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?

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