Big, bold outerwear is having a moment — again. Fans and pop culture consumers are devoting outsize attention to the winter wardrobe of celebrities and characters from shows like HBO’s The Flight Attendant and The Undoing, and Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. This coat discourse is primarily driven by bored outerwear enthusiasts like myself, but in the midst of what feels like a never-ending pandemic, there’s something satisfying about watching a distressed character traipse around a fully functioning city in a glamorous thousand-dollar coat. Their world might be falling to pieces, but hey, at least they’re well dressed. I can’t relate.
Such is the case for Nicole Kidman’s character in The Undoing, Grace Fraser: Her life takes a turn toward the disastrous after her husband is accused of murdering a mother from her son’s Manhattan private school. Yet Kidman’s outerwear selection — from a velvety crimson number to a gem-studded poncho — reveals little about her anguish. Similarly, Kaley Cuoco in The Flight Attendant is seen fast-walking around New York City in various striking outerwear pieces, which seems counterintuitive for a woman attempting to escape the FBI’s scrutiny.
On the contrary, Anya Taylor-Joy’s coats — and other vintage-inspired outfits — in The Queen’s Gambit were intentionally crafted to provide subtle insight into her character’s mood, costume designer Gabriele Binder told Vogue.
Iva Dixit, an associate editor at the New York Times Magazine and self-professed coat enthusiast, believes our coat obsession is cyclical, set off every few years through “a recognizable costuming moment.”
“It’s The Undoing stuck in people’s memories right now,” Dixit told me over email. “In my early twenties, it was Olivia Pope’s soft shawl collared wrap coats on Scandal. But I’d argue that using outerwear — and bold coats especially — to tell a story or convey a trait about a character has always, always been a long-running trope in cinema and television.”
It took a pandemic, though, for those residing in cold climates to broadly recognize the allure of a statement. Based on my observations in the streets of Brooklyn alone, most people appear to own one or two default winter jackets — typically long, dark-colored puffers designed to trap in heat. Brands like Canada Goose and Moncler, through successful marketing efforts, have managed to lure Americans toward the luxury outerwear market in recent years. And while these thick, fur-lined coats are akin to an on-the-go version of “ski chic,” they’re not necessarily fashion-forward.
The popularity of winter outdoor dining has led those who dress for practicality to consider the aesthetics of outerwear, according to Dixit. A coat is no longer “something you shuck off to hang on a rack the moment you enter a closed space,” she added.
I am a woman who owns many coats. But prior to the pandemic, owning a collection of bold, expensive outerwear didn’t make much financial sense to the average person, if you factor in the amount of time these pieces are actually worn. I probably spent less than two hours every day in a coat between my commute to work, my apartment, and a neighborhood restaurant. In 2020, though, there’s no need to hang up your outerwear. The coat is staying on.
The statement coat, according to the Wall Street Journal, is this year’s equivalent of the going-out top, a flashy garment women wear to be complimented on and usually reserved for special occasions. For cold restaurant patrons bundled up on the sidewalk, outerwear is a means of self-expression. It has replaced the aesthetic function of a graphic tee or a nice blouse, whereas in pre-pandemic times, a coat was essentially a winter cover-up, an item that is quickly doffed at a warm destination. (This should go without saying, but a bold coat is a gender-neutral garment, a touch of showstopping drama in any person’s closet.)
It’s not that coats are literally the last vestige of fashion in our lives — must-have winter accessories for outside the house include hats, scarves, and now masks. But what separates the statement coat from a patterned mask or a bright beanie is its size and, in turn, how effectively it shields the wearer’s body from the cold. Think of the scene from Hustlers, in which Jennifer Lopez invites a scantily dressed Constance Wu into her dramatic, floor-length fur jacket. “Climb in my fur,” she said, while coolly smoking a cigarette. In reality, there’s no J. Lo to rescue us from the cold. We have no choice but to swaddle ourselves in a cozy armor of fur, fleece, and other warm fabrics. (There are calls, however, to shut down the fur industry in Europe, as these farms can be hot spots for diseases like Covid-19.)
And so coats do end up the be-all, end-all of cold weather pandemic fashion, deemed a worthy investment in these times. Taylor Swift’s plaid Stella McCartney coat, prominently featured in the album cover of Evermore, sold out in a matter of hours.
“The coat is as much a psychological protector as it is a physical one,” Rachel Tashjian recently wrote in GQ, citing an example of how sales for New York designer Norma Kamali’s sleeping bag coat surged after the 9/11 terror attacks. But it is a “triumph of emotional fashion over necessity,” she added.
Quarantine has required us to latch onto certain tiny joys to make our antisocial reality a bit more bearable. Perhaps that’s why the “dressed up with nowhere to go” trend emerged in the early days of lockdown. The wonderful thing about coats is that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how they can be worn. They’re unusually forgiving for these days; you can throw a good coat on over your sweats and still look like you tried.
But now, more than ever, there’s reason to go out in a conspicuous coat. Dixit supposes that the moment is making people “more adventurous beyond the navy, blues, and browns you find packing Midtown streets in December.” She explains, “Nothing wrong with those, but we’re in a weird world right now, so if you’ve ever wanted to, might as well try on a canary yellow or acid pink wool coat and allow a stranger to stop and compliment you on the street.”