Among the popular ideas now in circulation about how our primeval cave-man brain influences modern behavior is the theory that when we go shopping, women “forage” and men “hunt.” You know, just as they did back in Paleolithic times, when women brought home mushrooms (and a new mink pelt), and men brought home a mastodon (and a high-definition wide-screen cave painting).
As it turns out, the most current ethnographic data doesn’t back it up. The consumer upheavals of the last decade have produced plenty of nonstereotypical behavior: women hunting down cars and electronics and men foraging for fashionable clothing and housewares. Could we have made a huge evolutionary leap forward, like the X-Men?
“All those old differences have become so insignificant,” said Marshal Cohen, the chief analyst at NPD Group, the retail research firm. “Women are collectors, and men forage now as well as hunt.” Another micro piece of evidence: a somewhat spirited new entry on the menswear scene — what might be called the over-the-topcoat — suggests that men can think as elastically about clothes as women do.
Traditional wisdom has it that a man’s winter overcoat should be classic and even sedate, and that a man hunts down an overcoat the way he might hunt for a sofa, by stalking a solid, timeless specimen that goes with everything, whether in his closet or in his living room. If you want a garment with flair, the thinking goes, stalk a wild sport coat.
So it’s surprising to find that not only have designers come out with overcoats that are anything but sedate, but that men are ponying up for them. An electric-blue peacoat? A mustard-yellow greatcoat? They may not sell as well as the classics do, but they are selling well enough that there are more coming next year.
Robert Duffy, the president of Marc Jacobs International, which does a strong business in winter coats, said that customers were definitely becoming more adventurous when it comes to outerwear. This year the company offered several novel examples, among them a green duffel coat with black leather sleeves and a houndstooth car coat with a big black leather placket down the front. “A few years ago, we would have made that sky-blue peacoat in a very limited production, and the four coolest guys in the world would have bought it,” he said. “Now, a lot of guys will.”
Several factors play into the trend, the first being the fact that many men have a good, all-purpose overcoat that they can wear over a suit jacket but that may feel too big or too classic to wear with a sweater and jeans. The idea of the topcoat has already evolved into something less cumbersome and more slim-cut than an overcoat, some with barely enough room underneath for a light crew-neck sweater. This over-the-topcoat merges the sport coat and topcoat into one.
While this may sound like novelty for novelty’s sake, Cohen said that a trendier topcoat was a natural outgrowth of how men are dressing.
“Look at how guys wear sport coats,” he said. “It’s a transitional garment you wear en route to where you’re going, and once you’re there, it comes off. No one sits around inside a sport coat. It’s the same principle at work.”
In short, what guys want is basically a warmer, longer sport coat, said Toby Bateman, the buying director for Mr Porter, the online men’s retailer. “For the past few years, designers have been revitalizing the sport coat, playing with color and pattern, and removing structure so it doesn’t feel like a uniform,” he said. “Now they’re taking the same approach with topcoats. The idea is to make a coat that guys really want to wear.”
Over-the-topcoats still involve a degree of restraint: You’re not on your way to clown class in them. Tom Kalenderian, the men’s fashion director at Barneys New York, pointed out that the fashion-forward topcoats that most resonate with men managed to combine novel and traditional elements.
“All the historical iconography of these coats — the peacoat, the greatcoat, the military coat — has a lot of power,” Kalenderian said. “The other day I was on the sales floor and saw a guy trying on this navy double-breasted officer’s coat by Crombie that we’ve been selling a lot of, and it has epaulets and 12 gold buttons up the front and a self-belt in back: very authentic. I asked him what he liked about it, and he said: ‘What don’t I like? It makes me feel special. I feel like somebody in it.’”
“It’s not so much about outerwear as a function of warmth or weather, it’s about fashion,” Kalenderian said. “We don’t have cold winters. We don’t even have a cold fall anymore. So this is much more about the fashion statement that coats make, and a really strong coat is an entrance piece. That’s what most people are going to see you in all winter.”
He added that he saw the new category replacing the long leather or shearling coats that were a staple of designer menswear in the last decade. For his part, Cohen drew a parallel to the car coat, that mid-thigh phenomenon of the 1960s that offered men a stylish outer layer that had no traditions to pay homage to.
Either way, it’s a nice (and rare) item of clothing that doesn’t have a mound of expectations that dictate what the “right” form is. So you can do as you please, within reason. Remember, you want to evolve, not mutate.