Reader Request: Considering Coats

How to decide which style of coat will work best for your outfit

Reader Leah e-mailed me this request:

I was hoping you’d consider writing a post on what kinds of outerwear work with various types of skirts.  Much like you, I spend a LOT of time in full skirts, and this time of year always has me kind of baffled as to what kind of coat I can wear and not look really silly. Jackets that look great with jeans always seem to be an awkward length or shape when paired with a skirt.

As I told Leah, hers was probably the fifth coat-related question I’d received in as many weeks. More coat info to come, but this post should cover the basics of matching a coat to an outfit, with an eye toward accommodating various styles of skirts.

Make sure all of your coats flatter you

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to start with a set of outerwear options that work with your body shape and size in ways that look and feel good to you. The coats you purchase should work with your proportions, coloring, and wintry accessories.

Buy moderately dressy coats in several lengths

Casual coats and jackets are so much fun … but, in my experience, have very limited application for women who work in office environments.* There are so few outfits and occasions that call for an army-influenced anorak, weather-beaten moto, or scruffy faux-shearling corduroy bomber. So fun! So cute! So LIMITING! But classic, clean-lined, sophisticated coats – coats that aren’t technically formal, but are a cut above knockabout weekend wear – can be dressed up or down in a snap. Since your outerwear is often the only thing people see all winter long, versatility is key. Buy (or thrift!) at least two classy coats: A shorter length that hits anywhere from mid-hip to high-thigh, and a longer length that hits at your knee or slightly below. Lengths subject to your own preferences and proportions, of course.

Consider your underlayers

If you’re wearing a full skirt with a crinoline, stuffing it under a confining peacoat will look awkward. If you’re wearing a thick Irish wool sweater, wedging your arms into an unlined, snug leather moto will be uncomfortable. The coat you pick should accommodate your outfit comfortably. If your bottom half is clothed in something bulky that needs accommodation, pick a coat that flares. If your top half is carrying the bulk, pick a coat that is lined in slippery fabric or has a bit more room to it.

Consider what will peek out

If you’re wearing leggings and long boyfriend cardigan, most cropped jackets will seem off. They’ll cut your underlayer in half and mess with your proportions. But if you’re wearing a miniskirt, that cropped jacket may be perfect; Most longer jackets will obscure your skirt entirely, so if you worry about looking like a flasher, a cropped coat will prove to the world that you’re not letting it all hang out.

Consider hems and lengths

I don’t abide the “skirt hem must match coat hem” rule, but I do believe that hem discrepancies should look natural and considered.

  • If your skirt is a few inches longer than your coat hem, that’s fine. If your skirt is more than about six inches longer than your coat hem, it’ll start to look wonky. Try to keep those lengths close, but don’t worry about matching them precisely.
  • As I mentioned above, shorter skirts often work well with shorter jackets … but if your coat itself is relatively long, flasher-fears may be mitigated. A knee-length coat is ideal for this purpose, and covers most cold weather layers beautifully.
  • For midis and maxis, you can certainly go with a floor-sweeping coat, but something short – like this moto – should work, too. Keeping the jacket to hip level or above will create pleasing proportions on many figures. (But not all! Use your judgment!)
  • If you’re wearing pants, things are much simpler; Avoid the cropped-jacket-over-long-underlayer look, but otherwise, anything goes. Just pick a coat that works with the vibe and proportions of your outfit.

Of course, in order to make all of this work seamlessly, you need approximately 87 coats. Not practical for most women. So there will be times when you simply won’t have the right coat to work with your outfit, and you’ll have to punt. But when you’re considering buying outerwear, give careful thought to your typical mode of dress: If you live in skirts, wear a skirt to try on coats and make sure to buy something that will accommodate your preferred silhouette. If you are a jeans gal, select accordingly. Don’t buy a coat because it’s cute, buy a coat because it’ll work for you.

*Non-office workers, work-from-homers, full-time moms, and many others may find casual jackets to be essential, of course. But, in my opinion, it’s always a good idea to have one or two moderately dressy coats available, regardless of your occupation. Again, easier to dress down a fancy coat than dress up a casual one.

Originally posted 2011-11-17 06:12:47.

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28 Responses to “Reader Request: Considering Coats”

  1. Eleanor Snare

    Great advice Sally – I read in an old style advice book about the hemline rule which I still think is interesting (even if I don’t adhere to it!)

    Half of my entire wardrobe is outerwear, and there’s something incredibly fun about having just the right coat/jacket to match all the outfits: everything from a short black, crystal studded evening jacket to a full length pure wool moss green dolman sleeve coat. Buying a coat should be FUN and no, you shouldn’t buy it just because it’s cute; but if your wardrobe is eclectic, don’t think that one coat has to be sufficient!


  2. Daisy

    Good advice! I have lots of coats, but that is because I try to buy one quality one each year, and a classic wool coat lasts forever. The one you are wearing in the picture could be worn anywhere, dressed up or down. I get a lot of wear out of a J. Crew “Lady Day” coat from about three years ago that I bought on clearance. It is knee length and looks good over dresses and pants. I tend to buy my coats one size bigger than my usual size so that I have plenty of room for a sweater-I hate that “can’t move my arms” feeling. And don’t forget that scarves and gloves are an inexpensive way to change up your look or tie the coat to the look of your outfit.

  3. Cynthia

    This is why having so many clothing options is a bad idea: you suddenly need more coats! I know what you mean about casual coats, though. I have a great little military looking jacket that I never wear even though it’s glorious and well engineered. It just looks wrong with everything except jeans.

  4. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I love the black coat you are wearing – one just like that could live in my closet! As a Floridian I don’t need many coats, but I adore jackets and have too many already. They look good with most any under-layers except the dressiest dresses.

  5. Eliza

    I know that Leah was asking about coat styles, but color helps too. I find that longer dress coats work the best with most of the skirts I own. A dressy coat shape in black will look like everyone else’s dress coat, but if you get it in another color, (even dark brown or grey) it looks less formal and more like an everyday coat. The movie Penelope has some extreme examples of this. Almost everything the title character wears is a more formal cut, but in color or pattern combinations that turn the look whimsical and more casual.

  6. Katharine

    My guideline for coats is “will keep me genuinely warm in -20 Celsius or colder weather and won’t get caught in the car door,” these days, which means that midwinter I wear my LL Bean fleece-lined leather bomber (which makes me look like a brown leather box and goes with almost nothing else I own) almost exclusively.

    Well, not always. For me, the best, most useful, most flattering and versatile style of coat (and I wear leggings + tunics, shortish skirts, very long skirts, and trousers) seems to be a princess-lined or semi-empire style with a fairly fitted top and a flared skirt, in approximately “car coat” length, a bit above the knee. Much as I like the style of long coats with full bottoms, they are just plain impractical for areas with real winter. The hems get mucky with salty slush, they get caught in car doors or trail accidentally on the ground when I get out of the car, and if I spend a long time in them (a day of shopping, say), they’re heavy and start to make my back ache.

  7. Bubu

    I have definitey tried and failed and learned a few things about coats over the years (esp living in the Northeast where we live in them for many months). First off, I realized that I need different options for fall/spring vs winter. Fall, I have a hip length coat that ties at the waist (black) that I especially like with jeans or pants, because the high, tied waist sort of creates a long leg (esp with low heels or boots). This works for me for work and playground. I also have knee- length tweed coat, lighweight, that is good for fallish weather, and especially good with knee-length skirts with boots or shoes, which is my basic skirt length. For real winter, I bought a faux shearling ankle length coat a couple years ago that I love and can go over anything. It feels like a luxurious blanket, it blocks wind, has a big hood for really awful days (which otherwise creates a nice open shawl effect if I don’t put it up) and best of all: it’s machine washable and dryer-friendly (because it is synthetic) – so with snow and ice and sleet, i can wash it and wear it the next day, so no worrying about getting it dry cleaned mid-winter. I get a ton of compliments on it. I got it at Lord & Taylor during a coat sale. My one real lack is a colorful coat – I had a red one that I wore into the ground. So I’m keeping an eye out for a bright maybe blue or teal or purple to throw in the mix.
    My other thought wis also: I like my coats to work with my bags and accessories. In winter I generally have a black or a brown tote that I alternate as my purses, so pretty neutral, but I’m hoping to mix in a colorful bag, and neutral coats will work with a bright bag as well. (Bright bag and bright coat together might be too much). These days I throw in colorful scarves and gloves to add color. I also splurged on cashmere lined purple leather gloves a couple years ago, which work well with black or brown or grey, and are nice and warm!
    Sorry so long! This one vexed me for years before I hit upon a formula that worked for me.

  8. Tara

    After living in MN for several years, my coat collection has grown quite large and ranges from casual to dressy. At the beginning of the winter, I wear my fancy coats more, but there comes a time in the depths of the bitter MN winter, that the North Face comes out every day regardless of what I’m wearing underneath. Just trying not to freeze to death is the most I can muster on those days!

    • Doro

      Same here – I own my father’s old sheepskin coat, and even though it’s beginning to look a little shabby it’s the only thing that really keeps me warm when it’s awfully cold. And I agree, at a certain temperature it doesn’t matter how you look any more, as long as you’re warm!

      • Frances

        I’m in western Canada…trust me, we do winter! My fallback is a chocolate brown knee-length down parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It’s not glamorous but it is WARM and lets me both wear a skirt to work and yoga pants to the playground (at least with tall warm boots). I keep thinking I need a more formal cloth coat. Then it snows sideways and I decide I don’t.

        Just out of curiosity, all you folks with multiple coats: where do you store them? Between hubby and me and one three-year-old, admittedly living in a, um, variable climate, the coat closets are stuffed already.

  9. Mary

    I’m currently making a new winter coat on the pattern of a well-loved but worn-out old favorite coat. The original coat was from Target, thus not of great quality materials. It was also a “casual” shade of green (that served me quite well for day-to-day), and had a beautifully simple A-line cut. My plan is to make the skirt on this new version fuller, more like a dress. I just got the fabric yesterday – heavy cream-colored virgin wool – and will hopefully be done in time for holiday events.
    But the impetus for this was that, last December, my boyfriend and I had a couple of weddings to go to, one of which was his sister’s, and I had nothing but a very warm, below-the-knee black puffer coat to wear with the semi-formal black dresses I’d picked. I didn’t have a Nice Coat.
    This year things are different and I have stepped up my game. In addition to a heavy black wool military-style coat scored on major sale last February, I picked up a gorgeous camel number this fall – knee-length, long princess lines, asymmetrical closure and old-fashioned round collar. I am in love with both of them and know that they will both wear well for at least a few years more!
    Also – these new Nice Coats are fun to put on, easy to style, and make me happy when I wear them. Not to mention deliciously warm! And the fact that I notice this makes me realize that I didn’t particularly like wearing the older, serviceable, but shabby and/or too casual coats I’ve been wearing for the previous ten years.
    We don’t have any weddings this winter – what a shame – but at least I’ll be ready for them. It’s amazing what a Nice Coat can do for you!

  10. Laurel

    I really should look around some thrift stores, because all but one of my coats are hip length and meant for warmth alone. I love dress shaped coats, but have never ended up with one!

  11. Miss T

    For my figure, the coat has to have a waistline, regardless of length. That means that if it’s short, I look for a peplum (my leather moto has this styling, for example). If it’s long, I look for a princess style or at least some seaming at the waistline. I find that the fit-and-flare style works well for me. Even shorter jackets look good regardless of what’s layered underneath if there is a defined waist to the jacket. (It doesn’t have to be a form-fitting waist, by the way, just the visual suggestion of a waist).

  12. Veronica

    Great advice Sally, I have many coats/jackets. lol They’re almost an obsession. lol I basically follow the rules/guidelines you stated. I have one in particular that I get a TON of compliments on when I wear it and I got it while on a trip without a coat, I got it for $15 at Walmart. I have a feeling I may need to have it repaired soon though, it’s about 5 years old and showing some wear and tear finally. I am looking for a new one this year though and I love the one you’ve got on in the picture. I also just need one for warmth, so I guess I’m looking for 2. 🙂 I’m being very careful at what I look at though to make sure I get what I like and will work for me for some years to come.

  13. LQ

    “If your bottom half is clothed in something bulky that needs accommodation, pick a coat that flares.” Or you could just subtract the words “clothed in” and it would still be great advice 😀

    I am a big fan of Katharine’s (and Miss T’s) favorite coat style. I just got the current Desigual “Corinne” coat for fall/spring and it is perfect. Not warm enough for hardcore midwinter but outstanding right now.

    One cavil – a short jacket over a long tunic over leggings/skinny bottoms can work just fine. I read you as advising against that, Sal? It’s the low-hip, but not long enough for a tunic, underlayer that can look a bit weird with a mid- (or high-, I guess, I don’t do that) -hip jacket. If it’s long enough that it could be a miniskirt it can work like one.

    • Sal

      True! If the short jacket is the topmost layer. In my mind, I was mostly picturing a short/cropped jacket over a long/boyfriend cardigan, which I think would look a bit odd since the cardigan is likely both loose and meant to be the topmost layer of the outfit. I think in your example the jacket serves more of a blazer role, no?

      • LQ

        Kind of, yeah! I do this mostly with a leather jacket that I guess is somewhere between blazer and moto? I mean, it’s plain, fitted, falls to low hip, zips up in front so if you leave it partly unzipped you get zipper-edged quasi-lapels, straight hem so it doesn’t do that cutaway in front that a blazer usually does.

        Blousy long underlayer like a cardigan — bad, yes. I have trouble with those long cardigans anyway: with pronounced hips it’s hard to get one with enough material to cover that hip/butt area and not hang funny, but not so much that it’s just baggy and giant like a colossal sweatshirt and you lose that sense of length. If I did by some miracle find one that struck the right balance, I would definitely not be attempting a short overlayer.

  14. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    I have 3 overcoats, & they serve me well for pretty much all purposes: a ‘London Fog’ style black trenchcoat (all-weather, ubiquitous, can be dressed up, but can be casual); a mid-calf length princess-seam coat in a brown paisley (more dressy, doesn’t go with everything); & a fingertip-length black suede trapeze coat (can be dressed up or down, goes with everything, but is not suitable for wet weather).

    I have a variety of short jackets, but those are all lighter weight. Fine for living in California, but I don’t consider them “coats.” They’re things that I’d prob. keep on indoors, for example. A coat is something I’d take off & only wear outside.

  15. GlamaRuth

    I actually like my classic, leather-trimmed camel coat (60s Bonnie Cashin) best over jeans, and my thrifted army-green anorak best over dresses! And my 3/4 length slim Patagonia puffer coat over anything and everything come real winter.

  16. Eleanorjane

    Being in a pretty mild climate, it doesn’t really get cold enough for full on coats for very long. I do walk to work in the mornings though, and it’s good to have something to cut the wind.

    I’ve lived an a short 1960’s mod style black wool coat/jacket for the past couple of years. But I think I really need a lighter semi-formal coat/jacket for spring and autumn. Will keep an eye out.

    I’ve also got a dark blue knee-length fitted coat that is excellent for concerts in winter. It’s made of knitted boucle fabric so it doesn’t cut the wind at all – not great for outside, but very good for a cold church or whatever. A fancy necklace (or scarf and gloves if it’s really cold) and boots and I’m done. It dresses up jeans nicely.

    And a Dutch guy was importing heavy wool/ cashmere coats last winter. MUCH better quality and price than one normally gets here. So I got a gorgeous cyclamen (dark pinky-purple) duffel coat with detachable hood. This will be very handy when I move to the UK in Jan/Feb next year. Brrr!

  17. Devon

    I got a knee-length Banana Republic peacoat for my birthday the first year I was in college, and I wore that baby everyday for 2 years. Then, I bought myself a trendier-cut cream colored peacoat (and spent a small fortune on it…) but found that, while it was cute, I wore the black BR one more often! So I’m with you, Sally. Classic cuts are the way to go.

    Also, I prefer longer jackets over every outfit, regardless of what’s underneath. To me, a longer coat says sophication, whether it’s jeans or a cocktail dress under the outerwear.


  18. sarah

    I actually like the look of a long coat over a maxi skirt, so long as the skirt is cut on the bias, or a sweater-knit, or otherwise falling without too much bulk (not necessarily tight against the body, just not a big pleated wool thing, you know?). I find it creates a nice long line reminiscent of the late 1910s and 1920s that I find particularly pleasing. I have a slim single-breasted hunter green leather car coat that is perfect for this. Of course, I’m also quite tall and always wear heels, so granted, I am playing with very LONG lines.

  19. Jenni from Helsinki

    Thank you for writing this, Sally! It already answered to some of my questions.

    I think coats are important but sometimes overlooked topic. In the winter that’s sometimes all most people see of your outfit 🙂

  20. Leah

    Thank you for posting this – it was really helpful! The comments (as always) are great too!