This winter, choose from oversized and masculine, Fifties-inspired fit-and- flare, or the cosy all-English duffel. Better yet, invest in all three.
I’ve never liked to play second fiddle to men, individually or collectively. I grew up being coached by my mother that the best way around their influence was to use your feminine charm, but I always rallied against this approach. Too many pats on the head by paunch-ridden, patronising stalwarts of the business community (who assumed that because I wore a skirt and had blue eyes I knew little of the big themes of life) ensured I didn’t play this game for long. I furiously fought their insouciant, arrogant assurance on all levels — I could drink and party as hard as the boys, and work as hard, too (until I had children, that is not a level playing field).
Early on in my career I veered between fulfilling expectations (just a pretty face, therefore no talent) by wearing super-girly clothes, or dressing like a man to subvert my femininity (a pinstripe skirt suit, worn in the Guardian newsroom, was my most unimaginative interpretation — the pinstripe tailoring on the catwalk this season is far more alluring). Now I have a more balanced wardrobe, but I have forever had one constant friend that has never failed whatever surprise life has shot my way: the mannish overcoat. I own many (currently four favourites; I need to stop myself getting stuck on endless repeat buy) and there are many more in my past.
They are an invitation to simultaneously snuggle up and stride forth. Their worsted wool, check or herringbone fabrics conjure memories and smells of a childhood in the countryside (warm fires, wet dogs, enduring outerwear), and the protective arms of the father figures in your life. You can do battle against the worst of the winter while appearing wholly together, classic elegance matched with neutral, enduring shades. Deep plum is as adventurous as I have ever gone, but this autumn I am sorely torn (in the world of my imagination, where I have the necessary readies): on the one hand is Stella McCartney’s oversized greatcoat in tartan wool (though I am a little scared of those shoulders); on the other, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton’s flowing Savile Row check overcoat, liberally sprinkled with hand-sewn sequins towards the hem: mannish overtones with a hint of ladylike prettiness — perfect. For either option, I’d add the requisite black hair (as seen on Vuitton’s catwalk), a lash of dark lipstick, whatever footwear is required and be ready for the day, however the men behave.
FIT AND FLARE
The New Look silhouette has unparalleled flair, says Ellen Burney
We pad up on stepping stones made of clouds to get there, and this is where I like to go shopping. In forgotten shades of glamour — tomato red, lavender and dusky pink — they look as if they might have been fashioned by elves.
In decor and ornateness, it is my dream coat, and this season — back in the real world — I’m spoilt for choice. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anything prettier than Dolce & Gabbana’s curve-collared, knee- length fit-and-flare coat in true Little Red Riding Hood red. So, too, Charles Anastase’s in a tartan check of turquoise and geranium, Miu Miu’s sailor-collared navy-blue wool version with swingy skirt, and others by Prada in belted bubblegum- pink gingham. Consider also those by Dior — the house is practically the birthplace of the fit-and-flare silhouette. Modern-day New Look-ites will delight in Raf Simons’s black or salt-and-pepper tweed style with modern white revers.
What woman wouldn’t feel she could take on the world and win in one of these coats?
The beauty of a princess fit-and-flare coat is that it needn’t be practical, as Laura Bailey says of her Prada version. “It isn’t sensible, or even particularly warm, but it’s made of the softest, finest cashmere and despite the impracticality of snow-white and bare wrists dangling from three-quarter-length sleeves, it’s become a favourite.”
Who (aside from your mother when you were a youngster) dictates that a coat should be sensible, practical — warm, even?
A coat makes a first impression, and the appeal of a fit-and-flare style is to be found in the first glance. It’s Catherine Deneuve arriving at the top of the steps of a private jet; Anna Karina descending the spiral staircase in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. A coat should be the perfume-stained envelope to your billet-doux. “This summer, I’ve kept mine on all night through chilly Cannes suppers — without feeling like I’d forgotten my manners,” says Bailey. With a coat you can happily leave on all night, you needn’t worry about what you wear underneath — or you could follow the example of my eccentric great-aunt. What did she wear under her fit-and-flare coat? Nothing but stockings.
Emma Elwick-Bates takes a one-way trip to Paddington
The label of my favourite duffel coat predictably reads Celine but, as I pull up the orbit-like hood and sink my hands into the deep leather patch pockets, I hear the reverberant din of the school bell through its tufted navy cashmere. My duffel transports me back to a time of Bunsen burners, Dettol-scented hallways and ink-stained fingers. Every garment has a life cycle, but this is a style I always return to, and in multiple guises. Right now, a classic camel Gloverall, a cropped trapeze-style Proenza Schouler version and a breezy version by APC with traditional toggles are my duffels of choice.
Its popularity may have something to do with the British reluctance to stand out in a crowd. Have you ever seen a frenzied style snapper trying to capture the latest duffel-shrouded blog star? I didn’t think so.
It’s the outerwear of choice of schoolgirls, hardened naval officers, weathered, whisky-drinking Oxbridge intellectuals and a cast of national treasures (Alan Bennett, David Hockney and Jarvis Cocker). Hipsters past and present have readily adopted the style: brooding beatniks, Crown Heights band boys and model Edie Campbell have all been drawn in by this coat’s academic standing. Katie Hillier, accessories designer and Marc Jacobs creative director, is seduced by its nostalgic sensibility: “I think of wartime children being sent off to the countryside wearing these little utilitarian coats,” she muses.
But you don’t need to have a bout of nostalgia to appreciate the upscale duffel coats out there this season. Ralph Lauren’s polar-white style is elevated in pure new wool with rustic toggles and looks great at night with velvet cigarette trousers. Master of outerwear (and unlikely duffel advocate) Rick Owens debuts a plush ivory shearling version complete with an oversize bucket hood and sabre-tooth toggles — it’s a fierce investment. Hedi Slimane, too, offers a respectful interpretation at Saint Laurent, with hand-carved wooden toggles and natural cord, to which campaign girl Cara Delevingne has given even more kudos.
Fleet week, fashion week or simply seven days a week, a duffel will be your sartorial ally this winter. “Don’t jazz it up too much,” warns Hillier. “Otherwise it’s not a classic any more… You can still be grateful for these thoughtful design quirks as you loop up your roomy new coat in Hermes’s kid-leather gloves, all the while bulwarking your blow-dry from the elements.