The first question on the coat front is how many should you have? I’m afraid that just one will not do – you need different lengths and different shapes. People think their coats will go on forever – but they don’t of course, they lose their shape and the lining frays and disintegrates.
Like most people these days, I have more than one coat – about four to date, and I do wear one more than the others. I have a puffa coat for every day as well as a smart waisted black coat for funerals and so on, as well as a trench coat and an edge to edge ‘town’ coat.
Although the accepted rule is that you should buy as expensive a coat as possible, it is actually better to buy one good coat – the one you are going to wear most – and pay less for the others. There are many good coats on the High Street, and the key to success here, is to find one that is as simple as possible, and comparatively muted in colour; it’s the trimmings – the fancy buttons and belts that make a coat look cheap, so if you really like the coat in every other respect, check that you can change, or discard the offending elements.
A down coat with a hood is ideal for bad weather. If you select a smart looking one in black or a dark colour it can see you through from walking the dog to going out for dinner with friends. A decent hood also saves you having to juggle an umbrella – that most annoying of accessories.
A smart wool coat is a confidence-building garment. If your bust is not too large, a semi-fitted, princess line, fitted at the top, and falling to a fullish skirt is flattering and romantic looking as well as chic. The disadvantages of this style is that it must look fairly fitted when buttoned and so you can’t wear anything too bulky underneath. The second disadvantage is that although any skirt shape will work with a princess line, trousers are, I think, a complete no-no as they should only ever been worn beneath a straight, un-fitted coat – either long or short.
As far as colour goes, if you are only buying one coat, it is sensible to steer away from bright colours as you, and others can easily get bored with too much colour ( unless your heart is set on bright red, and you have the budget to be extravagant and self-indulgent – it is always an uplifting colour!); navy is the most versatile and softer than black; grey and camel are possibilities – but choose the latter only if it suits your complexion.
A light coat or mac should be on standby – long enough, but not too long, to work with both skirts and trousers.
Jackets for the day
Jackets are the most useful of garments and can change, formalize or immediately update, a basic outfit of trousers, dress or skirt in a moment, as well as adding an element of dressed-up-ness when required. I have a wardrobe of jackets, although I don’t keep them forever, rather buying them and then discarding after a few seasons. Like everything else in your wardrobe, just because you’ve had a particular jacket for years, doesn’t mean it still looks good when you wear it now.
When you try on a jacket for the first time, bring both hands forward to test the fit across the back and shoulders. If it pulls uncomfortably or starts to wrinkle under the arms, then it is too tight and will not hang properly. And always check in a two-sided mirror before buying.
Based on the traditional seaman’s coat, the modern peacoat is a classic style – usually navy, always double-breasted, buttoning to the collar if needed, and usually hip length. They are smart—look good with trousers—and are also very adaptable; best of all, the straight (or sometimes slightly fitted) lines of the peacoat are remarkably flattering for all shapes.
The blazer is usually considered a classic in the modern wardrobe. Historically the province of rowing teams and later generations of schoolchildren, the almost-suit jacket, single or double breasted and with lapels, encompasses many variations on the theme, and a style for every woman. For those of small frame, cropped, single-breasted and fitted works well; for taller women, a longer, straighter cut with structured shoulders looks good. A blazer works both in summer and winter weights, and is a useful part of any wardrobe, particularly in navy and a summer neutral shade.
The boxy jacket
A boxy jacket is good with an A-line skirt and an edge-to-edge, collarless jacket of varying length, and in a variety of materials, goes over anything, from narrow trousers to a summer or winter dress and also combines very well with jewellery, so works well dressed up for the evening.
The biker jacket
This may not be everyone’s first choice when thinking about jackets, as the wrong style and cut can look a bit ‘fashion-victim’ when worn on someone over the age of 30, but if worn in a fabric – rather than in chrome-studded and buckled black leather – I rather like this shape; it works in the same way as a short, fitted jacket and can fill the same role rather neatly and in a modern way, particularly with straight trousers and skirts.
General jacket tips
Summer dressing always needs a jacket – a good navy one and a neutral or white one too, if possible.
I would always choose a simple, slightly fitted, slightly longer blazer style, but on a slimmer figure, a shorter jacket or one with a peplum can also look good.
An unstructured, unlined and soft shape is another jacket option which sometimes works well over simple dresses, shirts and skirts etc.
Box or short jackets work far better over dresses and skirts than trousers – personally, with trousers, I always wear a longer jacket to cover my rear.
Remember whatever shape jacket you choose always check the final outfit from the back.
Jackets in the evening
Many people own a velvet jacket – usually slightly waisted, sometimes with a peplum and stand-up collar and often with frogging. They are quite pretty –(although usually worn a bit too short) – but only when they are new. If you’ve had a jacket like that since you were 25, you really need to replace it; your bottom might be bigger, ditto your bust and the shape of a soft-fabric jacket like this will have long gone – the hem will be curling up, and there will be worn patches. Get a new one, and this time around make sure that it is long enough.
The same goes for the Indian-inspired narrow quilted jackets and coats: they can look quite nice, particularly if they have a stand-up collar, but only when they are new. Sagging quilted cotton or wool is not a good look.
One of the most useful versatile of evening jackets is a black tuxedo – definitely something that has a lot of styles as well as being multi-useful. But please don’t think that the one with the big shoulders that you bought in the 1980’s and which is still sitting at the back of the wardrobe is going to work; actually, it’s just going to immediately draw attention to the fact that it’s old and that you have changed. Extremes are not what you’re going for, just something that looks great. Don’t agonise about it, just give it to your daughter or one of your friend’s daughters – she may make it work for herself, but you can go out and buy a new one.
About the author
Anna Harvey’s career in the fashion world as a leading and authoritative voice has mostly been spent at Vogue, where she has been Deputy Editor, as well as Editorial Director of Conde Nast International. She launched Vogue in India, Russia and Turkey and helped Diana, Princess of Wales on styling. Anna writes a bi-monthly column for the Telegraph based on her book Timeless Style.Last modified: January 8, 2021