Privilege Blog

Context Is All

One more story about my recent trip to New York City, if I can prevail on your patience.

We don’t wear winter coats much, out here in Northern California. Winter field jackets, trenches, peacoats, sure. Winter raincoats, undoubtedly. But it’s rare that a classic calf-length coat sees the light of day.

And on those rare occasions a coat’s required, I pull out the black cashmere number you see above. It’s literally 34 years old. As in, I’m 56 and I bought it, at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City, when I was 22.

When I wear it in San Francisco I feel quite the elegant bohemian. It’s vintage, after all. Nobody else is in anything similar. I’m classic, but nuanced, which is my dominant strategy.

When I wore it in New York recently, all I could think was, “My god! The Upper East Side rises!” Quite different from how I feel in California. Of course, thinking back 34 years ago, to a young woman attempting Manhattan, of course I bought UES. I relied on my heritage to keep me warm. What else does one do, at 22?

But at 56, the coat places me somewhere I no longer belong. I came from there, I have family I love who’ve lived there, but somehow when I bought an apartment in the same era, I chose Riverside and 104th. A neighborhood that more accurately reflected an evolving identity. These distinctions matter a lot in New York.

So, as long as we’re in full deconstruction, let’s acknowledge that the Monogram Vernis tote also played a role in my 2012 social signalling. Here in San Francisco, since the logo’s almost invisible, the bag is notable largely for aubergine bowling ball-esque holographic sparkles. A tote is just a tote here, far from The Land of Bean. Somehow what’s cool in California is conservative in New York. Probably the reverse holds true.

Interestingly, as long as you find the sociology of clothing interesting that is, necessity corrected my signals quite well. It was cold enough that I needed a hat and scarf, and I always need my glasses these days. According to my 22-year old Brooklyn-dwelling son, my black cashmere Bompard beanie and square blue reading glasses fit me in just right at the sushi joint where we had dinner. Hewn wooden benches, dreadlocked server, and all.

Were I to move back to New York, I’d look to integrate disparate style elements, find a coat that in and of itself melded classic with a little Artsy. Like this one by Rick Owens, for example. Cashmere with an empire leather tie.

Or this, from Alexandre Plohkov. It fastens at the neck with a buckled strap. Live and learn.

Vintage Saks Fifth Avenue with a side of hipster might just be my new fashion slogan. Otherwise known as Barneys-R-Us..

Of course, the final context of that photo up top is the ladies room at JFK International Airport. Please don’t tell my dad I’m taking pictures of myself in the vicinity of plumbing. I look slightly lunatic, but airports are slow cookers of lunacy, and the cross-cultural simmer returns even middle-aged ladies wearing hats in the bathroom to the realm of insignificance.

Both coats from Barneys. You can get there from here.


51 Responses

    1. Sandra, I refused to wear dorky hats until I was staying with my mom and dad in Minnesota one winter. Then I realized that there is a level of cold where I do not care how I look.

      I have reached that level again now that I take the bus to work. It is a six-minute walk to the stop. I have taken to wearing sweatpants under my skirt, over my hose, just to keep warm. Looks horrible. I don’t care. I value my comfort more.

    2. It’s warm and comfortable and besides, I kind of like the way it looks. When the wind blows, my more constructed hats become an annoyance. And I don’t mind the minimalist head squash. Being Sturdy, and all.

  1. It makes my mom nuts when I take bathroom photos, but facing the difficulty of the public bathroom is one of the few universal experiences we share as Americans today.

  2. Love your UES attitude!! I lived in the NYMA and I understand exactly what you mean. Yes, love the coat with the empire waistline…
    Now, where do you get Bompard? I can’t find one of their stores here in the USA.

    BTW I would live in SF ina heartbeat and visit NYC every chance I got..but to live in the city? Not so much…

    Getting ready for the Holidays?

    All my very best,


    1. Hehe. I finally answered your question on Bompard in the previous post comments. Their website!

  3. I just love the way you deconstruct. Context is everything, yes. And location, location, location.

    I remember having such a tough time finding a winter coat here in CA for a pending business trip to NY in winter a few years back. If I ever need to do so again, I’m heading straight for the Rick Owens.

    1. I’m glad you appreciate the deconstruction. It does occasionally require some less than inspiring images, from a fashion perspective at least.

  4. The hat!! Yay! Between now and May, I don’t think there will be more than a day or so when a hat isn’t needed.

    Funny UES vs. UWS – my cousin is all about the UES and my sister, the UWS.

  5. Like the hat very much. What’s cooler than specs? Love to wear them – they’re so uninhibited contrary to what most think. I would love to replace the lining in your SFA coat. Imagine something flashy and bold – it’d be brilliant!

    1. I did reline this – but the seamstress used a plebian fabric, rather than the Chinese jacquard silk I gave her:(. Maybe I should have it redone in say, purple?

  6. Love the coat. I had a similar one [purchased at Strawbridge & Clothier] at about the same time. The coat wore out somewhere along the way, but I’ll never forget how warm it kept me. Plus, I felt very grown-up in it– which at the time seemed important. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  7. I would not have thought that a Rick Owens coat (except for it being black)! Hope he is not departing from his radical style of dressing…if only black suited me I would live in his clothes,well maybe not in my rural life!!

    I cannot wear a beanie makes me look a fright,am with Sandra on the hat it is not you gel. Ida

    1. Yes, Lisa has worn some stunning hats and looked great. This one? I will bow down to the vicissitudes of terrible weather but if the sun comes out, hide the hat. (G )

      PS. I look terrible in hats!

  8. I love the second coat – Alexander Plohkov? It’s gorgeous. I have coats similar to yours and I do wear them in LA. Hmmm…Maybe it’s weird? Don’t need a hat or gloves here, but (and maybe this is an old-fashioned idea) my mother always told me to wear a coat to look more “finished” when I was going out, and it seems to be the one thing she told me that stuck.
    I do love the Ric Owens coat as well, but I like that you can wear the Alexander Plohkov coat hanging open.

  9. I enjoyed reading that you are still wearing your elegant, timeless 34 year old coat. I am still wearing my beautiful, timeless black cashmere overcoat that I bought on sale ($980 on sale; marked down from $1300) in 1991, when I was in graduate school. It is in beautiful condition, it feels great, and I expect to wear it for many more years. I had the lining replaced several years ago, and that is about all I have had to do in terms of non-cleaning maintenance. Buy the best, have it for a long time, and it is money very well spent. My dad still has a gorgeous cashmere overcoat he bought in 1968. Still elegant and beautiful!

    1. Very happy to hear about your coat. I like to know it’s a strategy that can be broadly recommended:).

  10. You’d fit right in here (Montréal), in your intellectual/arty/Euro mode. As for the woman inquiring about the beanie: it’s *cold*- and you lose a lot of heat through the head. A bare head and damp feet equals misery.

    My own version of that cap covers nearly all of the ear and I’m eyeing one of those Andean hats with the ear flaps. Don’t laugh, frostbitten ears are remarkably easy to get.

  11. I lost a wonderful aubergine coat to moths ;( Now I wear a black puffy nylon coat. Practical perhaps, but I am getting very tired of this look. Plus it’s not as warm as it’s cracked up to be. I’ll have to check out Rick Owens in the post Christmas sales.

    1. Genetics and diet I suppose. Not like I don’t work at the weight thing, because I do, but it does seem to be easier for me than for many. That’s got to be genetics.

  12. OK, the hat is rocking a bit of a jewel heist look. I found this post amusing, perhaps because I could tell my entire life story with coats. Residing in the Midwest has required a veritable coat wardrobe, for every season and for every occasion and for a variety of purposes.

    I just bought another one yesterday…a quilted barncoat for casual weekend wear when it is not cold enough for my pea coat or down jacket. I’m not quite sure how I am going to squeeze it into the closet. ; )

  13. Funny that I was just reminiscing (on Miss Cavendish’s latest post) about a coat (well, full-length swishing wool cape, actually) I had in my early 20s. Wish I’d been as clever as you and hung on to it.

  14. I live in SF and I think this just reinforced my insecurities about visiting NYC next weekend. I don’t have a winter coat like that, why would I living in the Bay Area? I am worried I will be out of place since I’ll be wearing my green Patagonia ski jacket. Will I feel terribly out of of place? I am going to see a Broadway play, a nice dinner, I hope to go skating in Rockefeller Center and I just don’t have anything to fit my “vision” of what I should be wearing there.

    The coats you suggest look great, but I can’t justify it.

    1. I am replaying in my mind what might work. Can you find something like a below-hip length military style parka, canvas, lined in some kind of warm technology, with a drawstring? Or, as I do, a peacoat? A very warm peacoat would be warm enough enough unless you’re doing all kinds of walking, and it still works in SF. Patagonia is going to mark you as a tourist. On the other hand, there’s no rule that says you can’t look like a tourist. Tourists are people too:).

    2. Lisa is right that a ski jacket will make you look like a tourist, as you have every right to. When I lived in NYC, I always felt a little sad that our visitors were generally so underdressed, I will confess.

      I’d recommend having a look at options on TravelSmith, if you’ve still got time and budget for a last minute purchase. A raincoat with a lining you can add and subtract is a good bet for NYC and will see wear in SF as well. Or, as Duchess pointed out over on her site, wearing a lightweight down (or fleece, I’d add) vest under a coat gets a lot more wear out of it.

      Something that goes over your tush is warmer than waist-length, and warm boots, gloves, scarf and hat are non-negotiable this time of year.

      Oh, and silk long johns — the really light-weight kind — are a life-saver!

    3. Janet – lots of people who live in NYC wear Patagonia ski jackets, some of them are even related to me :-) You will probably feel out of place at the nice dinner and the theater, but it sounds perfect for ice skating. And if the nice dinner has a coat check, no one need be the wiser…..

    4. Caroline Kennedy lives in my sister in law’s building in NYC, and wears a Patagonia ski jacket often. I’ve even seen her wear it over an evening dress – not kidding.

    5. Thanks for the suggestions! I also now don’t feel too bad about looking like a either a tourist or like a Kennedy. And I do have a down vest, I’ll try that with some of the coats in my closet to see if they work, particularly a longer rain coat (trench coat style) that I had dismissed as being too lightweight.

  15. I was a camel hair coat kind of girl.

    This is maybe one of the few times in my life I don’t have one hanging about in the attic.

    I wore various lengths and cuts over the years but no matter I always felt just right in one.

    Today I found green drab military jacket in the attic I haven’t worn for years.


    I have a grey Hunter wool hat I wear to walk to work.

    Keeps me warm and makes me happy.

    As do your ramblings.

    xo jane

  16. In an age of disposable fashion, it’s really refreshing to see someone hold onto those irreplaceable classics. Between the jacket, the bag and that scarf, I think you can totally get away with the hat. In regards to the naysayers, heed the words of another famous New Yorker (my spirit animal Jay-Z) and “brush your shoulders off.”

  17. Beanies are urban and great. All other knitted caps look too ski-bound or folkloric to me. I do sport a combo like yours, black slim coat and black beanie plus a scarf I crocheted 36 years ago in school. Love it.

    Those distinctions you see are so interesting, I’m sure no outsider would notice them. And in a way, doesn’t the exact combination you are wearing say a lot about you? I actually like that more than any concern about fitting in.

    1. Another one in the jewel heist club! Welcome in! Leave your sack of diamonds at the door!

      I agree. No outsider would notice, nor would most normal people. The exact combination is the most accurate reading, I agree there too. Of course, your comments are always so damn smart I can’t help but agree.

  18. There are hats. And then there are hats. Your hat comes from a world where hats don’t leave the drawer too often? Because a hat can be very different from your’s and still keep a head warm.

    Will you tell us the story of the hat after the coat story?

  19. I also have a coat I bought in my 20s when we lived in a cold climate. Since our move to Dallas in 1986, I’ve worn it exactly twice. It’s a mid calf length navy classic wool coat (and a weight not sold in Dallas) . It’s still beautiful, a bit retro, and just waiting for really cold weather in Dallas and for its owner to lose weight. What are the chances of both of these things happening at once!

    Your hat made me laugh, as did the background of the photo.

  20. When I moved to NYC, I was so cold waiting on the elevated subway platform (in Astoria) that I bought myself a full-length duvet-with-sleeves-and-hood coat. I looked like Mrs. Bibendum and I didn’t give a rat’s ass.

    My go-to winter hat is tam/beret-shaped — with my curly hair, I have to watch the smoosh factor. Though I also have a fur-trimmed handmade felt number that I love; when I wear it, I just go retro and wear it all day, like ladies in the past did.

    If I ever manage to save the money, I’m buying a 3/4 shearling coat. I plan to wear it forever, so I think the cost-per-wear will shake out just fine!

  21. I was just back in NYC and New Haven for Thanksgiving from LA. My lime green coat made me very conspicuous.

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