By Elizabeth Wellington, Inquirer Fashion Writer
Outerwear is reclaiming its role as cold weather's chicest statement piece with cozy capes, edgy leathers, and colorful furs dressing up the season's trendy yet plain silhouettes.
"The novelty is in the coat this fall," said Susan Ahn of Eaves, a women's boutique in Wayne. "There are a lot of luxurious combinations, mixed media and textures . . . there is so much texture."
Well before the end of August, coats dominated front-of-store displays at apparel retailers from J.C. Penney to Saks. The reasons are bountiful:
For one, technology has made once-heavy wool and down coats lighter and less cumbersome for climate-controlled, coat-wearing activities like driving and mall shopping.
Luxe furs and shearlings - perfect for staying comfy in subzero temperatures - are in the middle of a high-style comeback. Vintage inspiration on Instagram and Pinterest are fueling the rediscovery of long-forbidden furs and their faux cousins.
Plus, in a desperate attempt to get us more fancy (think Iggy Azalea's chart-topping hit), designers from Isabel Marant to Norma Kamali are sprucing up athletic wear with silky, dinner-appropriate racerback dresses, and suede, holiday party-chic sweatpants. A snazzy piece of outerwear - whether a cocoon-shaped coat or a fringed, herringbone wrap - adds a layer of class to those once-cazh pieces.
"A great coat translates to a great sporty-luxe look," said Noelle Sciacca, associate market editor at Lucky magazine.
However, at the center of this fall's coat revival is surely the cold weather. Coats were ubiquitous at February's designer presentations, held during a spate of bone-chilling polar vortexes.
Even as the who's who of style watched Tory Burch's tapestried swing jackets, Michael Kors' double-breasted coats, and Elie Tahari's leather bombers make their way down the New York Fashion Week runways, stores already were running out of cold-weather apparel.
"Last year we sold through all of our outerwear, from Canada gooses to our fur vests," said Kate Stuhl, assistant store manager at Intermix on Walnut Street. "This year we are trying to keep the coats and jackets and cozy sweaters in the stores well into January."
There was a time when coats were hard-to-come-by essentials. Most people had one everyday coat - the most expensive item in their closet - and function trumped fashion.
But coats achieved statement-piece status for the first time in the 1920s, when designers Coco Chanel and Jean Patou paired pleated skirts and sweaters with matching coats, explained Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel University's Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. Still, accumulating multiple coats was for the wealthy only.
Each decade since has featured a signature coat style, said Kristina Haugland, associate curator of costumes and textiles with the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The slimmer-cut, full-length wool coat with dramatic collar was the 1930s coat in vogue, followed by the tapered-at-the-waist, full-skirted silhouettes of the 1940s, and swing coats of the 1950s.
In the 1960s, coats got shorter to complement mini skirts, and '70s outerwear was both sharp-edged - as in, Shaft-inspired leather trenches - and soft and flowing like a Mary Tyler Moore cloak. In the 1980s, puffy jackets ruled alongside dramatic coats with shoulder pads. And minimalist three-quarter-length coats were key pieces in the '90s with pant and skirt suits.
By the early 2000s, we had settled into business casual style and entered an era when coats were more hassle than haute couture. Certainly compared to this past year, winters were a little warmer, too, so we peeled off our overcoats in early spring - as higher temperatures came on quickly.
Tighter budgets also kept us out of coat-buying moods. Who needed cashmere when North Face took us from year to year in toasty style?
Then three years ago, designers like Rick Owens and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen kicked off a layering trend. Chunky sweaters gave way to patchwork blazers that morphed into last fall's fitted moto jacket.
Now you'll see in stores nearly every coat style represented, from the 1920s mid-calf-length coat to the World War II bomber jacket. So in which coat should you invest?
Splurge on a statement piece. A burgundy or navy mink - real or faux - or a dramatic wrap in tartan plaid or herringbone.
And if your budget allows, treat yourself to a staple in a wool, cashmere or wool/cashmere blend. Although it's impossible to go wrong with the classic button-down, a shorter coat with a rounded bottom and slightly belled sleeves is trés trendy. Or try a cape over your favorite jeans or new jumpsuit.
While you may be tempted to go with the standard black, opt for heather gray, camel or a winter pastel hue - the lighter shade will brighten the classic navy blue sweater (or sweater dress) you're itching to buy.