UPDATE: This post was originally published in November 2013 but it was suggested by a few readers that because it is so useful I should re-post with updated links. So here it is. (I added some cheaper options below each paragraph – but thereis always the balance between price & quality & staying warm.) Hope you enjoy!
Growing up in Florida has left a big gap in my knowledge of how to properly dress for frosty temperatures. One of my oldest and bestest friends lives in DC. She is my go-to winter-wear question person. She’s been kind enough to write a guest post filled with great advice about building an outerwear wardrobe. ~MK
Winter is Coming: Building an outerwear wardrobe, by Anne
When I moved to Washington, DC, from Florida in 1999, I packed two cotton Gap sweaters and considered myself set. My New Yorker roommate took one look and told me this was insufficient. I needed wool.
Wool? Never heard of it. The mid-Atlantic climate was new to me, and so were peacoats, puffers, boots and wool socks.
Thankfully, DC isn’t as cold as Vermont or as windy as Chicago. However, the region gets a little bit of all kinds of weather, including at least a week of frigid temperatures and one snowstorm a year. So while District residents may not need to wear parkas from October through May, it’s still important to have a range of outerwear options that can get a girl through both mild and inclement conditions. Something I’ve learned is that having the right clothing can spare you a lot of pain in avoiding cold limbs, needlessly sweating in a too-hot jacket and hassle in dealing with rain and snow. I’ve never enjoyed plunking down cash on coats, but once they’re in my closet, it is a joy to have the right thing to wear when it is hot and rainy, cold and windy, or when going to a last-minute dream job interview on the coldest day of the year.
Like shoes and handbags, outerwear is the kind of thing that takes a lot of abuse as you wear it. Higher quality items made of high-tech fabric and filling will keep you warmer (even without adding bulk, thanks science) and will last longer, costing less in the long run. When you can, look for tried and true brands. The examples below represent some labels I’ve found to wear well.
Looking for quality doesn’t mean that you need to pay full price, though. Try not to buy outerwear as soon as the temperature drops. Cold-weather items go on sale quickly, and can be bought at steep discounts in January. Discount stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack offer name brands at a discount, and usually have a huge selection (at least in DC). If you’re looking for a basic black wool coat or puffer, you’ll have a wide selection. For activewear brands like Marmot or Patagonia, try Sierra Trading Post, which has outlet pricing on lots of fleece, rain gear and accessories.
I started building an outerwear wardrobe my first year in DC, and have tried to add to it bit by bit during my 14 years as a Washingtonian. Here are some pieces to consider adding to your collection this year. Let me know in the comments if you have any favorite pieces to share!
From left to right:
Safari or field jacket: I bought an olive field jacket from J.Crew Factory (similar) in the spring, and have worn it 100 times. I like that it can toughen up a flirty floral dress, but the tapered waist keeps it feminine with jeans. It matches everything, and looks great with the sleeves rolled up. J.Crew now offers a longer version that I like even more. This item can be layered with thick sweaters or a vest to keep you warmer as you get into November.
Vest: The vest was my investment piece this year. They can be great to layer under coats for added warmth, or on their own over a long-sleeved tee or sweater for late fall. I’ve wanted a Rachel Zoe-esque fur vest like this one for a while – they look great to easily dress up jeans and other simple outfits, and can be a fun, inexpensive statement piece. I would wear a massive fur vest to work with a black pencil skirt and simple white tee and an armful of bracelets. I broke my rule of early season purchases to snag this puffer vest last year in brown, and like how the bright color looks against neutrals. I wore it Wednesday (high of 66) and I was sweating after walking four blocks, so it does keep you warm even without arms. Plus it dips low to cover the small of your back, which is a huge plus. I hate the feel of cold air on suddenly exposed skin if you lean over in a cropped jacket. Shivers. For a third look, I love this hunting vest with leather patches where you’d place the butt of a shotgun.
- Fur vest options: similar, similar, similar
- Puffer vest options: similar, similar, similar, similar, similar
- Hunting vest options: similar, similar, similar
Trench: If your commute includes more than 5 minutes of walking outdoors, you need a substantial raincoat that covers your butt and upper legs. Otherwise, your arms will get soaked and you’ll kick up mud on the back of your skirt. The classic trench is a no-brainer item that looks good on everyone, never goes out of style, and works with business formal and jeans. Trenches are available in every price point, but try to get a high-quality one, since this will likely be an item you keep forever. Especially try to avoid a trench that wrinkles (H&M, I’m looking at you). This is an item that will likely end up scrunched in a wet ball behind your desk after you walk in late, so get one with nice fabric that can stand up to less than perfect treatment. The trench pictured here is from Zara which has intermittent quality, so investigate the item before buying. I have had good luck with a Brook Brothers trench, and the Burberry version is a (pricey) classic.
Quilted coat: I’m not a huge label whore, but the Burberry quilted jacket is pretty iconic, and is the perfect weight for those days when it’s legitimately cold but you don’t want to start wearing your heavy wool coat yet. As a Floridian transplant, I try to put off the winter transition as long as possible, and this is the coat that lets me get away with it. The nylon coat has a cotton lining and is incredibly lightweight and smushable, so if the day heats up you can shove it in your bag instead of carrying it around. It’s also somewhat good in the rain, since it’s nylon, but I wouldn’t push it. The Burberry version comes in a million permutations: belted, cropped, slim, buttons, snaps, etc. The version shown here is cropped, but mine is a longer version and a little too big, which I love because it is super comfy and never rides up when I move around. I bought mine at the Burberry outlet, and recommend looking on eBay too if you want the Burberry plaid at the wrists and collar. J.Crew now carries a similar item from similarly fancy but more outdoorsy Barbour, and J.Crew Factory has a more affordable version of the same concept.
Fleece: The fleece is another item that isn’t really a winter coat, but gets you through those first cold weeks. The beauty of the fleece, though, is that it is basically pajamas disguised as outerwear. As such, it’s more of a weekend piece, but if you partied hard Thursday night, you’re going to want to wear this on Friday. Like the vest, it’s great for layering, and it’s perfect to pull out on cool nights year-round if you’re north of the Mason Dixon. I am partial to Muppet-like shaggy fleeces, but if you’re more buttoned up, shorthair versions are easy to find. And since it’s more activewear, this is your go-to for working out in the winter, hikes, and other activities where you want full range of motion and machine-washable fabrics. Check out REI’s brand, Land’s End and LL Bean for options that are cheaper than North Face/Patagonia/Marmot.
Wool coat: So you’ve worn your transition pieces as long as you can, and you can’t fight true winter any longer. The wool coat is the number one key piece in the winter wardrobe, and if you can only buy one thing pictured here, it should probably be this guy. Warm enough to allow for survival on the coldest days, but not ridiculous to wear on more temperate ones, this coat can pretty much get you from November through March without problem. The style shown here looks great with work clothes, can go casual with jeans, and will last for years, especially in a darker color to hide stains. This is a very basic version of the everyday coat. There are lots with trendier accents like leather trim, military buttons, belts, etc., but this one is tried and true. I really like that J.Crew offers several of their coats with Thinsulate, which is an extra layer that helps keep you warm. It’s worth the money. If you can, try to buy a coat like this in January, when they will all be at least 40 percent off. However, really try to find a coat that you love. You will be wearing this almost every day for four months. Every time you go outside, you will have to think about it, see it, touch it. Buy something that makes you happy. Come February, you’ll need it.
Second coat: I made it through four DC winters before it occurred to me that I could have more than one wool coat. This item is rather unnecessary, practically speaking, but sometimes you just need options. Having a second coat gives you a break from the first one, and can be a place to introduce a little whimsy into your winter wardrobe. If your primary coat is more formal, go casual. Try a bright color, a trendy detail like leather or studs, or a different shape for some variety. I love the look of toggles, and this Topshop coat also brings in a bright but versatile color at a lower price point. Having an inexpensive coat can also give you peace of mind if you go to a club or party where you leave your coat in a giant pile, since you won’t be heartbroken if someone walks off with it. This season I love the bright coats I’ve been seeing, especially the modern lines on this J.Crew number. I’m keeping my eye on it for January clearance sales.
Puffer coat: To my untrained Florida eye, I always wondered why people wore puffer coats. They are SO UGLY. Just such a terrible eyesore. One winter, though, I was in New York with friends, shivering and complaining in my wool coat while walking through the gusty canyons they call streets. “Anne, if you’re so cold, why don’t you just wear a puffer?” my Bostonian friend asked witheringly. Um because I didn’t know that was a thing I was supposed to do? You’ve got to tell a girl these things. So in case you also did not know: Puffer coats are super warm, and will make you much more comfortable on really cold days. Do you think, “it’s cold out, and that must be why I am still cold, even in my nice Thinsulate wool coat”? You could be warmer, friend. All you have to do is sell your soul into one of these hideous coats. Seriously, though, it is worth it, and once you hit your late 20s you won’t even care anymore. I’ve been to three presidential inaugurations, and the only one I was remotely comfortable was the one post-puffer conversion. And bonus, the nylon fabric is kind of water-resistant. If it’s snowing, you’ll be able to brush the snow off the nylon easily before it melts into the down.
Again, there are lots of options when looking for a puffer. I try to find one that is as slimming as possible, since the whole point of the coat is to look like the Sta-Puft Marshmallow man. Look for quilting in a diamond or square pattern, rather than fat horizontal stripes. A belt or a seriously articulated waist will help you look like a woman. Matte black or other dark colors appear smaller than white, metallics, or anything shiny. Look for a knee-length version for a longer line and to keep your butt warm. I like a fur-lined hood, for a touch of something natural (even though most are faux fur, which is fine). The Cole Haan coat pictured here meets all of these requirements. I’m thinking about getting this Eddie Bauer version, which is a little longer and sleeping bag-like, but looks so cozy.
What coats do you love? Tell me how you get through winter in your neck of the woods!