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jacket vs coat: what is the difference, length or thickness?
December 5, 2009 8:34 AM   Subscribe

help settle a debate. jacket vs coat: what is the difference, length or thickness?

Growing up in NJ, where one wears different outerwear in the fall and winter, I always understood a jacket to be thinner and more apt for fall, while a coat was thicker and for winter. Everyone I've asked (admittedly from the same region) agrees.

My boyfriend, however, is from the south where no one has winter coats, and thought the words were interchangeable. A google search reveals no definitive answer, although many sites suggest the difference is based on length (jacket = waist, coat = longer), which he believe makes more sense.

Which is right? Opinions?
posted by illegiblemess to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
You can have a lightweight coat or a thick, wool-lined bomber jacket. A jacket goes to the waist. A coat goes down to your thighs.
posted by musofire at 8:38 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is no "right"--this is a variation in usage. Welcome to the wonderful world of the English language, where some people put their groceries in bags, others in sacks, and still others in totes.

Growing up in rural Massachusetts, a "jacket" in our usage was generally short AND light-weight, except for "a down jacket" and "a ski jacket", which were worn in temperatures as low as -20 Fahrenheit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:38 AM on December 5, 2009


We just had this conversation in my house and came to the same conclusion as Sidhedevil - there's a pretty big variation in usage. For example, sometimes it's called "a suit coat" and sometimes "a suit jacket".
posted by muddgirl at 8:40 AM on December 5, 2009


Interchangeable with leanings towards jacket = lighter. I would say "a spring jacket" not "a spring coat." But I also hear "a winter jacket" so, your jacket/coat mileage may vary. This is Western, MA for geographic pinpointing.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:45 AM on December 5, 2009


In Toronto and Montreal, where we do winter with a vengeance:

- A jacket may be of any weight, but stops anywhere between waist and upper hip.
- A coat may be of any weight, but stops anywhere between butt to ankle.
- A parka is heavyweight and stops anywhere between thigh and knee.
posted by maudlin at 8:50 AM on December 5, 2009


Growing up in the midwest and now on East Coast, I've never noticed any discrimination based on weight before: and as a word geek I would notice if someone did that. It's always been about length, in my experience.

That is, jackets are short (waist or slightly below, like a suit jacket), coats are long (thigh, knee, even ankle). You can have a thin coat or a thick jacket. There's no possible way to have an ankle-length jacket.

(I'm interested in this if it turns out to be regional somehow, but I'm pretty sure these uses represent the most common taxonomy: a quick Google (US) image seach on "coat" and "jacket" show 90% long/short, respectively.)

In other words, there's no such thing as a trenchjacket.
posted by rokusan at 8:53 AM on December 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


No right or wrong answer here.
posted by Zambrano at 8:55 AM on December 5, 2009


The way I use the words (SE Michigan), a jacket is light and short; a coat can be long, heavy, or both; but the prototypical coat — the one that first comes to mind when I hear the word, the one I grab when someone says "bring a coat" with no elaboration — is butt-length and heavy.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:58 AM on December 5, 2009


(But anecdotes aside, the right answer is Zambrano's where he says there's no right answer here. You guys speak different regional dialects. Trust me, you sound as funny to him as he does to you, but that's not wrongness you're both hearing, just foreignness.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:00 AM on December 5, 2009


That is, jackets are short (waist or slightly below, like a suit jacket), coats are long (thigh, knee, even ankle). You can have a thin coat or a thick jacket. There's no possible way to have an ankle-length jacket.

You can have a waistecoat though, which isn't really a coat or a jacket.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:01 AM on December 5, 2009


I would be curious to see if it is regional. I would have thought so, but my wife and I disagreed on the definition and we both were raised in the same city -- Milwaukee. I always went with thickness definition, but my wife has disabused me of that sort of thinking.
posted by rtimmel at 9:03 AM on December 5, 2009


I've always thought of it as a length issue, in the same way that others have mentioned. Coat=long, jacket=short.
posted by lunasol at 9:04 AM on December 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Welcome to the wonderful world of the English language, where some people put their groceries in bags, others in sacks, and still others in totes.

A tote has handles, you heathen!
posted by rokusan at 9:23 AM on December 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I agree about it being a distinction of length more than weight, but I've also been under the impression that it's also an issue of a jacket being more casual than a coat.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:26 AM on December 5, 2009


I'm from New Jersey, too, but I think the definition is based on length, not thickness.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:30 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Grew up in Michigan, and Sidhedevil's description seems about right. "Jacket" is more flexible than coat--you can have a winter jacket, for instance, which might be very warm and thick but short, but you can't have a "spring coat."

My North-Dakota raised partner is more particular than I am. I will sometimes call my winter coat my "jacket," and that results in things like me asking him to hand me my jacket, and him standing in the entryway staring at my winter coat hanging on the hook and replying, "I can't find it."
posted by not that girl at 9:32 AM on December 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


there's no such thing as a trenchjacket.

Or an overjacket, though it's a matter of debate whether an overcoat goes over a coat or a jacket.

languagehat may arrive to do the metacommentary, but given that our modern dress and the language used to describe it descends from older formal dress, which itself derives from uniform, I wonder if the distinction(s) reflect those origins. (Jacket is of French derivation for a short coat, coat of much older German extraction.)

British usage seems to favour coat for functional outer garment, with jacket retained for short coats with more formal cuts. A short parka is a coat; a leather jacket is a jacket.
posted by holgate at 9:33 AM on December 5, 2009


To a first approximation, I would call something a coat if it is something that you take off when you get inside, whilst a jacket would usually be something that you might carry on wearing inside.
posted by Jabberwocky at 9:56 AM on December 5, 2009


when talking about wintry outerwear (as opposed to "coat and tie" or "motorcycle jacket" usage) i generally consider jackets to be made (on the outside) of synthetic material-- like a windbreaker, or one of those thick quilted ones. a coat is made of wool, something knit, etc.
posted by acidic at 9:58 AM on December 5, 2009


I just wanted to add to the fun by pointing out that I suspect most people would classify what we call a "sport coat" as a jacket, because it's lightweight and usually not very long.
posted by bettafish at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2009


I grew up on military installations and in the south. To the limited extent they aren't interchangeable to me, a coat is just more serious warmth than a jacket and the length doesn't enter into it much.

I expect this is like engine/motor -- you can find more than one rule that almost works but has serious exceptions.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:05 AM on December 5, 2009


Ski jacket = thick, suitable for snow, waterproof, usually waist-length.
Suit jacket = comparatively thin, unsuitable for snow, not waterproof, longer than waist length.
Sports coat = sports jacket = same length as suit jacket. Unsuitable for snow, not waterproof.
Waistcoat = comparatively thin, unsuitable for snow, not waterproof, waist length, no arms.
Trenchcoat = thigh length, waterproof, sometimes suitable for snow.
Coat check = accepts outerwear of any length.
posted by Mike1024 at 10:49 AM on December 5, 2009


I always thought of a coat as being a bit nicer or more formal looking than a jacket. But I'm from Arizona, so uh...I probably don't know what I'm talking about.
posted by mullacc at 10:59 AM on December 5, 2009


Coats are always the outside layer, jackets not.
posted by rhizome at 11:14 AM on December 5, 2009


I'm from Texas, and also pretty much think the words are interchangeable. After reading other people's responses, I guess I'm more likely to call something a coat that if it is long, but if you show me something that's waist length? I call that either a jacket or a coat.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:21 AM on December 5, 2009


I am from NJ and use them both to mean 'outerwear' but are paired with different words somewhat arbitrarily.

Leather jacket, more so than leather coat.
Rain coat, never rain jacket.
Sport jacket = sport coat
Winter coat, rarely winter jacket.
In fall or spring, coat or jacket, with coats being thicker and heavier, and not made of light artificial materials (except for rain coats, which are always referred to as coats)
posted by lsemel at 3:40 PM on December 5, 2009


"jacket" also refers to a "book jacket", and coat can refer to an animal's natural hair (dog shows will grade the dog's coat, eg).

I'd say coat is the older word that basically refers to any outer garment (hence coat check rather than jacket check) and jacket came along to specify a certain kind of coat, that is, a lighter, shorter, less warming. Other words like parka or windbreaker are even more specific but I'm not sure any of them have to stop being "coats" in the general sense, just not "winter coats" (of course it's all a usage question- still, it seems like it gets confusing because some people think of coat as a general term and others think it's for referring to winter coats, and there is no general term for outerwear).
posted by mdn at 3:50 PM on December 5, 2009


As others have pointed out, there's no "right" answer to this question, so I'll just throw my own usage on the pile:

Start by assuming that all torso-oriented outerwear is a "jacket".

If it's heavy—meaning thickly padded, insulated, or lined—then it's a coat. This kind of coat protects you from colder temperatures than a jacket. (That's why a leather jacket—though heavy—is not a coat. It's neither thick nor particularly insulating.)

It's also a coat if it's long and/or dressy—I guess you'd call this a "dress coat" to distinguish it from the "keep your nipples from freezing" coat. Basically, if it's worn as much for style as for warmth, it's a coat, regardless of all other considerations.

This includes sports coats (though the term "sports jackets" also makes sense to my ears, probably because they're closer to a jacket than most dress coats are).
posted by ixohoxi at 7:47 PM on December 5, 2009


I really see a jacket as a subset of a coat, with the major distinction being length.
posted by dhartung at 10:41 PM on December 5, 2009


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