How to pick a great winter coat - the best style, material, and features for a functional coat that makes you look your best

How to pick a great winter coat - the best style, material, and features for a functional coat that makes you look your best

Coats can be bulky and unwieldy, but during cold, winter months they are a necessity. We’ll discuss the various coat materials and styles so you can pick the right coat that is both practical and stylish.

Look for the right material

There are two considerations with regard to a coat’s function – type of insulation and the type of outer shell fabric.

Types of coat insulation material

In cold areas, you must ensure the coat is properly insulated for frigid temperatures. In mildly cold locations, you want an insulative material that provides warmth when you need it without overheating.

Down insulation materialDown insulation

Down (feather) insulation is classic. It is lightweight and compresses well. However, down does not hold up well against moisture so it may not be a good choice in wet environments. Feathers clump and lose insulative properties when they become wet. Some coats will protect down insulation by providing an extra weatherproofing layer to help keep the feathers dry in rain or snow.

Synthetic insulation

Synthetic insulation is constructed by spinning plastics to mimic the insulative properties of down. Synthetic insulation is a good insulator. It holds up well in moisture and is much better for wet environments. It is cheaper than down too. However. Synthetic insulation is bulkier and weighs more than down. It also breaks down over time and may begin to pack down.

Pile insulation

Pile is similar to sheep’s wool and consists of fuzzy, thick layers of fibers. It is water resistant and lasts longer than synthetic insulations. However, it is difficult to manufacture with significant thickness, so it may not be as warm as down or synthetic insulations.

Milkweed insulation

Milkweed is new to the market. It derives from plant-based sources which makes it non-hypoallergenic. It provides excellent thermal capacity. However, it is new, difficult to find, and more expensive than other insulative materials.

Types of fabric used in a coat’s outer shell

After settling on the type of insulative material you want in your coat, decide on the type of fabric used for the coat’s outer shell. The outer shell is exposed to the elements so you must consider durability in addition to its insulative properties. There are four types of fabric commonly used in a coat’s outer shell: weatherproof plastics, leather, wool, and cotton.

Waterproof outer shell/plastics

Plastic-based materials such as nylon or vinyl are common outer shell fabrics. Even cotton, leather or wool outer shell fabrics may incorporate plastic or chemical based coatings to introduce waterproofing properties to the material. This is especially important with down-insulated coats (since feathers lose insulative properties when wet) and coats that need to provide protection against rain and snow in cold temperatures. Plastics also provide excellent blockage against cold wind and add additional insulative properties to the coat. To determine the type of plastic, check the coat’s label. For outer shell coatings, GORE-TEX outer shells will be the most weatherproof. DWR coating is common and works well against the elements too.

Coats with leather outer shells

Coat with wool outer shellLeather is stylish and durable and provides excellent insulative properties. Since it’s a natural fabric, it’s free from most toxins. However, leather is not the best choice for snowy and rainy days because moisture can cause the leather fabric to fade and wear.

Coats with wool outer shells

Wool creates air pockets which keep you warm when it’s cold but allows airflow to keep you cool when it’s hot. It is lightweight and durable and wicks away moisture, keeping you warm even when wet. Wool is also inherently mold resistant and repels dust – great for those with allergies, asthma, or other breathing problems. It lays well too and of course, the look can’t be beat.

Coats with cotton outer shells

Cotton is naturally soft and comfortable. It has a high tensile strength making it strong, durable, and less likely to rip or tear, Cotton is similar to wool but is extremely weatherproof and thus, holds up even better in rain than wool. However, cotton absorbs water which in wet weather, adds weight, changes the coat’s look, and may not be as warm as wool.

Look for the right features

After deciding on the insulative material and outer shell fabric, it’s time to consider the finer details of the coat - the features you require in your coat. Check the type of closures used. If the coat has zippers, make sure the zipper is waterproof too – they often are not even if the coat’s material is. A two-way zipper that can be zipped at top or bottom, is convenient when sitting without having to take off your coat. Also, consider the cuffs. They should be tight to hold in body heat and protect from rain or snow. Loose cuffs are fine if you’re looking for a loose-fitting look rather than functionality.

You may want a hood on your coat. A large portion of body heat escapes through the head. A hood helps hold in heat while protecting the head and hair from rain and snow. Ideally, an adjustable hood is best – one that can be cinched on windy days. Removable hoods are nice too. They can be worn in cold weather but on warmer days, can be removed to lose unneeded bulk. Drawstrings are a must-have feature for some.

Drawstrings hidden inside the coat are especially nice. And drawstrings aren’t just used around the hood or neck area – drawstrings can create an adjustable waist without showing the cord. Fur ruffs are another feature to consider. Fur ruffs are stylish and when placed in places (neck, wrist) where cold air enters, help keep you warm.

In very cold weather, wind can go right through zipper closures. Storm flaps keep zippers and other closures covered with flaps and thus, may be a hard requirement for some. Similarly, underarm (pit) zips or side vents may be desired in areas where temperatures change often. Vents let you unzip under the arm or on the sides if you get too hot.

And of course, pockets are a highly desirable feature for many. They are practical and great for organizing and carrying items. Fleece lined pockets are excellent for keeping hands warm.

Popular coat styles

Once material and features have been decided, it’s time to choose the right style and silhouette.

Trench coat

Trench coat from 7th Avenue The trench coat was originally introduced by the British Army and is one of the most functional coats around. The length varies from knees to just above the ankles. They are typically belted at the waist and generally have raglan sleeves and a removable lining. They are often double-breasted with buttons (usually ten), wide lapels, storm flaps, and pockets.

They may also have straps on the wrist that buckle or even shoulder straps that button closed. The length and removable lining features are attributes that make these coats highly popular. The long length also makes you look slimmer and is good for pear-shape figures. To top things off, the traditional camel color is neutral and goes with any outfit.

Pea coat

Wool double-breasted pea coat Pea coats, sometimes referred to as the Jackie O coat, are a classic style. The length is short (typically hits just below the hip) with broad lapels and often double-breasted fronts. They usually feature buttons for closures. They are not as long and so may not be best for very cold weather but are loose enough to allow a sweater to be worn underneath if needed.


Oqena quilted parka coat with detachable fur-trim hood Parkas are a hip-length, puffy, down-filled jacket. They are sometimes offered as a pullover without a front opening. They usually have hoods and may be lined with fur or faux fur. Sometimes they have drawstrings in the waist and cuffs. They offer a relaxed, loose fit which makes them excellent for maternity coats. With hoods, fur linings, and drawstrings in the cuffs, they offer excellent warmth retention.

Military jacket

Military jacket with multiple pockets A military jacket is a form-fitting coat – somewhat between a pea coat and a parka. They hit just above the knees and are double breasted, often with decorative brass buttons. They provide a unique look while functioning like a parka.

Technical coat

Technical coat A technical coat offers a trim fit but allows for athletic movement. Interiors sometimes offer unusual features such as bottle pockets or phone cord openings. They typically have helmet-compatible hoods. They are very durable and offer exceptional heat retention. However, they are very expensive and not considered as stylish as other coat styles.

Wrap coat

Women's wrap coat A wrap coat is like a robe but with an insulating material or thick outer shell. They have lapels and hit between the waist and knees. They wrap in front and are cinched by a belt. They offer a stylish look with the functionality of a trench coat.

Chesterfield coat

Women's Chesterfield Coat from Brooks Brothers A Chesterfield coat is a long, slim, tailored coat that is generous at the waist. They are usually double-breasted with blazer-like lapels. They are often made with velvet.

Cape coat

Cape coat Cape coats hail from medieval Europe where they were worn as a hood. They are sleeveless but sometimes have armholes. They are often belted.

Duffle coat

British Duffle Coat Duffle coats are a three-quarter length coat made from thick, coarse duffle (woolen) material. They are often lined with wooly insulation (typically with a tartan pattern) and have button down hoods with wrist and neck straps. Most have four horn-toggle fasteners in front that attach to four loops. They usually have two large outside pockets with flaps.

Picking the right type of coat to fit your body type

When picking the right coat style for your body type, the rule of thumb is to avoid coats that cling to your largest measurement.

Hourglass figures

Coat on hourglass figureIf you’re curvy on top and bottom, look for a coat that flatters, not flattens, your look. Go for a cinched waist. Wrap coats are perfect because the cinched tie highlights the waist, Single-breasted jackets with flared, skirted bottoms look great on hourglass figures too.

Petite figures

Petite figures should avoid bulk and excess fabric that engulfs your body. Go for simple and sleek. If opting for a long coat, look for a good fit. For a short coat, opt for a looser fitting piece, preferably with bold colors.

Pear-shape figures

If you’re wide in the hip area, go for a fit and flare coat. Buttons or ties at the waist are perfect. Avoid pea coats and puffy jackets which may be too tight in the hips. Lots of material in the neckline (e.g., fur) can draw the eyes up and help create an hourglass silhouette.

Heart-shape figures

If you have wide shoulders, arms, and/or busts, look for coats with sleek lines. Avoid excess detailing. A classic button down or zip up coat works great because they don’t add bulk up top.

Rectangle-shape figures

If you have a thin, straight figure, look for interesting patterns and textures that add the appearance of more shape to the silhouette. Volume in the collar and patterns that draw attention to the waist work well. Military coats look stunning on rectangle-shaped figures.
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