winter coats I have worn and hated

coat 1

I am five years old. I am playing in the snow with my brother. We go out into the snow almost every day under vivid blue skies, surrounded by pine trees on every side, by the house of pine logs. The snow changes every day, and so does our play. Fluffy snow for snow angels. Packy snow for forts and snowball fights. A crust on top is good for sledding. My snowsuit is light blue, his is red. There is often snow stuck in my ankles and wrists, I am always feeling cold. I am indifferent to the snowsuit, it is just a fact of life. My world is so tiny, I don’t even know that other, better snowsuits might exist.

It’s the last time I remember being content in a winter coat.

When you live in Canada you are covered in a winter coat for at least 3 months of the year. For ordinary people, in darkest winter, your options are reduced to one: the warmest coat you own. That coat has to stand up to heavy, constant wear, whether it’s an appropriate social situation for that coat or not. It quickly becomes worn out, especially if it is of low quality to begin with.

A significant purchase for people of modest means, making do with a less than ideal winter coat is an ordinary problem. In my life, the days I have been unsatisfied with the coat I must wear far exceed the days I have felt satisfied. I often dread the winter, not because I hate the weather, but because I hate my coat.

A winter coat is the most visible marker of your status in life, especially if you wear the same one every day. An unwelcome daily reminder of what you can’t afford.

The story of the winter coats I have worn is the story of my own alienation from fashion. When I think of winter coats, the feelings I have are of shame, frustration and envy, being bested by the circumstances of money and weather into a series of unstylish, unsatisfying, and often impractical garments. I’ve never yet owned a winter coat which I felt really represented my own sense of self and style and kept me comfortable at the same time.

coat 2

At age ten, I have the loudest ski coat. It is 1992, the height of the fluorescent craze. I must have chosen it for myself, from the kid’s clothes section of Canadian Tire no doubt, however almost instantly after I got it I began to feel like it had been a curse imposed upon me. Especially as with much play and wear it became dingy and faded. I think of this as the first time (not the last) I experienced fashion victimhood.

coat 3

At the age of fourteen, I am fascinated with period costume of all kinds, also The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and contemporary looks do not appeal to me. I dive into the depths of my parent’s closet to unearth an unlikely calf-length wool princess coat with horn toggles, a hood and a flared hem. It looked, I thought, very elvish. It was a cumbersome, heavy and not-warm coat, in a warm brown which has never been my best colour. Worn with crude home-made raver phat-pants, thrifted Dr. Martens that were a size too big, and a floppy leather hat that concealed my face, I must have looked far more hobbit-like than elfin.

Once I had a little bit of my own money from working at McDonalds and other part-time jobs, I bought two coats from the Quinte Mall in Belleville Ontario, which at the time was the most cosmopolitan place in my tiny universe. To my friends and I, this sleazy small-city mall was the source of all fashion.

One was a very ordinary Colombia ski coat in blue, a size too big on me. It drowned me but had a lot of pockets, inside and out, and a detachable fleece lining which of course ended up pilling almost instantly. It was probably the biggest spend in my life at that point, and the fact that it failed to make me look cool left me with lingering cognitive dissonance whenever I wore it.

coat 4

The other was a silver and blue ravey vinyl thing from Le Chateau, our favourite shop in the mall, where we bought our halter tops and plastic shoes. It was a pullover, and not that warm, which made it inconvenient, but I thought it looked good, so I tolerated the poor design.

My mother and I are both smaller ladies, but it seemed like she was often wearing hand-me-down coats from larger people. Always, the coats had some flaw which of course was why they were discarded; worn cuffs, loaded velcro, awful colours, a broken zipper which meant the coat had to be stepped into. Mom never seemed to spend too much energy worrying about what her coat looks like – like most of the women I knew in the rural area where I grew up, fashion was a low priority. Often she has to carry firewood, or take care of the animals. Her “bad” coats got more wear than her “good” coats.

coat 5

It was my first year in University and my first few weeks living in Toronto. I was so excited to have escaped my small town forever. For the first time, I attended The Clothing Show with my boyfriend at the time. He bought me, on my request, the very-trendy-in-2002 Afghan coat with a dingy shearling collar for $70. It was light blue suede. I wore it once, and then tore it apart with the intention of re-assembling it, which never happened. It lived in a box, crumpled. Another failed fashion choice. Having shopped so little in my life, I demonstrated no real skill at it once I had the opportunity, and those scraps of suede were a symbol of my own foolish profligacy.

coat 6

After I graduated from fashion school in 2006, I struggled to find something to do. I had very little career acumen. Some people occasionally sent me very random freelance jobs which I did. Technical specs, graphic design, pattern making, print design, sample making – all things I really had no experience in and delivered with wildly varying degrees of competence, but took on readily as a way to stave off full-time employment. One of my referrers had connections at a factory that made down parkas. I went to the factory, watched the machine that blows down into a coat, and bought at discount my first ever real parka. It is a very simple coat, and had fake fur trim, detachable, lined with a knock-off Burberry plaid. (“Yeah we got a cease and desist letter for that one.”) At the time it pleased me  because it was the first coat I ever felt truly warm in, and it didn’t call much attention to itself.

Over six years later, I have to admit this is still my main winter coat. It is shiny and worn on the arms, one of the pocket zippers is broken, and the fake fur had to be discarded because it got melted on one side by an errant steam iron. It is still the warmest coat I own, so often I have to wear it, but it makes me feel so shabby. It’s a non-entity of a coat, and makes me feel like a non-entity.

In London, I was finally released from the tyranny of truly cold weather. I bought a trim little Made in England wool duffle coat and it was perfectly serviceable for even the coldest bits of British winter. I got to wear medium-weight coats most of the year – my favourites – and I had several, so I never felt bored of any of them.

Now that I’m back in Toronto, and winter is blowing in, I am determined to buy a winter coat wisely for the first time in my life. This time, when I’m thinking of spending, I’m thinking – one month’s rent or two? It seems a low price to pay considering how much time I’ll end up living in it. Also, I want a coat that makes me feel abundant and sophisticated, that helps me look my best in the worst kind of weather, in almost any situation. Once again, a winter coat will probably be the biggest spend on clothes I’ve made in my life yet. I desperately want more than one such magical coat, to be honest. I must be patient with such grand ambitions.

I’m not a rich girl, so I won’t look like one. I can only hope to look like I have achieved some level of taste after thirty years of trial and error. I want a coat that reveals my most confident aspirations rather than my actual precarious status. A well off person has multiple coats for every occasion and every weather – a savings bank in their wardrobe. Relying on one coat at a time is for those of us from the class that lives from check to check, though I still believe it is possible to be sophisticated, if a coat is selected with taste and care. That is what I’m aiming for, this time. Real down, real fur. For the first time in my life I am determined to feel winter-coat confident, whatever the weather.

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16 thoughts on “winter coats I have worn and hated”

  1. This reminds me of the struggles I had — running parallel to yours — growing up as an uncool, discount-store-only kid in New England. What heartache that trail of icky parkas wrought!

    Side note: your duffle coat, beanie and Docs are a marvelous update of your Lord of the Rings ensemble….

  2. I remember liking a lot of my coats at the time…even if they were shitty mall coats…but I also remembering suffering cold for the sake of fashion, even into university. I recall having a gold/bronzy puffer coat from Suzy shier in grade nine, so awesome. The best coat I ever had was a simple, mid thigh length felt coat from united colors of benneton…well cut for the price but still not truly warm enough. At least winter clothes now have some chic/cool factor appeal now, it feels like there are more options.

  3. I remember paying $325 for my first “real” winter coat at seventeen: a black, slim, fitted, knee-length, merino/cashmere, hooded coat by Talula Babaton for Aritzia. I bought it with money from my Pizza Hut job (earned at $7.15/hr) knowing that it would have to last ten years (through university and beyond). I still have it, despite having shredded open both shoulders and worn out the small of the back (eight years of university backpack carrying). It’s funny, despite never wearing it, I never think to give it away…

    Since I live in Vancouver, I’m now wearing my grandmother’s 1970s navy blue London Fog trench — such a timeless piece! The fabric is stiff and strong and waterproof, almost like an oilcloth. This coat is invincible.

    Have you thought about buying a classic coat from somewhere like Holts in a classic neutral then tailoring up another coat, maybe in a colour, by hand? I know that it’s a beast of a task, but it’ll fit perfectly and last for years…

  4. Lovely article. I’ve never even considered having more than one winter coat at the same time (what an extravagance!). For the past 3 years, I’ve worn a black, wool blend single breasted coat which is a touch too tight but very cozy. It got me through some snowy Irish winters, and I hope it’ll take me through my first New York winter, where it’s just started snowing.

    Do let us know what you select, Danielle.

  5. … this really spoke to me. Especially the bits about not being able to afford nice/warm stuff and the buying the wrong thing and feeling heartbroken parts X) Do you sew at all? If not, I wonder if you could get a nice coat sewn, there’s a fair few sewing bloggers in Canada, perhaps you could work out a deal with one of them? The one I used to follow has moved to Sweden but I could contact her. Or maybe you could look into the cost of getting one made at a tailors. You could find out if you could buy a commercial pattern and get them to make it for you (would be cheaper than getting them to draft it to your dimensions). There’s Vogue patterns and Simplicity which make quite nice things (and the fit seems ok, Simplicity is the more trustable of the two), then there’s also burdastyle (which have patterns online but also a monthly magazine) and Ottobre (clicking on the mags gives you a preview, every third one is a women’s pattern mag, and they alternate summer and winter styles). I find burdastyle stuff fits with the minimum adjustments and you seem to have standard body type so shouldn’t have any issues. You could buy the fabric, buttons, trim, lining etc yourself and have it exactly the way you want. If you were in Australia, I could probably make you a very simple coat.. =)

  6. Thanks all for your lovely comments, so pleased I’m not alone.

    Bronwyn – I think you have always been just better at shopping than I am. I also remember the gold puffer =)

    theperfectnose and Nadia – I’d love to make my own coat given the rare resource of time! I think it would take me a few weeks. But also, it would have to be wool which would still not be warm enough. I really need a parka.

  7. Oh and I forgot to say: you can see Vogue’s current Coat patterns here, burda’s current coat patterns here and Simplicity’s ones here. Nothing too exciting at the moment but imagine it in a fabric you’d actually wear.
    Couple of previews of Ottobre mags here, here, here and here. Their stuff is a bit more funky and I like that it’s styled by women of different sizes and ages. XD
    Also, I don’t work for any of these, I sew all my own clothes and use burda and Ottobre (and Knipmode, La Mia Boutique and Patrones) patterns myself and see others online getting good use out of Vogue and Simplicity so I thought I’d recommend them to you if you’re in a position to make a coat/find someone to make a coat for you..

  8. Sorry I was in the middle of responding and didn’t see your earlier response-I have a ready to wear coat (men’s unfortunately) where the coat itself is made of waterproof material and it has a detachable (via a long zipper) parka layer inside it. My motorcycle jacket and pants are also made the same way. So in summer I use them by themselves and in winter I zip in the parka layer. Maybe you could find something like that? I.e. in the shops-I reckon it could be made but good technical fabrics are hard to find for home sewing..

  9. I have to come back with the (probably obvious) recommendation to check J. Crew’s coat selection. When I lived in a colder place (the northeast and then San Sebastian, Spain), I saved and saved for the wool peacoat with Thinsulate lining; it was a lifesaver and I wore it for years. The prices are still on the high side but the quality is good; perhaps one of their wool or parka options (I love that they feature Barbour and Woolrich models too) would work for your needs.

  10. Thank you all for your great suggestions, makes my research job so much easier!

    theperfectnose – I love this season’s oversized coats… I think maybe I could make one of those if I had time. But I’d want to draft the pattern from scratch because I’m fussy that way & might as well put all that fashion school knowledge to use!

  11. I’m not affiliated with them in any way, but I’ve loved my Sicily coat so much that I bought another one a few years later. Mine are both wool, but it’s lined with some thermal lining so they are very warm. They are also made locally, which is important for me (and explains why the cut and fabric are appropriate for our local weather – they are made by people who “get” winter). They are expensive though – I got mine on sale for much less than what they sell for on the website.

  12. I’ve lived in Calgary my whole life and my winter coats have always been the most important items in my wardrobe. I find that having a good winter coat trumps having a lot of winter outfits – its the thing that people see the most of because you rarely take it off when you are shopping, going to church, commuting to work,running errands, picking up the kids etc. I make sure I have a few different accessories to switch up how they look as well. I tend to buy one every couple of years so I have some variety. Currently I have a red midthigh wool coat with stand up collar and black buttons (3 years old), a double breasted houndstooth car coat (new this year) and a red down parka with a faux fur trimmed hood (2 years old). Where did I get them? Walmart! And they were all under $50 bucks. Warm, comfy and easy on the wallet.

  13. I blame it on living in the south but I never feel like I have the right coat. Alway the wrong weight, color, length, style. But when I go shopping for coats I never see anything that seems right.

    Usually our winters are mild enough that I can get by with fleece jackets. But not this year.

    Oh and I have eleventy billion scarves. None seems right.

    I feel retarded when it comes to coats.

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