coat, stuck as we are in a limbo of lockdown and socially distanced status picnics. There’s no need for the snappy topcoat, now that concerts and weddings are all called off. Temperatures rarely dip low enough to warrant the puffer outside of a handful of weeks a year. The statement coat—brocaded robes from Dries Van Noten, voluminous layer cakes of power by Balenciaga, or glorious, couture-like specimens by Raf Simons—became a status symbol for the true fashion victim who wanted to wear a coat against the rising temperatures of climate change. It was something slightly delusional people bought to throw over a T-shirt and walk around the coolest part of their city. Perhaps you wore yours over shorts or sweatpants. (Viva la Sandler!) The rest of the fashionably minded crowd adopted the more modest fleece, from brands like Kapital and Martine Rose, as the outerwear of the moment, with an honorable mention for the novelty knit.
But the closer we get to winter’s arrival, I’m realizing that the winter coat is in fact poised to take on new relevance. With outdoor dining becoming the norm, a winter coat is a necessity. Even if you aren’t dining out, all socializing now takes place outdoors, which demands a little dazzle beyond your pilling deep-pile jacket. (You could go to a Status Picnic in a boring coat—but why would you?). Your coat is now your entire outfit, which is just as well, because a coat can say things about a person that a nice suit or a well-cut dress can only hope to convey. The real measure of a person is how they protect themselves against the elements—conditions climatic and otherwise.
The coat is as much a psychological protector as it is a physical one. New York designer Norma Kamali famously saw sales of her sleeping bag coat spike after 9/11. “People wanted to feel comforted,” Kamali told the FT last year. “Even though it wasn’t the season for us to be making them, we had to get the factory back to work. They just worked with whatever materials they had, so we had little notes in with the coats saying ‘This is not necessarily an outerwear garment, it is intended to make you feel safe.’”
Anyone who’s ever seen an Olsen twin in the balmy breezes of early autumn, bundled in a gown-like Yohji Yamamoto cloak or wrapped in a fur Celine duster, knows that the coat is a vessel of safety and power. But as always, the Olsens’ instincts are only the latest chapter in a long tradition that extends far beyond their smoke breaks outside sushi citadel Kappo Masa. In Gogol’s Overcoat, the garment is a transformative tool, offering the promise of sophistication, and humanity, to a luckless bureaucrat. When he finally gets the coat he’s scraped to save up for, he becomes a celebrity at work and his coworkers. (Good idea for your first Status Picnic with your new coat! Well, unless you’ve read what happens after the party.) In the recent fashion-focused film Deerskin,, the coat becomes an instrument of masculine fantasy that drives a middle-aged divorcee to murder in pursuit of owning the only coat in the world.
More than any other garment, the coat stands for the triumph of emotional fashion over necessity. Because the temperatures generally do not require pure functionality, the question becomes what kind of coat you want to be. (A giant blanket is nice, too; I saw a mother-daughter sharing nachos outside a Brooklyn bar this past weekend, huddled together under a plum red tartan blanket.) As Gogol’s bureaucrat would intimate, coats can be pricey, but Etsy will deliver the full universe to you, from virgin wools to cashmeres and even a few pieces made from vicuna, the fabric from a beautiful little South American creature who produces just a pound of yarn a year. You can find the perfect 1980s Armani shark coat—jet black, double-breasted, totally evil, like you just closed a deal and murdered someone on the way home. If that feels too aggressive, maybe you should hunt for a soft-shouldered, raglan-sleeve herringbone duster. I’m looking for inspiration to the Prada Autumn 2012 show where Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and several models all walked down the runway wearing incredibly important coats. Still, if all these thoughts are skewing too old-school-sprezzatura-menswear, nothing is more brilliant than a Prada nylon puffer. Or a Wales Bonner oversized Prince of Wales check blazer that you can throw over a hoodie or layered button-up shirts.
My own search ended this weekend. I found, at a vintage store, a brown and gray-flecked wool textured coat, Olsenian in length, that suggested a life of ease and plenty I expect none of us will have for a painfully long time. And yet it was only $115! A great coat, I think, is a little bit of a lie. This year, I’m willing to live one!
Originally Appeared on GQ