The theory of outerwear and its practical application
October 5, 2010 3:37 AM   Subscribe

I've lived in Boston 7 years now but never obtained proper cold weather attire, struggling along with the coat I brought from California and a cheap one I found here when I couldn't tolerate the California one anymore. Well, no more. This year I'm going to do it right. I turn to Ask MeFi because I'm hopelessly confused by the variety of options out there.

This question is in two parts. The first part is about the general idea of coats and jackets -- what are the different types available and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the various materials they're made of. The second part is for concrete suggestions on getting a good (men's) coat online or in the Boston area. I'd be grateful for insight into either or both parts.

---Part 1, outerwear overview---
a. First question is what kind of coat(s) do I need? I'm thinking I'll need protection against 1) cold (from cool fall day to freezing winter), 2) wind, and 3) water of the rain and snow varieties. For instance, I would like to be comfortable during windy, rainy, 45°F fall days as well as cold -5°F winter days. Can one coat do all of this? Or maybe two that can combine synergistically (ugh, I hate that word) as needed?

b. What are the different materials coats are made of and how do their properties relate to my needs above? I'm aware of at least leather, wool, down, "GoreTex?", cotton, fleece (?). Do some of those work better for cold vs. rain vs. snow vs. wind?

c. What are the different styles I should be aware of, and are they used in certain situations? I've heard of fleece jackets, pea coats, overcoats, trench coats, greatcoats, parkas, down jackets, softshell jackets. Why do some coats go down to ankles, while others just the waist? For the latter, is it assumed you'll be wearing warm pants?

My use case is primarily walking about a mile to/from work each day, as well as general futzing about town. In addition, I would like to ditch my umbrella. It's too windy and they break (and I kinda like the idea of turning up my collar and hunkering down under a hat instead).

---Part 2, concrete recommendations---
So what should I get? Important to me are comfort and durability, and I'm willing to pay for quality. I would, for example, pay $1,000 if it were the most amazing coat that would work in all situations and last me a lifetime (although, of course, I would prefer much cheaper). Style and brand name are not important to me. Navy surplus would work just fine if the best coats were there.

Are there good stores in Boston to check out? Trying the coats on in person seems like a good idea to me, to at least make sure the size is right. But I'm not totally opposed to buying online, either.

posted by losvedir to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (23 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
What you're looking for is a waterproof shell.

Underneath that, get a nice, wool sweater. Underneath that, get polypropylene underwear.

Take off the layers in this order: sweater, long underwear, jacket and you've got everything from Sept - February covered.

Think about gloves and wool hat.
posted by alex_skazat at 4:03 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The technical approach is like this: You basically need to layer up. You need an outer layer to stop the wind and rain, and a middle layer to insulate your body. You inner layer will be your normal attire, I guess, at least for short walks within the city. You can then use only the outer (or "shell") layer during windy, rainy, but basically warm, fall days, and put on the middle layer in addition for the real winter days.

If you want a real heavy-duty jacket that can withstand heavy rain and winds, it's called a "hardshell". A more breathable, flexible, lightweight jacket that cannot take a similar amount of abuse is called a "softshell". Googling any of these terms will show you that you will look like you just came home from skiing when wearing them. YMMV on this. A leather or treated canvas jacket might look more stylish and be sufficently weatherproof for your needs.

The two approaches I've used for the middle layer here in balmy Norway is either a knitted wool sweater (thanks, Mum!) or a thin fleece sweater or jacket. I've got a softshell jacket, which is black and fairly neutral, with a small Land Rover logo on. It's good for running errands and going to work, and serves as my outer layer.

BUT, and this is where most Americans I've known go wrong: You won't be warm just by sticking on the thickest coat you can find! You'll need to put something on your head, first of all, then your feet, and then think about your neck and hands. If you have decent winter wear on you whole body, you can get away with a thinner jacket and still be warm and snug. But get a decent hat (I prefer wool soft hats, possibly with a windproof lining), good gloves and wool socks and a scarf or buff.

If you're talking real winter weather, long underwear and mittens instead of gloves are essential.

And, BTW, chapstick is very useful when it's cold and windy.
posted by Harald74 at 4:09 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Preview fail on my part. But I put on hats, scarf, gloves and socks before I think about breaking out the long underwear. They're easier to put away when you go indoors, whereas long underwear is a hassle to change out of.
posted by Harald74 at 4:11 AM on October 5, 2010

Definitely agree with layering. Land's End has great coats for REAL cold. You might want to try North Face or Columbia for a real-weather coat with a waterproof exterior.
posted by shortyJBot at 4:26 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing layers. I've found that a thick sweater/hoodie + winter coat helps no matter what either is made from. Waterproof winter boots and thick socks help immensely, too, since you're navigating snow and ice and puddles. I don't like long underwear, but tall socks or legwarmers under my pants achieve a similar effect, and are easier to take off once you get where you're going.

With coat length, the tradeoff is warmth for mobility. An ankle-length coat can keep the chill off your legs, but it's harder to get a good stride going. Mid-thigh or knee-length works best for me.

Absolutely a hat and scarf, preferably thick and wool. (If you can find alpaca, that's even warmer.) Get a couple of each, since they're easy to lose or misplace, or learn to knit/befriend someone who knits. I usually get the cheapest gloves since I lose them constantly and have my hands in my pocket most of the time anyway, but also cheap gloves kind of suck.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:39 AM on October 5, 2010

I'm a lady, and I live in New York rather than Boston, but what the hell?

1. I have two coats. One in wool which is warm enough for moderately cold days (anywhere from the 40's down to freezing). It's stylish and can work with more formal attire. The other is one of those puffy jobbers for the seriously cold days. Both coats are fine in snow - the puffy one is slightly more waterproof, but honestly here in New York we don't get the kind of winter precipitation where waterproof-ness is really much of an issue. I lived in Boston for a year and would say the same there - you're probably not going to be out walking in hard rain or seriously wet snow enough for that to be much of a concern. If you don't want to ever use an umbrella, make sure you have at least one coat with a hood.

a. I find that layering a sweater under my wool coat (which is definitely a style over function sort of garment) is plenty to make it windproof down to around freezing. My puffer is fairly windproof all on its own, though, again, a nice warm sweater under the coat makes all the difference on really rough days.

b. I don't go in for any of the fancy performance fabrics, so I can't tell you about any of that. I find that one traditional wool and one functional down is really all I need.

c. For the most part, coat style is more about fashion than functionality. Especially when it comes to the difference between a pea coat, overcoat/greatcoat, and the like. A trench is really more of a raincoat, or maybe just a fashion statement. I think the reason the long coats are longer is more about style and formality and less about warmth. Though it can be practical, too - for instance both of my coats are about knee length, which means I can't ride my bike when the weather is under around 40 degrees. As for why the knee length coats in the first place - totally coincidental; they're either what was available or what drew my eye. I think there's more variation there for women, though. I don't find that my lower half really gets cold - if it's bitter cold I might wear a base layer under my pants.

2. In my opinion, layers and winter accessories are more important than what kind of coat you use. I'm partial to a long sleeve tee or thermal shirt layered under a sweater, with gloves (I don't think you'd need mittens unless you were in Toronto or Minneapolis or somewhere it gets seriously frigid), a proper scarf or shawl, and a good warm hat, all used together with the appropriate coat. On the bottom I'll either wear a skirt with leggings or tights and boots, or jeans (sometimes with a base layer, as per above). Warm waterproof shoes are important if you'll be walking in snow a lot. All of that stuff is way more important, in my opinion, than the coat itself.
posted by Sara C. at 4:58 AM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Land's End makes a midweight hooded down coat (heavy enough for a northeastern US winter but not quite enough for Mongolian winters) that crushes down and stores in its own inside pocket. I like hoods better than hats/high collars for snow/rain because no icy horrors can sneak down the back of your neck.

Also, layers upon layers, as many have suggested. It's okay if one of the layers is cotton, but be aware that if the skinnermost layer is cotton, and you sweat, you will feel clammy and gross until it dries.

Wool socks are indescribably awesome and once you try them you will never go back to shitty cotton blends. Good waterproof boots (ankle height at least) are also a lifesaver. No one wants cold wet toes. You can also get something like yaktrax or similar for the bottoms when it's snowy/icy out.
posted by elizardbits at 5:13 AM on October 5, 2010

Layers, and a nice down coat for the colder weather. Down is light and comfy and supremely warm.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:14 AM on October 5, 2010

For Question #2, you can't go wrong with Barbour.
posted by brozek at 5:21 AM on October 5, 2010

Outdoor Clothing & Footwear Recommendations, by Mark Verber.

Addresses all of your questions on outerwear strategy, with lots of specific materials and manufacturers discussed.
posted by alb at 5:39 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

As Harald74 says, don't forget the non-coat parts. A big scarf that covers your whole neck will warm you up more than you may think. Gloves are essential for comfort & function. Hats, hoods, or at least earmuffs are definitely needed when it's going to be real cold, or if you're going to be standing around not moving (eg. waiting for a bus).
posted by echo target at 6:27 AM on October 5, 2010

I was a boy scout in Maine and hence have quite a bit more experience with frost bite than I'd like. Have a look at the Canada Goose Resolute Parka, which is what folks where in the Arctic. For really cold weather you need to focus on preventing cold/snow from getting in or heat getting out, so look for a hood, tight fitting collars by the hands, a length that goes beyond your waste, and a drawstring at the bottom.

Material can be tricky but like the others say, the goal is to layer so you aren't as worried. On a nice day, with the right sweater and gloves, you won't need the jacket at all. When the wind or snow kicks up though, it's great to have, but the real test is sleet, which is absolutely hell. That's why you go for an outer layer that is water proof, and wind proof by definition, and take care of the heat & insulation on the inner layers.

The very best insulator, as far as country wisdom goes, is static air. If it isn't moving it isn't bleeding away heat or feeding cold air in. So aside from the ability to tailor your clothing to the weather and conditions using layers, they also offer insulation on their own by preventing air from moving around. That's why the sun feels so good on a day with a very light breeze, or being in front of a fireplace. Nice constant heat with nothing blowing it away. Bliss.

I use a LLBean jacket like their Rugged Ridge Parka but good to -60F. For gloves it's big mitten shells and then thin gloves to wear under them, so I can take the mittens off if I need to do something that requires finger work, and then the type of pants don't really matter if you've got thermals on and aren't rolling around in the snow. The jacket covers 20% of them anyway. Ditto on shoes. I switch to black hiking boots for storm days (office worker).

For a winter or three every 11 years or so (the past two years and maybe this one) the sun goes into a solar minimum and it'll all come in handy. Outside of that you'll just feel like a pleasantly warm idiot. :-)
posted by jwells at 6:30 AM on October 5, 2010

I am a woman. I have reversible jacket. The side I most often wear in is faux fur (fake fleece, essentially) made from 100% polyester and the side I wear out is also 100% polyester (the smooth kind). It is very warm. I wear this when it is cool and rainy out. Since I commute on the train and the bus, I suspect this will get me through most of the winter comfortably since I don't walk for my commute as much.

In winter, when it is super cold and I know I will be tooling around outside, I wear my super warm L.L Bean jacket. When I walked the mile to daycare with Toddler Zizzle on my back, I wore that coat. It got a little warm on the way into work, but it was worth it not to be freezing on the walk.

Because this is Boston, layers are a good idea, but if you're like me, and you may not be, wearing more than two layers is irksome. I can't stand wearing my regular long sleeve shirt, and then a sweater, and then an outside coat. I find that far more of a hassle than wearing one coat. But I do use my hood, or a hat, and gloves. So I keep it to my regular shirt and then whatever coat I choose to wear that day with appropriate head and hand accessories.

I can't stress this enough --- you will want a good pair of boots. And I don't mean boots from a chain store. I mean really, good, high quality boots. Whether you go more for style than function is your call, but the Mainer in me once again turned to L.L Bean for solid waterproof winter boots. I wear these with wool socks, and my toes are always toasty warm. I keep a pair of regular shoes at my desk at work, and I change out of the boots and put those on. (And yes, L.L Bean is expensive, but damn are they ever worth it!)

As for style, it's Boston. I mean, you'll see every type of coat you can imagine in winter. Some appear more stylish than others. Some appear more formal than others, but when it gets down to it, the coat is taken off inside. Unless you're going to some highly formalized outside event, the coat you wear won't matter so much in terms of style.
posted by zizzle at 6:32 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Massachusetts and I'd have to say that for me nothing works better than a big down coat (even a cheapo one from the Gap), not even layering under a good wool coat. However, down coats are definitely function over style. If I remember correctly, it can get pretty windy in Boston and in my experience a down coat or some sort of North Face type anorak in gortex is going to cut the wind better than wool. Also something with a zipper rather than buttons is going to have fewer places for the wind to get in.

My approach is similar to Sara C's. I have a wool coat for when I need something more stylish and/or it's not cold or snowy enough to warrant the big puffy down coat that makes me look like a walking marshmallow but keeps me warm in almost any weather. When wearing the wool coat, be sure to wear a scarf as few styles really allow you to "button up."
posted by kaybdc at 6:37 AM on October 5, 2010

I can't imagine having only one coat. I have a long, black wool coat with wide lapels for work wear. It can tolerate light snow and is very warm, and looks appropriate with business or formal wear.

I also have a parka of the hardshell type with zip-out inner lining. With a sweater, the shell alone works well for rain and wet snow. In deep winter cold, adding the lining gives 100% protection.

But I also have an old peacoat for when it's just cold and dry, and you might also like a down vest for days when it's sunny and in the 30s and you have a nice warm sweater and long underwear on. Sometimes it's nice not to have that Michelin-man bulk on your arms.

I'm over fleece. It's not really that warm (unless it's actually wool fleece) and it doesn't wear well.

Long underwear is the real secret to life in Northern New England. It's what makes people able to act normal and comfortable when it's freaking freezing. Everyone around you is probably wearing it without you even knowing it. The silk or polypro kinds are thin and comfortable. It's amazing what adding this layer will do for your ability to relax in the cold weather.
posted by Miko at 7:21 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Been in Boston for 6 years, and New England in general for most of my life. Layering is the absolute key.

To that I would add a few specific hints:
1) I *always* carry around a hat and a pair of gloves in the winter. Sometimes I don't need it during the day, but will definitely use it after work in the evening.

2) If you are worried about messing up your hair with a hat, then get 360s, those things that cover your ears and go around the back of your head. Earmuffs, but horizontal ones. They are awesome, and super comfortable.

3) LONG coats are better than SHORT ones. I have a trench coat that I wear most of the winter for work. Seriously, the difference in getting more of your body under the coat is huge. That's why women wear those ugly looking but really long poofy jackets all over Boston in the winter. They totally work.

4) Long underwear...on the bottom. Seriously. I think this is one of those things that people are weird about at first if they're not used to it, but there are maybe 2 months of the year when serious northerners basically don't remove long underwear. I have several pairs that I switch between. They make a huge difference.

5) Scarf. I love a good scarf because you can put it across your face to get some shelter from the wind. And they can look cool!

Follow the layting tips above, and some of these, and you'll be very comfortable the entire season.
posted by kryptonik at 7:38 AM on October 5, 2010

When I moved to NYC from California I was horribly unprepared for winter (and decided to move home after the first blizzard) because I'd never had to live with snow on a day to day basis before.

I'm going to echo the other people who are saying that the coat itself doesn't matter as much as the accessories. My comfort level raised considerably after a trip to LL Bean for a nice pair of boots. Hats (that cover your ears!) are essential, as are scarves. And layers!
posted by elsietheeel at 8:01 AM on October 5, 2010

I live in beautiful Wisconsin, right by a lake. It's cooler by the lake. Fricking freezing, actually.

Don't be afraid of looking silly if you know you'll be warm and glamorous-looking, dahling. Nothing looks less put-together than someone unprepared for the weather.

I have two winter coats. One is a "puffy" coat, which I can't find anymore but which is the best coat ever. It's mid-thigh-length and solid black, so it's okay to wear in slightly nicer situations but doesn't look too formal with jeans. The closest thing I can find is this one.

The other is a nicer, longer woolen pea coat for nicer occasions. It's also a little higher than the knee, so -- again -- it's not super formal but can be used in both situations. I typically wear this for nicer occasions, though, particularly when it's not ultra cold.

Other layers:
A thin layer of a vest or sweater or fleece, one that zips up around your neck, is a great layer to have. Or you can get a down vest, too. I have a friend who calls his down vest the best purchase he ever made.

I do have a shell parka, and I wear it as both a sort of rain coat and an in-between-seasons coat. It layers very well and isn't super bulky.

I am lazy and have thighs of steel, so I don't wear long underwear. But if you do, go for silk. It's actually pretty easy to wash, and it's way thinner than other stuff.

The kind of hat you have doesn't matter as much as the fact that you have one. Acrylic=terrible; it doesn't insulate; go with wool if you can. Chullo hats are great; I got mine at Target and it's served me well for years. I also have a ridiculous giant fake-fur hat which makes me look Russian; it's kind of my trademark. It perches on my head, so it doesn't cause quite as much hat head as others can.

I really hate scarves because they always come undone. Because I'm a knitter, I've made all sorts of gaiters/neckwarmers/whatever. This one is my favorite of all time and is very quick to knit. You can pull it up or push it down.

Because I walk around a lot, I hate having to deal with heavy boots or the prospect of taking some off/putting some on. I was like you; I spent years without decent boots, using an old pair of clogs (!). But boy oh boy oh boy, do I love my Keen boots. They don't have the same style available anymore, but they're kind of like these or these. They're stylish and light enough to feel like sneakers and be wearable indoors, but they're warm and waterproof and have never let me down in giant snowbanks.

Also, if I know I don't run the risk of having to get off the bus in an unshoveled snowbank, I wear these. I love them so much that I may get a replacement pair that's exactly the same. They've got good traction and are waterproof, and because they're lined with Gore-Tex they have never, ever, ever leaked and made my feet cold. Even if I do get into a snowbank, only my ankles get cold, and only if I don't wear my Smartwools :)

Smartwool, man. Smartwool.

You need to have extra gloves EVERYWHERE. In your car, by your door, at the office, everywhere. It's probably smart to get thin gloves to wear under thicker gloves, or -- better yet -- outer mittens. Mittens keep your hands warmer because the air insulates. Look for Thinsulate lining.

Skin care:
Chapstick, being mainly wax, is only an occlusive: it covers the lips but doesn't penetrate or really protect. You need something with oils and essential fatty acids. Shea butter is great, and it's handy to have some around for hands and lips. Other ingredients to look for: hemp oil, avocado oil, cocoa butter, etc.

Make sure to keep tabs on your face, especially. Your forehead will probably sweat a little, and you'll probably get chapped cheeks no matter what you do. Be gentle and make sure to moisturize.
posted by Madamina at 8:27 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

You probably will want a couple of coats if you'll be there long-term. My Floridian husband transplanted to the frigid midwest has four at this point, but acquired over time.

*Long wool overcoat to go over suits, since he wears a suit to work 95% of the time. Pair with a cashmere scarf which both looks stylish and keeps your face from falling off when it's frigid.
*Long (dressy) raincoat with zip-out heavy lining, also to go over suits. The lining means he can wear it in the summer rain without getting sweaty by taking the lining out, but zipping in the lining will let him be warm enough down through cold rain and sleet until we get to actual snow, when he can wear the overcoat again.
*Lightweight wool waist-length jacket for fall and spring, which is basically just a sweater layer in the form of a coat. Polar fleece jackets serve the same function. Casual, stylish, goes with jeans and whatnot.
*THE HEAVY-DUTY COATINATOR. Something like this (which you'll note has temperature comfort ratings, even). This is for shoveling our ridiculously long driveway, participating in outdoor winter sports, winter hiking, things like that.

If you are going to be outdoors a lot in the winter -- like walking to work -- I cannot stress enough that you want a coat that covers your thighs. For some reason having the wind cut through your thighs makes you way, way, way colder.

Columbia makes jackets that are "3-in-1" that I like a lot -- it's a fleece jacket and a waterproof shell, both of which can be worn individually, and then the fleece serves as the lining for the shell to make a heavier winter jacket. Not as heavy as THE COATINATOR type coats, but warm enough for most things. (Maybe not for daily foot commuting, tho.)

I would think you probably want two jackets -- either a COATINATOR or a wool overcoat for your foot commute, depending on how cold you get and what you typically wear to work, and then some fleece jacket or wool peacoat or 3-in-1 jacket that will take you through fall and spring. You can always add more later. (Although you still have to consider rain, a 3-in-1 could probably get you through rain until it's too cold to rain.)

A selection of scarves, gloves, mittens, hats, and heavy socks is also good. I keep a basket on the coat closet shelf for each person in the house with all of their winter accessories to hand. Like mostly I wear a cute, warm-enough scarf that coordinates with my coat, but I also have a ten-foot-long scarf that wraps a zillion times around my head and neck. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:31 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

When you go try on whatever you choose to buy remember to take into account the various layers you'll be wearing under it. In other words, make sure it's big enough, that the armholes can accommodate fleece or whatever underneath. And speaking of underneath, buy the very best high-tech long underwear you can.
posted by mareli at 8:37 AM on October 5, 2010

I live in the Boston area, and for the last few years have had a 4.5 mile round trip walking commute: I cannot avoid the weather, but feel like I've figured out how to be prepared for it. Some tips:
-The best boots I've come across are the LLBean thinsulate/goretex duck boots and a brand of tall neoprene boots called Muck Boots. These have held up great for me, are good walking boots, and kept my toes warm and dry.
-I have a wool peacoat that I generally wear from mid/late October to mid-December and for warmer days in March. Under this, a fleece, hoodie, or sweater provide varying layers of warmth.
-Smartwool socks. Or similar.
-After years of wanting a more stylish winter coat, I spent about $200 last winter on an Eddie Bauer WeatherEdge parka that I wore from December through February or March. It's got a down-insulated interior and a waterproof shell. It made my life 100% better last winter. It's not pretty, for sure, but it's a neutral black, has lots of pockets and a waist draw string so it doesn't make me look like a total blob.
-Wearing leggings under your jeans. Or other long underwear. This helps when your outside or inside.

But, yes, invest in good, sturdy pieces and get a warm, soft hat to match. It will make your life much better.
posted by sk932 at 10:15 AM on October 5, 2010

Another life-long New Englander, current Bostonian here. I grew up north of Boston where it's colder and snowier, but less windy. This is just to add another vote for considering two coats. I'm a lady, but I have a slightly lighter, more stylish pea coat like coat that I wear most of the winter and a parka that makes me feel like a strawberry marshmellow but definitely keeps me warm and dry for extra cold weather.

If you have the money to spend, Thinsulate is absolutely worth it. I splurged last winter and bought a new dress coat with it and wow, it's actually too warm sometimes. Actually, in general, I think you should just resign yourself to spend $200 or so for a Nice Coat, be it a parka or a pea coat. They last a very long time (actually, IDEA: you may want to check out Good Will or Garment District for something in the wool coat family) and the increase in price generally does indicate an increase in quality.
posted by maryr at 10:42 AM on October 5, 2010

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