A New Coat

I am looking for a winter coat. In truth I have been looking for one for the past couple of years, the “perfect coat”. My trusty black wool number has become a bit tatty looking, my puffy snow jacket is less flattering than ever. Seasonal trends are tricky to follow when you live in a place that can be typically wintry, snowy and cold one day, only to be ten degrees warmer and bucketing with rain and hail the next. What is in this season, fake fur that looks cheerfully like nothing so much as the Muppets, appeals to my childish magpie side, but at my age might be a bit dangerously veering into “crazy Dame Edna lady” territory. Plus I can’t imagine it looks or feels very nice wet. Elsewhere in fashion, the now ubiquitous leather/pleather biker jacket has become something it seems we are all expected to pull off. I think they look fabulous on other women who look like Kate Moss and wear skinny jeans like they are not a crime against humanity, but I’m not sure I possess the punky sass they require. Maybe I could pull one off with a dress, but they don’t feel like a natural fit. A coat that doesn't cover my bum is dicing with the devil. Plus where would I put my sweaters? A waterproof number, inevitably padded out where I don’t require padding, seems the natural choice for practicality and warmth.

A coat can be a wondrous thing – the right coat can instantly make you look pulled together no matter what else you are wearing. It is both a comfort blanket of warmth and a statement of intent – “Today I am feeling chic enough to wear this”, or “Today I am cold and need swaddled”.

Sometimes the right coat is something you would least expect to work, a lesson I learned early on. When my Mom and I moved to Massachusetts from Virginia in my freshman year of high school, we became a single parent family in every sense of the word. My Dad never paid child support, so we got by on little. I never felt like I was doing without anything, but when it came time to buy a new winter coat, my Mom took me to the worst place imaginable for a young teenager – the charity/thrift shop. I was still too young at that point to appreciate the vintage treasure trove a thrift shop could provide. I was mortified my Mother (because when you're a teenager, for a while Mom becomes "Mother"), was expecting me to walk around a brand new high school where I was just getting my foot in the door smelling of moth balls in a grandma coat. Why couldn't she just buy me an L.L. Bean puffa coat or J.Crew barn jacket? Why was the universe so cruel to me?

I like to think I wasn't a complete brat about it, because I was an only child and generally sensitive to our situation, but I do remember my Mother coaxing me into trying on this coat and me feeling like my life was officially over. It was hideous, it was red, and it was two sizes too big. It was disgust-….hmmm. That’s weird. It actually looks….o.k.? It actually immediately makes me not look like a 14 year old girl, but like Lauren Bacall (o.k. not quite!). But this simple red wool pea coat, which was weirdly a good shade of red on me when I could never pull off red, was positively transformative. It looked brand new, for one thing. But it also looked classic, like something the women in the old movies I loved to watch would wear. It made me feel a tiny bit glamorous and grown up, and I had to try very hard to be a cool teenager not to agree with my Mom that it was the MOST AMAZING COAT IN THE WORLD! And it only cost $12. We could hardly believe our luck! Every time I wore it after that, I wore it with pride. It made me feel not like an awkward teenager, but like a young sophisticate in a Howard Hawks movie. When I put it on, I felt both cocooned and on display, the way only a good coat can do. It had just enough room in it that I was able to grow and wear it for years after. I never felt ashamed that I was wearing a $12 coat, but quietly proud that we had found such a treasure for such a steal (o.k. so maybe I didn't brag to everyone I met how much it cost, because the coat made me feel the opposite of cheap).

It made me feel special, that coat, like it had been waiting for me, and like no one else in the world was meant to have it, even the girls who had all the money in the world. I didn't see many other girls my age in red pea coats (this was the 90’s, the general trend was for everything sporty), but I no longer cared about blending in so much as I had. I trusted my Mom's intuition and sense from then on a bit more. Of course we occasionally fought over fashion in years to come (and still playfully do - she now volunteers in a charity shop and buys me really weird stuff from time to time), but that coat made me trust that everything would be o.k., even if we didn't have as much money as anyone else or a Dad we could rely on (there’s a reason Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors makes me particularly weepy).

I think that early experience of having a coat make me feel so many more feelings than a piece of clothing could seem capable of, of having individual identity and pride no matter where you come from, of not being ashamed to stand out a little bit, is maybe why I place so much thought and effort into finding the “right” coat. I don’t really relate when the fashion magazines break each new coat trend down to personality, age, body shape, etc. I want something not pre-ordained by what fashion says will work for me. I still feel like somewhere out there lightning will strike and I’ll find the perfect coat again, if I’m very lucky.

"Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine."
- Charles Dickens

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