“Is that supposed to be pretty?”
“That” was a coat. My coat. The questioner: Dennis Freedman, master of deadpan delivery and, at the time, creative director of W magazine, where we both worked. The coat, which is still in my repertoire more than 20 years later: a floor-sweeping, spliced-together leather shearling with a tribal warrior vibe, aggressive yet oddly elegant in the de- and re-constructed manner of the genre’s genius, Martin Margiela. No, Dennis, it’s not supposed to be pretty. It’s supposed to be noticed.
Oh, the wonders of a great coat. Outerwear does more than keep you warm. It announces the wearer—it says something about who you are, particularly in cold, walkable climates. (Hence the oft-quoted line, “In New York, your coat is your car.”) A fabulous coat can captivate. I once chased a woman across the street to find out who had made her coat. Oblivious, she eluded my pursuit, and I couldn’t get her artful intarsia stunner out of my mind for days. A major case of coat envy? Yes, but I was hardly the first thus stricken.
That distinction dates way back to Genesis, which identified such envy as a malignant evil in a famous tale. Instigating the emotion: not power or thy neighbor’s wife, but a coat—an amazing, decorated, colorful coat that indicated a father’s preference for one of his children so distinctly it led the others to plot fratricide. Admit it, you’ve been there. Surely you’ve seen a spectacular coat and thought, “I’d kill for it.”
Molly Rogers certainly has. As head costume designer of And Just Like That…, she longs for a script set in outerwear weather.
“We all do a jig when we hear that an episode is going to be in the fall,” she says. In a season two episode that first streamed in July, Carrie Bradshaw braves a blizzard in a giant ball gown–cum–parka affair from the audacious 2019 Moncler X Pierpaolo Piccioli collaboration.
“It’s just thrilling in television or film to get to layer in a coat. It’s so cinematic,” Rogers says. “All the things that go with a coat add lovely layers to the outfit. It’s really a fantastic accessory when you’re shooting it.”
Carrie’s extravagance may be for our viewing pleasure, but it has an anthropological grounding. Early in the history of humans getting dressed, coats evolved from their initial purely functional purpose as protective garments to potent signifiers of status. Once such garment: the regal cape.
“Materials and colors often distinguished certain ruling people from others,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Some furs, such as ermine, were off- limits to the lower classes, as were various hues, including black and the reds and purples we associate with royalty today. The reason: the cost of the dyes.
It wasn’t until the creation of chemical dyes in the 19th century that color palettes became more egalitarian. Yet old signifiers remain. Case in point: Last May, that ages-old royal cape concept figured prominently in King Charles’s inauguration (although whether the takeaway was awe-inducing splendor or Halloween at the retirement home depends upon one’s point of view).
In modern fashion, coats have often been starmakers. Karl Lagerfeld launched into greatness on the power of one. He won the 1954 International Woolmark Prize in that category (known then as the International Wool Secretariat) with an ultrachic cocktail look he dubbed Longchamps. Also in the 1950s, couture master Cristóbal Balenciaga invented a daring, exaggerated, loose silhouette with a curved structure, his era-defining Cocoon. Years later the young Calvin Klein famously hauled a rolling rack of his outerwear from gritty Seventh Avenue, then the epicenter of American fashion, uptown to tony Bonwit Teller.
For me, it’s difficult to distill years of great coats down to a few favorites, but several collections do stand out: Helmut Lang’s groundbreaking fall 1998 show, the first ever presented on the internet; it took streetwear to rugged and romantic heights. Alexander McQueen’s elegiac, nomadic reverie from fall 2003, a theatrical masterpiece complete with a high drama wind tunnel. Alber Elbaz’s extraordinary billowing polyester (yes, polyester) trench coats over matching dresses for Lanvin, spring 2008.
Miuccia Prada’s arresting spring 2014 coats featuring huge graphic portraiture by women illustrators. Marc Jacobs’s minimalist cashmere ode to the ’60s, in a stunning presentation choreographed by Karole Armitage, for fall 2020. And, of course, Demna’s multiseason exploration of megavolume at Balenciaga, including those exaggerated puffers that took the founder’s love of extravagant proportions in a startling, sportified direction.
One more! For fall 1999, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren staged their “Russian Doll” show, presenting Viktor & Rolf haute couture on a cast of one, Maggie Rizer. She stood on a rotating pedestal, in a barely there dress made from natural-tone jute and silk until the designers started layering and layering, nine looks in all. These included increasingly large coats that juxtaposed haute crystals and embroidery against humble, sturdy, rough-hewn fabric, a tour de force of escalated proportions and wild creativity. Looking back, it was the antithesis of today’s major brands’ zillion-dollar destination shows, and it was magic.
With such beauty and range, coats are always in. Yet this season it seems more so than usual, with designers hyperfocused on outerwear. The fall collections offered a wealth of diverse looks, resonating with power and personality. There are new riffs on mannish gray (Michael Kors’s precision-cut topper; Dries Van Noten’s drop- shoulder number, niftied up with a gold foil splash) and ultra-cozy fare, such as Missoni’s sponge-stitch embroidered wool. One reason could be that it’s a response to the trying times in which we live. Coats serve a functional purpose as well as an emotional one. Currently, Steele is working on an exhibition for 2025 that examines fashion through a lens of psycho analysis.
“A lot of people are thinking in metaphorical terms,” she says. “A coat can hold you and make you feel secure.” She notes the hypothetical of the house on fire in the middle of a cold night: What do you grab first if not your coat?
Ian Griffiths, creative director of Max Mara, where coats are the core of the business, knows that the initial allure of a coat is obvious. “The absolute quality of its design, and the quality of materials, and the quality of the execution—it adds up to a kind of seductive luxuriousness,” he says. “That’s what makes you want to own it.”
But, just as with that beguiling person across a crowded room, a coat doesn’t have to inspire love at first sight to survive the long haul. Consider the Teddy Bear, a giant hug of a coat in high-pile camel hair and silk that Griffiths introduced 10 years ago. At first it was a hard sell to retailers—but not to their clients, who loved it and still do. So much so that the Teddy Bear is now one of the brand’s four official “Icon Coats.”
“If it’s still in your wardrobe after 10 years or 20 years or 25 years, that is a good coat,” Griffiths says. “A coat that you love as much as or more than the day you bought it, and in which you have had so many adventures, that’s a good coat. It becomes part of your life in a way that no other clothing item can. Can you imagine having an emotional relationship with a pair of trousers? It’s kind of your companion and your friend.”
That cozy friend warms and protects you and makes you feel safe—while looking fabulous. To that last point Rogers injects a dose of top-stylist pragmatism into the outerwear rapture. “It needs to fit you in the shoulders,” she advises. “That creates your silhouette.”
Photographs by Alyona Kuzmina and styling by MaryKate Boylan.
This story appears in the October 2023 issue of Town & Country under the headline “What’s Her Story?” SUBSCRIBE NOW