I am five years old. I am playing in the snow with my brother. We go out into the snow almost every day under vivid blue skies, surrounded by pine trees on every side, by the house of pine logs. The snow changes every day, and so does our play. Fluffy snow for snow angels. Packy snow for forts and snowball fights. A crust on top is good for sledding. My snowsuit is light blue, his is red. There is often snow stuck in my ankles and wrists, I am always feeling cold. I am indifferent to the snowsuit, it is just a fact of life. My world is so tiny, I don’t even know that other, better snowsuits might exist.
It’s the last time I remember being content in a winter coat.
When you live in Canada you are covered in a winter coat for at least 3 months of the year. For ordinary people, in darkest winter, your options are reduced to one: the warmest coat you own. That coat has to stand up to heavy, constant wear, whether it’s an appropriate social situation for that coat or not. It quickly becomes worn out, especially if it is of low quality to begin with.
A significant purchase for people of modest means, making do with a less than ideal winter coat is an ordinary problem. In my life, the days I have been unsatisfied with the coat I must wear far exceed the days I have felt satisfied. I often dread the winter, not because I hate the weather, but because I hate my coat.
A winter coat is the most visible marker of your status in life, especially if you wear the same one every day. An unwelcome daily reminder of what you can’t afford.
The story of the winter coats I have worn is the story of my own alienation from fashion. When I think of winter coats, the feelings I have are of shame, frustration and envy, being bested by the circumstances of money and weather into a series of unstylish, unsatisfying, and often impractical garments. I’ve never yet owned a winter coat which I felt really represented my own sense of self and style and kept me comfortable at the same time.
At age ten, I have the loudest ski coat. It is 1992, the height of the fluorescent craze. I must have chosen it for myself, from the kid’s clothes section of Canadian Tire no doubt, however almost instantly after I got it I began to feel like it had been a curse imposed upon me. Especially as with much play and wear it became dingy and faded. I think of this as the first time (not the last) I experienced fashion victimhood.
At the age of fourteen, I am fascinated with period costume of all kinds, also The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and contemporary looks do not appeal to me. I dive into the depths of my parent’s closet to unearth an unlikely calf-length wool princess coat with horn toggles, a hood and a flared hem. It looked, I thought, very elvish. It was a cumbersome, heavy and not-warm coat, in a warm brown which has never been my best colour. Worn with crude home-made raver phat-pants, thrifted Dr. Martens that were a size too big, and a floppy leather hat that concealed my face, I must have looked far more hobbit-like than elfin.
Once I had a little bit of my own money from working at McDonalds and other part-time jobs, I bought two coats from the Quinte Mall in Belleville Ontario, which at the time was the most cosmopolitan place in my tiny universe. To my friends and I, this sleazy small-city mall was the source of all fashion.
One was a very ordinary Colombia ski coat in blue, a size too big on me. It drowned me but had a lot of pockets, inside and out, and a detachable fleece lining which of course ended up pilling almost instantly. It was probably the biggest spend in my life at that point, and the fact that it failed to make me look cool left me with lingering cognitive dissonance whenever I wore it.
The other was a silver and blue ravey vinyl thing from Le Chateau, our favourite shop in the mall, where we bought our halter tops and plastic shoes. It was a pullover, and not that warm, which made it inconvenient, but I thought it looked good, so I tolerated the poor design.
My mother and I are both smaller ladies, but it seemed like she was often wearing hand-me-down coats from larger people. Always, the coats had some flaw which of course was why they were discarded; worn cuffs, loaded velcro, awful colours, a broken zipper which meant the coat had to be stepped into. Mom never seemed to spend too much energy worrying about what her coat looks like – like most of the women I knew in the rural area where I grew up, fashion was a low priority. Often she has to carry firewood, or take care of the animals. Her “bad” coats got more wear than her “good” coats.
It was my first year in University and my first few weeks living in Toronto. I was so excited to have escaped my small town forever. For the first time, I attended The Clothing Show with my boyfriend at the time. He bought me, on my request, the very-trendy-in-2002 Afghan coat with a dingy shearling collar for $70. It was light blue suede. I wore it once, and then tore it apart with the intention of re-assembling it, which never happened. It lived in a box, crumpled. Another failed fashion choice. Having shopped so little in my life, I demonstrated no real skill at it once I had the opportunity, and those scraps of suede were a symbol of my own foolish profligacy.
After I graduated from fashion school in 2006, I struggled to find something to do. I had very little career acumen. Some people occasionally sent me very random freelance jobs which I did. Technical specs, graphic design, pattern making, print design, sample making – all things I really had no experience in and delivered with wildly varying degrees of competence, but took on readily as a way to stave off full-time employment. One of my referrers had connections at a factory that made down parkas. I went to the factory, watched the machine that blows down into a coat, and bought at discount my first ever real parka. It is a very simple coat, and had fake fur trim, detachable, lined with a knock-off Burberry plaid. (“Yeah we got a cease and desist letter for that one.”) At the time it pleased me because it was the first coat I ever felt truly warm in, and it didn’t call much attention to itself.
Over six years later, I have to admit this is still my main winter coat. It is shiny and worn on the arms, one of the pocket zippers is broken, and the fake fur had to be discarded because it got melted on one side by an errant steam iron. It is still the warmest coat I own, so often I have to wear it, but it makes me feel so shabby. It’s a non-entity of a coat, and makes me feel like a non-entity.
In London, I was finally released from the tyranny of truly cold weather. I bought a trim little Made in England wool duffle coat and it was perfectly serviceable for even the coldest bits of British winter. I got to wear medium-weight coats most of the year – my favourites – and I had several, so I never felt bored of any of them.
Now that I’m back in Toronto, and winter is blowing in, I am determined to buy a winter coat wisely for the first time in my life. This time, when I’m thinking of spending, I’m thinking – one month’s rent or two? It seems a low price to pay considering how much time I’ll end up living in it. Also, I want a coat that makes me feel abundant and sophisticated, that helps me look my best in the worst kind of weather, in almost any situation. Once again, a winter coat will probably be the biggest spend on clothes I’ve made in my life yet. I desperately want more than one such magical coat, to be honest. I must be patient with such grand ambitions.
I’m not a rich girl, so I won’t look like one. I can only hope to look like I have achieved some level of taste after thirty years of trial and error. I want a coat that reveals my most confident aspirations rather than my actual precarious status. A well off person has multiple coats for every occasion and every weather – a savings bank in their wardrobe. Relying on one coat at a time is for those of us from the class that lives from check to check, though I still believe it is possible to be sophisticated, if a coat is selected with taste and care. That is what I’m aiming for, this time. Real down, real fur. For the first time in my life I am determined to feel winter-coat confident, whatever the weather.