I am writing this from the haute couture shows in Paris. Which is a dream of a trip – please don’t think I’m complaining – but it does pose one major challenge. There is nothing like walking into a Christian Dior or Chanel show, but feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant accidentally walking on to the set of a Grace Kelly movie, to make you appreciate how hard it is to look good in bad weather. Here at haute couture the style bar is high, however low the mercury. (I have never understood why Paris weather has such a superior reputation to London weather. My years of research, rigorously peer-reviewed – by which I mean, I asked colleagues sitting on either side of me and they both agreed – has led me to the conclusion that Paris gets as much wind and rain, and as many bleak days of stainless-steel skies as Britain.)
It is horribly easy to fall into the Leo in The Revenant category at this time of year. You might have a perfectly nice outfit on underneath, but to keep out the cold you add a hodgepodge of blankety layers. You’ve probably got a cold, or you’re just getting over one, so to ward off the rain and wind you make a nest out of hats and scarves and collars, and before you know it you look like you’ve been cut adrift from civilisation. This is bad for morale. And I think we can do better. (Also, this week I need to do better, or they are going to kick me out of the shows.)
Winter style icons begin with Meg Ryan in a mannish tweed coat and chunky boots, buying a Christmas tree on the Upper West Side in When Harry Met Sally: super practical, totally adorable. I’m very into Nancy Pelosi in Washington DC in her red MaxMara coat, sleek as a superhero. But winter style doesn’t have to be glossy. I’m also a sucker for Bob Dylan on his debut album cover in sheepskin popped collar and baker boy hat.
To get winter style right you have to start with the practicalities, but not end with them. First, look at the forecast. Second, make it fashion. And when I say look at the forecast, I should mention that I have three weather apps on my phone and when at January haute couture – or New York fashion week next month – I check these as often as I open Vogue Runway. Rain, wind, snow and freezing temperatures all pose different challenges to your wardrobe. By figuring out which of the elements you are likely to be battling on any given day, you can put together a practical look rather than end up in a dystopian costume.
Crisp and cold blue-sky weather is the best kind of winter weather – for life, and for fashion. The light is beautiful, so make the most of it by wearing bright colours. Michelle Obama and her daughters at the first inauguration ceremony – with jewel-bright J Crew coats and scarves for the girls, a lemongrass coat with moss gloves for the first lady – was the all-time masterclass. If rain is forecast, think feet first. Leather ankle boots are far superior to trainers, which get squelchy quickly. If you wear trousers, tuck the hems into your boots to keep them dry and the silhouette neat. Do not wear light-coloured trousers, because a van will definitely race past as you wait to cross the road and leave you mud-spattered and cross.
For rain, you will also need either an umbrella or a hood or a hat. Umbrellas are viciously anti-social and perhaps best avoided on busy urban commutes, but they are essential for winter weddings, or on a rainy night out when you want to wear a pretty outfit and put a roof over it for short periods. Invest in a decent brolly, though. The cheap ones are a false economy, inevitably blowing inside out at the worst possible moment, and there is something so very miserable about a brolly with broken spokes. If you can pull off a fedora or a trilby, without giving yourself comedy hair and without immediately leaving it behind at the first place you take it off (I fail on both counts), bingo. I rarely find hooded coats that look smart, so for day-to-day I swear by detachable hoods, which you tuck under a normal coat. I have a treasured Cos one, which doesn’t appear to be in stock right now, but Zara’s version, which comes in black or a very jolly fisherman’s yellow, is reduced from £17.99 to £7.99.
With a detachable hood, and a scarf in a contrasting colour, you can make one smart coat work for most weathers. A classic tie-belt style is versatile and timeless – this one from & Other Stories, with a chic collarless lapel, has a sleek silhouette and can be cosied up with a scarf. A trenchcoat is a classic, and works just as brilliantly to keep out wind as it does in the rain: something about that stiffened collar, that proud shoulder line, lends you a Bogartesque, Casablanca-finale resolve. A quilted duvet coat is a brilliantly practical option that is now thoroughly fashion-approved. I’ve seen plenty of them at haute couture this week and they look surprisingly chic layered over blazers. I am resolving to try this out for New York fashion week.
There is a reason fashion people love September, and it isn’t just because of the new collections in the shops. It is because September weather – transitional, half-and-half weather – is a dream to dress for. This time of year, on the other hand, is a bit of a nightmare. But while we can prevail against frostbite and fashion fails, I have one final, bossy fashion decree: please, no fur trimmed hoods. No real fur, obviously, but also no fake fur – it just looks very 00s. It’s tough out there. All the more reason to look sharp.
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