Tips for shopping and caring for winter coats

Washington PostNovember 7, 2012 

We either love or dread seasonal shopping. In summer, swimsuits in bright dressing rooms remind us of our flaws. In winter, at least we get to keep our clothes on while trying on coats.

But trust us, you can still leave the store feeling bad about yourself, particularly if you spend too much money on a winter coat – an investment that can set you back as much as $500. With so many options, styles and seemingly good deals, you may spend too much on a piece that will spend most of the year in a closet.

We talked to Annie Short, senior women’s outerwear merchant at Lands’ End, to get some tips on shopping and caring for winter coats. Keeping an eye out for holiday sales and investing in a quality coat can save you this winter (and in the coming ones, too).

• Wait it out.

If you have last year’s winter coat in your closet, remember that you’re only a few months from winter sales; with weather this warm, it may be wise to wait to purchase a new coat. Stores are moving up their retail calendars, and by Jan. 1, there will be many winter coats on sale in department stores. It’s tempting to buy at the beginning of the season, especially if you spot great deals during the Black Friday/Cyber Monday rush. But if you’re willing to wait until after the holidays, you are sure to find great deals on sale stock. (And sale stock doesn’t always mean poor selection. Sometimes it just means a mild or late winter.)

• Take advantage of holiday promotions.

It’s shaping up to be a competitive retail season, and that means a lot of perks for consumers. Many websites, including and, offer free shipping promotions. And some stores are offering huge discounts just to get people shopping. Short recommends signing up for your favorite stores’ email lists, because the holidays are the most popular season for 24-hour sales and flash promotions. (You can always remove your email address from lists when you’re done shopping.)

• Buy for the long-term.

Coats are something you should invest in, which means buying for next season, not just this one. “Just because something is a current trend doesn’t mean it will look great on every single person,” Short said. “You want to buy one that lasts multiple seasons, so make sure it’s a high-quality garment that’s both warm and functional. Keep an eye out for colors that tie back to your entire wardrobe.”

• Know the warmth.

How warm is your coat? Many brands will let you know how warm your coat will keep you. Lands’ End uses a temperature-rating system, so you know whether the coat is suited for 30-degree weather or 15 below zero. For milder winters, Short recommends wool coats or a wool-cashmere blend: “. . . they’re versatile. You can dress them up or down. Wool never goes out of style, so it’s an investment piece for many years.” As for insulation, many down coats will label the fill power; the higher the number, the warmer it will keep you. A coat with 550 to 650 fill power will keep you cozy in the winter cold.

• Handle or store with care.

Taking care of your coat when you’re not wearing it will help it last longer. “If it’s wool, get it dry-cleaned at the end of each season, and if you’re buying a down coat, make sure you give it a great washing at end of season,” Short said. (Many down coats are machine washable.) “And keep it in a garment bag when you’re not wearing it to keep it of the best quality.” Garment bags will help protect a coat from temperature changes and humidity, which can damage or age material.

• Fast fashion philosophy.

When you’re shopping for seasonal items you don’t plan to wear year-round, it’s best to invest in quality that can last years. But if you must buy a trendy coat, it’s best not to pay a lot. For example, in 2004, hot-pink coats with faux-fur collars were considered fashionable. They are not as cute now. This author made the mistake of purchasing said coat from a department store. If you’re going to buy a trendy coat, head to Zara, H&M or Target, where you can find a less expensive item that doesn’t need to last more than one season.

• Go vintage (but be careful).

Vintage clothing is a hallmark of trendy fashion, and it’s not going away any time soon. With so many high-fashion designers showing vintage styles, it’s possible to look fashionable while wearing your grandmother’s old coat. But if you’re buying vintage, be careful: Many old coats will have stains or deteriorating lining, and fixing what looks like a small problem can end up costing more than a new coat. Before buying vintage, smell it and examine for stains. Some coats are not salvageable, no matter how cute they once were.

• A word on sizing.

A lot of shoppers make the mistake of buying a coat a size too big. Short says that most retailers size coats with the understanding that you’ll be wearing a layer or two underneath. (So if you’re a small in a blouse, you’ll probably be a small in a coat, too.) But you should always try on a coat while wearing the layers you intend to put underneath it. For online retailers, buy from websites that allow you to return items. Don’t estimate or assume you know how a coat will fit. It only takes an inch or so to drown in a coat. For children, Lands’ End has “Grow-a-Long” sleeves that extend 1.5 inches, because kids grow up too fast.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A coat isn’t something you need to update every winter. Shop for quality and shop around, taking advantage of holiday sales. If you can wait it out, buy in January or February, when stores discount winter coats to make room for summer stock.

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