The crowd standing near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was a sea of black. It was Armistice Day in Ottawa and the mood was somber, as was fitting for a ceremony commemorating the war dead. There was the odd splash of red or gray among the thousands of people huddled on this cold snowy November morning, but this was the reality of a Canadian winter, solemn occasion or not – we are a nation of black coats.
The vast majority of winter coats come in only one color – black, and one style – big and puffy, as in parkas that are flattering to no one, not even penguins. They range in price from the cheaper now-defunct Sears version all the way up to the down-filled fur-trimmed Canada Goose brand which retails for $1000 and which has become the latest target of thieves. Dare to leave your Canada Goose dangling on the back of your Starbucks chair while you fetch a stir stick and you might return to find it gone.
Winter weather is here to stay now, but I’m not worried – I’ve got it covered. After years of looking, I bought not one but THREE winter coats this year – and none of them were black.
It had been well over a decade since I’d bought a dressy winter coat, although whether a toggle coat can be considered dressy is debatable, but it was the style in 2008 and it came in red and petite (I come from a long line of leprechauns). The next year, I bought a red ski jacket with a plaid flannel lining, after seeing it in Oprah magazine. It too came in red, but a bright candy apple red, not that dreadful orange tone.
These were both nice serviceable coats, but with our long winters ten years is a good amount of time to get out of a coat. I was way overdue for a new one – but everything was black. The coat manufacturers had been playing it safe since the last recession.
Oh, I understand the appeal of black. It’s practical. It doesn’t show dirt. It’s easy to accessorize. It goes with everything. It’s classic and tres chic, as in you can pretend you’re a famous fashion editor and of course, some black is okay as in Twenty Pairs of Black Pants or the LBD – Little Black Dress. This is by no means meant to be disparaging to those of you who like black and can wear it – by all means do!
But what if you don’t like black. Or look good in it? I find that for many women of a certain age, black near the face is draining, it makes your skin look pale or sallow. If you are old enough to remember the 80’s having-your-colors-done craze where a franchised sales rep draped swatches of color near your face to determine if you were a Winter Spring Summer or Autumn, then you will know what I mean.
As a pale Celtic Summer, I knew black was out for me, not even with a scarf for camouflage. Plus, I find winter dreary enough without being in mourning – I need something colorful to cheer me up.
In younger years when I was a dedicated fashionista, I did my fair share to support the clothing economy. Now that I’m retired, I live in yoga pants and casual tops and spend very little on clothes. I don’t wear most of what I own and it seems wasteful to buy more, so I shop in my closet. Fast fashion is not for me, I want quality and style. If the latest trends are lacking I feel it’s my duty to leave ugly clothes in the stores where they belong. Why buy something, unless you need and absolutely love it?
I’ve had many winter coats over the years, but only a few I remember. Fellow Fashionistas might enjoy a historical look at my multi-colored coat collection, beginning in the sixties with purple velvet.
I’m twelve and still in grade school, but the Age of Aquarius is dawning and purple velvet is groovy. My coat was short and belted like the style below, and not a crushed velvet but more of a velour. It was also too big for me but my mother let me buy it anyway.
Mini skirts were the current thing (uh huh – Cher), and although I loved my Princely purple coat, it was not as mod as my teacher’s long black maxi coat, worn while patrolling the schoolyard during recess and the envy of all the girls. (We also envied her cute boyfriend – although she was only 19, they were already engaged). Sewing was popular back then so there were even McCall’s patterns should you wish to make your own. I would never have tackled such an ambitious project, no matter how alluring the ads in Seventeen.
In the early 70’s, my first years of high school I wore a long corduroy coat in a rich dark brown, double breasted with a belt.
The belt came in handy as the coat was too big for me, a size 11/12 when I normally wore a 7/8 or 9/10, but my mother let me buy it anyway. (I so seldom asked for anything, that my mother was a pushover). That’s the best thing about online shopping now, you can get the size you need, back then it was just what was on the rack. Sizing was also different, size 2 or 4 didn’t even exist.
When I was sixteen, I bought a loud plaid wool coat at Saks because the sales rep told me I looked like the cover of Mademoiselle, a magazine I was not familiar with but went right out and bought.
While not quite the same pattern as above, mine had red, green and yellow, and while I love plaid to this day, it was not a tasteful plaid at all. Even I was surprised my mother let me buy it. My dad said it looked like a horse blanket. It was the one and only thing I ever bought there, as it was too expensive a store for us to shop at regularly. It fit perfectly but I only wore it one year. By university I considered it too garish and trendy as I had graduated to Glamour magazine by then and something more classic.
During university, I found a lovely wool camel coat at the Eaton’s store in downtown Toronto which I wore for the next several years. A knockoff of the classic wrap style, it was suitable for a student budget and I can still picture myself wearing it over my jeans, striding around campus late for class as usual. One night I went to a formal with it draped over my long red dress, an evening that started with an argument about whether to wear a wrap or a coat – it was January what was I thinking?
In the early 80’s, the start of my working years I had a long oatmeal colored coat which my mother said reminded her of the 1940’s swing coats. When I had more money, I splurged on a designer camel wrap coat with a detachable fur collar, which I still have as what would I do with it? (Poor little fox, but like Oprah says, when you know better you do better).
I suppose I could wear it with the collar removed but the coat is so heavy and long it might qualify as a maxi. As the climate changes, perhaps it will end up in a museum some day, a Doctor Zhivago-like relic of cold winters past?
Musical Interlude: (better version by Sarah Vaughn at the end).
I’m not the only one who wore fur – full length coats used to be considered essential on the bitterly cold Canadian prairies where people were known to run from their cars to the house – now replaced by more modern insulating synthetics. It was too expensive and much too dressy a coat to wear everyday, although it did look great with a hat – that was in the Lady Diana years, when you could wear a hat without people staring at you.
In the later 80’s came a long royal blue wool coat with gigantic shoulder pads. It too only lasted one season before it was recycled to the thrift shop as it was way too bright.
The 90’s meant another camel coat, cloth this time, with a dark brown fake fur collar – real fur being out by then. It was stylish but practical and I wore that coat for years. All these 80-90-‘s coats were long by the way, because women wore skirts and suits to work.
By the millennium pants were in, and even dressy coats became shorter, what used to be called a car coat. This was the brown decade. I had a brown trench coat with a lining for work, not really warm enough for winter, and a more casual brown velour/sherpa L.L.Bean coat with a matching hat and mitts, which was a bit too big but I couldn’t be bothered to return it, as it was a hassle with the duty and taxes. It was on the cover of the LL Bean catalogue and while cute and stylish, it too was by no means warm enough for our Canadian winters. I must have stayed inside that decade. Then came the red coats who overstayed their welcome.
The decade of drought ensued – the only coats in the stores were black. I searched for years, refusing all things black and puffy, but since I succumbed to the lure of online shopping, my life has become a lot more colorful again.
Last year, I bought a beautiful soft blue wool coat at Reitmans, a mid-range somewhat frumpy Canadian women’s chain which has been in operation since 1926. It was $190 regular, but a steal for $75 at the Black Friday sales. Ordered a small online.
To Meghan Markle’s credit, she did give Reitmans quite a stylish update when she was their spokesperson before she married Prince Harry. (Her TV series, Suits was filmed in Toronto). The coat was very warm too, as some wrap coats tend not to be if they have a silk lining. It was classic and stylish, and I got many compliments on the periwinkle blue color, even from complete strangers. Welcome back to Canada, Meghan – you can resume your old job at Reitmans any time! (My prediction is Meghan will start a fashion label with her designer friend Jessica Mulroney, Harry can be a stay at home dad. Nothing I’ve heard, just my guess as to why they would trademark the name Sussex Royal).
I still needed a new ski jacket, so I started looking early this year and was lucky to find a Columbia at a 40% off Black Friday sale at Marks Work Wearhouse, another Canadian staple. Ordered a small online.
Red again, but a duller red with a gray fur hood which luckily went with all of my winter scarves, so no need to accessorize, it was already done.
So, I thought I was finished, new dressy coat and new ski jacket.
But the ski jacket wasn’t warm enough for walking. Nor windproof. That Omni-heat lining is way over-rated. So, when I saw a $300 gray down-filled Columbia jacket at Sportscheck, I watched for the pre-Christmas sales for 50% off and ordered online.
It came by Canada Post (so no porch pirates), fit perfectly and went with all my scarves. I was definitely on roll here, but I also realized I had become one of those shoppers retailers hate – people who browse in stores and then buy online, but it’s not my fault if they don’t have my size.
Then came the Boxing Day Bargain. I went back to Reitmans to buy more socks (Christmas presents now marked down to $6 from $20), and there on the sale rack was a gray herringbone tweed wrap coat ($70, no tax, regular $190), just calling my name.
Did I need another coat? No, but it was my size so I bought it anyway. It’s not warm enough for very cold weather, but perfect for the edge seasons, late fall and early spring. And a classic – the kind of coat Meghan Markle might wear. Even the sewn-in back belt was stylish, plus it went with all my red and gray winter scarves.
After adding up all these great deals, I’m left wondering why anyone would ever pay full price? I also remembered what fun shopping used to be – when you found something you liked!
So I now own two dressy wrap coats, one warm (blue), and one lighter (gray tweed), and two ski jackets, one light (red) one for the car and running errands, and one down (gray) parka for walking and very cold days. It’s January and the Visa bill has arrived. I dare not go coat shopping for the next decade at least.
PS. Do you have a favorite winter coat – style and color?
PS. Just for the record, no one observed me photographing my coats on the dining room floor! My house is dark in the winter and I needed a window, for maximum light. Some photos sourced online and from my collection of vintage fashion magazines. I saved a few from the attic and while looking through old 70’s Glamours I was amazed at how classic some of the styles were, but then I haven’t read a fashion magazine in well over 25 years. Maybe some of that stuff is back in – I see pants are getting wider again, just when I just got rid of all mine. (2300 words – sorry)
A better version of Button Up Your Overcoat.