Adventures in Thrifting

Adventures In Thrifting: Winter Coats

Ah, winter coats. We all need them! …Well, I live in Tucson, Arizona, so I don’t really need a winter coat, per se.  However, I went to college in Minnesota, and lived in Minnesota for an additional four years. And I slowly fell in love with winter coats.

At first, I wore a purchased-new Columbia winter jacket—you know, the ones with thinsulate or omni-heat or techno-babble lining and futuristic plastic-y covering. It was very warm and very unattractive. To wit:

Honestly, unless you’re going skiing or on an expedition to the arctic, I’d argue the warmth is the secondary concern when purchasing a coat. If you’re only going to work or to class, it’s more important to have a coat that you actually like, one that doesn’t make you feel like a puffy mound of plastic.

As with many clothing items, I’ve had more (and cheaper!) success buying secondhand than buying new. Vintage coats may often be made of wool, with no fancy thinsulate omni-heat hypo-techno plastic, but like I said? I firmly believe warmth shouldn’t be concern #1 unless you’re studying penguins on the South Pole.

Plus, you can buy secondhand coats all year round. Once, I tried to buy a new coat in Minnesota in February or March.  I stopped by Target and was puzzled not to see any winter clothing on display.  When I asked an employee, he said, “Oh, we don’t have any winter stuff anymore.”

I don’t know what I said—presumably I spluttered and pointed to the snow outside. But according to Target policy, it was no longer “winter” and so they’d phased out winter items. I could buy flip-flops. I could buy a swimsuit. I could not buy a winter coat. In Minnesota. In winter.

So I went to a thrift store and found a nice coat almost immediately for $40 bucks. That’s another advantage of secondhand—you don’t have to rely on corporate “seasons” when you go shopping.

However, I do have to say the $40 coat I bought ended up not being a great success. Here it is:

Its fatal flaws were:

  • It did not have pockets. You need pockets. I cannot stress this enough. Forgot your gloves? No problem, just stick your hands in your pockets. Wearing gloves? Where are you going to put them when you go inside? No pockets = disaster.
  • It was a short coat, ending at the hips rather than mid-thigh. Not only do I think longer coats look more attractive, but you really do appreciate the mid-thigh protection from the wind, particularly if you’re a tall lady. Yes, I did say warmth was not the primarily concern, but that doesn’t mean you discount it entirely.
  • A friend told me the coat made me look like Paddington Bear, and I was never able to entirely get over that.

Here are some coats I found that I deem successes:

As a fashion newbie, I don’t know the term for this style—I call it “old-fashioned military style”? That’s not a technical term.

The trench coat!

Not warm enough for deepest winter, but great for pre-and post-winter in-between times. Plus, you can find trench-coat-style coats that are surprisingly warm. The way they cinch in at the waist is super-flattering on just about everyone.

I tend to go secondhand, but not vintage. If you’re truly looking at older, vintage coats, my thrifting consultant Bad Cholla has a few pieces of useful advice:

  • Always check the sleeve length—lots of ’50s and ’60s styles had bracelet length sleeves (meant to show off your long gloves and bracelets) that ended above the wrist.
  • Styles from the 50s and 60s tended to be cut very narrowly in the shoulders, and have small armholes. This was the look then, so if you want a coat from the era you’ll probably have to accept some restrictiveness in the shoulder. 80s coats had a huge, slouchy shoulder, though, so there’s that option.
  • Any vintage piece needs to be checked closely for stains, damage, etc. Another concern with wool pieces is moth damage. Look for tiny holes, or even what looks like tiny dents in the plush of the coat. I personally don’t mind a few moth holes if I otherwise love the piece, but you do want to be sure the moths are dead—they actually feed on stains in the clothing, so washing it will generally discourage them. You can also put the item in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer for a day or two—I’ve never tried this but it’s a standard moth tip.

If you want some coat-spriation, I’d suggest watching Bones Season Six, where Bones wears a different trench coat every episode. Guaranteed to make you crave a cute coat, even if you’re about to take a trip to the Mojave Desert.

Any thoughts on winter coats? New, used, vintage or all of the above?

  • Amy Grimes

    I live in Ireland and I had to laugh at your claim that warmth shouldn’t be the number one priority.

    • Jacqueline Kate Barlow

      I have to laugh at you thinking Ireland is as cold as midwinter Minnesota.

  • Caitlin Kelly

    This is awesome! I think I have bought ALL my winter coats at thrift stores. The arm length is definitely something I run into. I am glad, though, for the thinner shoulder in the older coats, though, cause I have a mighty weak frame when it comes to the top of my body. Haha!

    • Laura Owen

      It’s true that if you’re slight of shoulder, vintage coats actually work in your favor!

  • Hannah Harper Hanson

    I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I also had to love at the lack of concern for warmth. Then I saw that you live in Tucson.

    • Laura Owen

      I lived in Minnesota for many years! (Though admittedly growing up in Tucson might have shaped my attitude). And I think it’s important to keep warm. I just also think you should enjoy your coat!

  • Jocqulene Castro

    I live in Tucson, too, and yeah, no real need for a winter coat even though I pretend there is so I buy a couple every December.

    • Laura Owen

      I think I’ve actually purchased more coats living in Tucson then I did when I lived in the midwest! Weird want-what-you-can’t-have thing, I guess? I totally convinced myself I really really needed to buy a leather jacket too and the guy in the thrift actually said to me, “What are you doing? You live in Tucson!”

  • Lindsey Gira

    I live in North Dakota, so far north it’s almost Canada. I can relate to the warmth factor taking a backseat to style. Unless I’m planning on doing an outdoor activity, I usually wear a less bulky, less warm coat. I usually have a few layers on underneath and I’ll add gloves and a scarf and I’m fine.

    • Laura Owen

      Precisely! I’m all for warmth if you’re doing an outdoor activity, just pointing out that you don’t necessarily have to wear a super-bulky high-tech insulated ski jacket just to go to work. And scarves and gloves help a great deal

  • Amanda Weber

    I have to disagree with warmth being the number one concern. But like others, I live in the north where we get several feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures. Even when commuting to work/school, I go for warmth because you never know when you might slide off the road into a snow drift and have to walk or sit around in the cold waiting for a tow-truck!! Brrrr.

    • Amanda Weber

      Whoops, “disagree with warmth NOT being the number one concern,” I meant. Duh. I’m having a Monday.

    • Laura Owen

      I lived in Minnesota for many years, and once slid off the road on the way to work and had to get towed. So I can totally relate!. I don’t think you should prance around in nothing, just that you should have a coat you like. If you hate your practical-but-ugly coat, it makes winter even worse.

    • Laura Owen

      Coat envy is a real thing for those that live in warm climates! I feel you. I have purchased many an unnecessary coat.

  • Anonymous

    Yep, two of my all-time-best vintage finds have been winter coats, one a nice heathery plum trench, and one a super-cute but fairly impractical swingy mod red one (it’s got the bracelet lenth going on). I almost never wear the red one, but damn I just can’t bring myself to get rid of it. The BUTTONS. The buttons would make you weep.

    I wear the purple one every day.

    • Laura Owen

      Oooh, that’s a toughie — the beautiful vintage find that doesn’t quiiittttte fit. Both coats sounds lovely!

  • Julia Gazdag

    I got the coat of my LIFE at a thrift store in Portland. $32 – burnt orange, knee length, belted, AMAZING. Thrifting is the besttttttttt

  • Jessica Colella

    No! You’re making me regret not haggling on that 30 dollar coat this past summer! It was beautiful really, just like the camel coat you bought but more of an eggplant. My reasoning for not getting it was: 1 it’s summer, 2 it’s 30 dollars and 3 I live in South Carolina!

    • Laura Owen

      Console yourself with the thought that you’d probably never wear it — I’ve left behind several thrift store coats because of that pesky “don’t actually need them” thing.

  • Kimberly Nappi

    Yep, living in New York I’d have to agree that warmth isn’t always my top priority. I’ve found some awesome coats at thrift stores; if you go to the “high-end” thrift places, you can find some great designer ones for really cheap. I got a brand-new Zara coat last year for $25, it had never even been worn. No pockets, though, which does completely suck.

    • Laura Owen

      That’s a fabulous high-end find! But…pockets! Why do they make coats without pockets? Who thinks that’s a good idea?

  • Zuzana Jandásková

    Haha, yeah, I agree with the “ugly coat making the winter even worse”. The problem is I hate all my coats and jackets! Same feelings anyone?

    • Laura Owen

      That was me for many years! (Ugly blue coat pictured above). It really makes such a difference if you actually like your coat. I loathed all my winter clothes for years. Maybe try your friends? They might have coats that THEY don’t like/don’t fit but that are much more up your alley. Coat swap! That’s how I got the first coat-I-actually-liked. And I firmly believe in investing in the pretty-but-impractical coat and bulking it up with lots of layers and scarves and hats.

  • Delfina Gaxiola

    I’m in Tucson, too, and have a closetful of new and secondhand coats. I can’t get enough! Let’s hope it gets cold enough to rock all our coats this season and justify buying more! :)

  • Laura Owen

    Ha! I’m honestly think of forming some kind of support group/maybe just a club called “Help! I Live in Tucson and Can’t Stop Buying Winter Coats!”

Need more Giggles?
Like us on Facebook!

Want more Giggles?
Sign up for our newsletter!