When it comes to fall dressing, the coat has long been fashion's neglected child.
It's the afterthought that's casually tossed on after the outfit, shoes and purse have been carefully selected. It's the item of clothing women can't wait to doff the moment they arrive at a party. It's most valued for warmth, protection and (oh-so-tiresome) practicality.
Not this fall.
Call it the Year of the Coat. Because on the racks this season is a glorious array of outerwear made of paisley-printed velvet, patchwork denim and soft, distressed leathers in a dozen scrumptious browns. They have flouncy shearling trims and striking linings that play peekaboo. And, in this uncertain economy, retailers are banking on the coat being a safe bet for the shopper seeking a sensible splurge.
"The outerwear story is one of the strongest for fall -- it's a mix of fashion, function, performance, investment dressing," said Tom Julian, a fashion trend analyst with Fallon Worldwide in New York. "People probably want to spend money on pieces that they'll feel great about.
"In the past, if it was a high-end outerwear piece, it was always more about drama," he added. "And if it was more about function, it was a basic piece. But now, outerwear is being treated like an accessory. It's the topper; it's the complement."
Fashion observers say designers have created a smorgasbord of outerwear looks to fill a long-time void.
"There's a demand from customers who are saying, 'I have a great top and a great pair of jeans but nothing to put over it,' " said Mary Jimenez, spokeswoman for Eluxury.com. "What happens is, you're wearing all these great clothes, but when you go out you're throwing this boring old thing over yourself. Designers are now doing coats as the accent to the outfit."
And so you have Oscar de la Renta's high-glam line of Far-East-inspired coats in wool or velvet adorned with beads or embroidery and trimmed with fur. There are the military coats by Calvin Klein and a host of other designers, form-fitting and double-breasted with sleek epaulettes or smart buttons. There is a plethora of bomber jackets in leather and denim and Marc Jacobs' hippie-chick coats with pastoral patches stitched on. And then there are the dramatic capes that offer a tantalizing touch of the innocent '50s.
"There's a lot of novelty and fun and interest in coats right now," said Michael Mako, spokesman for Saks Fifth Avenue.
Many of the new outerwear offerings are extensions of or complements to the fashion trends that have dominated runways.
Details like quilting, patchwork and antiqued leather grew out of spring's dominant prairie chic. The nouveau exotic, beaded or embroidered coats are outerwear's version of the peasant style that's been ubiquitous for months. And the short jackets that several designers have unveiled have been reactions to this season's bottom-heavy silhouette.
"There's so much volume on the bottom," Mako said. "We're seeing full skirts, a wider pant leg. To balance that off, we're seeing a lot of these short, fitted jackets."
Whatever you decide, the key to buying the fashion item of the season is simple.
"If you've got the car coat, the winter wrap, the leather, the parka, then go after the pieced, trimmed, novelty look," Julian advised. "If you're a guy and live by the classics, go after a piece that looks one part rugged, one part country.
"Think of buying a piece that looks nothing like any of the coats in your current wardrobe."
Pay no heed to the style rules that have dictated your wardrobe. This is the season to break out and be daring.
"It's all about individuality," said Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale's fashion director, "pieces that allow the customer to express herself with what she's wearing. We've been dressing in uniforms for so long it feels really good to do something different."
So, check out three looks to sample this fall. And feel free to experiment.
It's a little bit of the Far East and a little bit of Africa, a little bit of beading and a whole lot of embroidery. Spring's peasant blouses have morphed into full-blown fashion lines that include coats, dresses and ensembles with a distinct ethnic flavor.
Frontier chic continues this fall as Ralph Lauren's rustic heartland looks -- with its delectable prairie lace skirts and dresses -- evolve into outfits involving shearling, chunky knits, crochet detailing or corduroy.
LAYERS AND LAYERS
How better to express your individuality than to pile on the clothes your way? This season, designers are pushing a layered look that provides plenty of leeway for self-expression. Wear pants with a blouse with a vest with a scarf and a long coat, or a skirt with a T-shirt with a sweater with a bomber jacket and a long scarf. Just think of the possibilities.
What to wear when you're out and about
THE LONG SCARF
The mile-long scarf is fall's absolute must-have of the season. Marc Jacobs has an entire line that goes with looks both glam and everyday.
Whether it's Gucci or Marc Jacobs (below), the It shoe of the season comes with a strap at the ankle. "If you're going to buy a shoe this season, it'd better have an ankle strap," Bloomingdale's fashion director Stephanie Solomon said. "Otherwise, you're just not cool."
THE EMBELLISHED BOOT
Want to look different? Try wearing distressed leather boots or boots embellished with patch-work or buckles. Christian Dior (above) and Michael Kors both offer intriguing options.
THE UNUSUAL BAG
If you're not daring enough to venture far from black while dressing up, express your unique fashion sense with an eye-catching purse that's beaded, embroidered, or has a striking shape or hue.