Shopping for a winter coat used to boil down to one decision: pretty or practical.
You could choose a flattering style that did little to cut the cold or opt for a coat with winter-worthy insulation -- and all the appeal of a sleeping bag.
Luckily, designers and manufacturers have wised up. These days, it's easier to track down a warm coat that's also stylish; still it takes a bit of work to find just the right one. You need to do a little homework, know what you want and be a smart shopper, but your efforts will pay off once the snow flies.
Of course, having a killer coat won't make winter any shorter or milder, but it'll make you happier and warmer for the duration.
THE NEW DOWN
Down coats are still the best way to keep warm in subzero temperatures. Once available only as puffy parkas, they now come in a variety of lengths and thicknesses. Better yet, designers have carved out waistlines in these marshmallowy marvels. The most flattering styles include tapering and tight quilting at the midsection, which helps create an hourglass silhouette.
A coat that hits at the knee or slightly below will create the best proportions on tall or average-height women, and will also offer the most protection from the bitter cold. Petite women will look longer and leaner in coats that come to the mid-thigh.
Down works best when it traps your body heat, so buy a coat that fits fairly snugly.
Wool coats can be winter worthy, if you shop carefully. A sassy purple peacoat may seem like a wonderful way to liven up your winter wardrobe, but if it has only a silk lining, you'll be longing for something more substantial come January. If you want to go with wool, look for coats that are heavily lined, ideally with quilted fabric.
Zip-out liners may seem a bit awkward, but layering helps trap warm air. That makes a wool coat with a removable liner more practical than one with built-in insulation.
DRESSING FOR WINTER
Winter coats are notorious for adding bulk to women's bodies, but by choosing wisely you can pick a warm coat that flatters your figure.
An easy way to decide what style of coat works best for you is to consider what style of dress you prefer to wear. If you feel gorgeous in empire frocks, look for a coat with a high waistline. Princess seams and flared hemlines flatter most body types, specially those with naturally defined waistlines. Belted coats -- including wool-lined trenches -- can help even busty women create a defined waist.
BEST BUYING PRACTICES
Shop early. You'll find the most sizes and styles early in the season.
Give it a test run. Since you'll be wearing your winter coat every day for months, give it a test run before you buy. Before you go shopping, take a look at your old coat. Which of its features do you like -- pockets, fit, warmth? If you need to, take notes so you'll know what to look for as you browse the racks.
Bring your accessories. Grab a scarf to see how a coat will look with a muffler peeking out. Bring your gloves or mittens and see if the pockets are roomy enough to hold them.
Check for quality. Look for shoddy seams. (Loose threads and broken stitches are dead giveaways.) Test zippers, buttons, snaps and other closures to make sure they function properly and are securely attached.
Get the right fit. In the privacy of a fitting room, do some stretches. Reach above your head, hug yourself, touch your toes, twist around. A quality coat will endure your calisthenics and retain a comfortable fit.
You can find cute coats at just about any clothing store this time of year. Here are some suggestions for coat-hunters looking to score fashion-forward styles at reasonable prices.
June Resale: This tiny consignment boutique has a wide selection of high-end designer and mid-market outerwear. You can find gently used belted wool, lined Burberry trenches, shearling and down coats for pennies on the dollar. Shop early while the selection is still good.
3406 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-354-3970.
Karma: The selection is small, but well curated at this St. Paul boutique. The focus tends to be on lighter coats, but a few lined wool coats will filter in on occasion. Swing by to see their offerings from retro-influenced Tulle, a funky line that churns out darling outerwear in saturated brights every year.
867 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-291-1997.
Marshalls: This discount retailer typically has a good selection of unlined wool coats, but they also carry warmer coats, including down, throughout fall and winter. The stores are a good place for petite and plus-sized women looking to upgrade their winter wear.
Land's End: The North Face may have pioneered the shaped down parka, but Land's End has mastered it. With cute details like faux fur-lined hoods and cozy fleece cuffs, Land's End's down offerings are warmer than those of their trendy competitors at about half the price.
Nordstrom: It's no surprise that this venerable department store offers an amazing array of outerwear. Petite and plus-sized options abound, and a few styles will suit tall figures, too. The selection of gorgeously designed wool coats is unbeatable, but goose down, synthetics, leather and cashmere are also available.
Sally McGraw is the Minneapolis-based author of Already Pretty (www.alreadypretty.com), a daily blog about the intersection of style and body image.