09 January 2007

A showpiece coat doesn't go with everything.

We all know a showpiece coat when we see one.

It's a coat whose big burst of look-at-me color punches up an otherwise monochromatic ensemble. It's a coat that makes you think its wearer knows a bit more about style than you slogging along in your part-of-the-establishment black wool-blend bore. And if it's a good one, a showpiece coat is a coat that garners compliments and envious stares from both men and women at every intersection. Unlike a polka-dot Milly blouse with keyhole back hidden beneath a sweater or Michael Kors platform slingback that barely peeks out from under a trouser cuff, the whole world can bask in the beauty of a brightly-colored showpiece coat.

Though any one at any size can wear such a coat, most women are afraid to purchase this attention-getting piece. What may surprise most men is that this fear is rooted more in money than it is in insecurity. Whether you're a grad student or a partner in a top ConnAve law firm, a coat is a serious wardrobe investment. And since it's also an everyday item you wear to and from work, not to mention battling the weekend black-AmEx-sass on Georgetown's too-narrow sidewalks, you need it to go with just about everything in your closet. Few if any articles of clothing require as much versatility as a woman's winter coat, and this is precisely why so many of us choose to be practical and go for the blacks, the camels, and the grays and love the metallic brocades, the plaids, and the leopard-prints from afar.

Because I fit neatly into the former category in my black, single-breasted dress coat (though I do pop the collar for dramatic flair) I go out of my way to admire and openly compliment women who have chosen - and financially earned - the showpiece route.

As is the case with any trend, wearing something bold and fashionable doesn't necessarily make the person wearing it bold and fashionable.

Point in case: a woman I saw today walking by - not inside, but by - the Au bon Pain on L between 18th and 19th Streets.

About 5'10" in tall, skinny black heels that were a tad too pointy and more than a tad too silver-buckley for my taste, my subject had light brown hair swept up into a messy ponytail, a gray cashmere scarf, a large mahogany doctor-style faux croc patent leather satchel, a pair of red and cream herringbone trousers, and a burnt orange showpiece coat very similar to the one pictured above right.

There aren't many hard and fast rules when it comes to fashion, but one of them has to be that black, gray, mahogany, red, cream, and burnt orange can never be pulled off in the same outfit.

Another non-negotiable rule is that if you own a showpiece coat, you must accept the fact that it cannot be your everyday coat. You need at least one other piece of understated outerwear in the wings for when you feel like getting a color fix in another area of your outfit. Mixing even one loud color with your showpiece coat can result in a Paula-Abdul-at-an-awards-show magnitude disaster.

As large a swath of vibrance as this woman's coat was, for the rest of her ensemble, she really should have stayed within the orange-friendly color palette, which includes browns, black, ivory, and the always friendly denim. But that's it, those are her only options if she wants to wear her orange coat and not look like an artist at a Woodstock commune.

The daybag, the scarf, and the heels were neutral, so separately, they could comfortably mingle with other colors and patterns, but none of them were that fabulous, so I'd recommend she donate them to the jobless Cheney-haters in the "Stop bitching and start a revolution" t-shirts outside Borders and start afresh. If for some reason she felt she needed to air out those perplexingly ugly trousers again, she should think first about investing in a khaki trench and pair of round-toed brown pumps, and then afterwards think of a good reason as to why she likes walking around looking like a strawberry Lifesaver Swirl Pop from the belt down.

Besides her hair, which could have used some deep-conditioning (try Frederic Fekkai's Rx Reparative conditioner at sephora.com for $22, or free if you stay at the Ritz in New York), something else I noticed about this young woman was her devastatingly chapped skin. Her face was chapped, her lips were chapped, and her hands were scaly and bone-white with purplish-red clusters over most of her knuckles. Looking down at my own perfectly moisturized hands - they really are something - I couldn't help but feel like the privileged family in the Land Rover driving through the ghetto to get to the country club. "I should give back," I thought, and as my hand dipped into my daybag to offer her some of my Archipelago Sugar Cane & Coconut Hand Salve ($24 at beautybridge.com), I stopped and remembered I was on a budget and really couldn't spare any of my expensive lotion.

"Besides," I thought, "any woman with an orange showpiece coat can afford her own $1.70/oz hand cream."

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