If you are like most women, you buy a winter coat once every three years and hope that it will "go" with every winter outfit you own or will ever own.
The coat must also be warm enough to shield you from subzero cold fronts, lightweight enough to wear in crowded buses and so comfortable that you can toss it over a bulky sweater or tailored jacket.
That's a tall order, especially if you're a devoted budget shopper who frequents discount stores and end-of-season sales.
However, this season, shopping for the perfect winter coat may be like trying to choose just one sweet from an entire candy store. Not only are the colors as bright as jelly beans but there are hundreds of selections to choose from.
"A woman can find virtually anything she wants this season, unlike other years when one style predominated the market," says Shawny Burns, fashion and public relations director for Saks Fifth Avenue. "Now a woman's greatest challenge is in not getting too overwhelmed."
Color it bright
There is nothing like poppy red or periwinkle blue to brighten up a dreary day, and this season, colorful coats are crowding the stores. "There is no excuse to be drab this season," says Donna Locascio, women's fashion adviser for the Wool Bureau. "Right now the most popular colors are bright red and vivid purple. Women no longer think that a coat has to be navy or camel in order to go with most of the things in her wardrobe. Hot pink goes just as well with dark brown or gray."
According to Ms. Burns, these bright colors are also turning up in contrasting color blocks. These bold combinations can include any mix fromblack pockets on a white coat to fuchsia sleeves mixed with an orange body and bright royal collar.
Not surprisingly, these fun-color coats also feature exciting, sporty shapes that hark back to the swinging '60s. For the most part, hems hit at mid-thigh or just around the knee.
A-line coats, drawstring-waisted duffels, boxy pea coats and round, cuddly cocoon coats are everywhere.
"I don't think women worry too much about a shorter coat being less warm," explains Ms. Locascio. "Many women are wearing pants to work or knitted tights with the shorter skirts."
In the trenches
It wouldn't be a Baltimore winter without a few bouts of freezing rain, and this season the fashion-forward trench can make those days a little easier.
"The shape really hasn't changed that much," says Carol Cohen, designer of the Sanyo coat collection. "They might be a little fuller with a wider collar, or they may hit at the knee rather than the calf, but all the things that make it a trench are still there."
"The big news is the fabrication. Now we're making them in shiny vinyls, water-repellent silks, wool gabardines and heavier wool coatings," adds Ms. Cohen. "And, of course, the vibrant colors that range from purple to pink to red and lime green are very hot. There's no reason that a woman would feel that she has to buy basic beige."
Revved up for leather
Long live the biker look. For those who prefer a shorter, sportier shape, the motorcycle jacket leads the pack -- and the more authentic the better. Made in basic black, zigzagged with zippers and decorated with patches and insignias, the motorcycle jacket is a very important second coat for many of this season's shoppers.
Accenting the details
Forget about plain-Jane slash pockets and narrow, notche collars. Today's coats are decorated with big, bold contrasting shawl collars, blanket stitching and patch pockets. Others feature industrial-size zippers on pockets and front closures (many unzip from the bottom as well) and still more are fitted with drawstring hoods and sporty ribbed cuffs. Perhaps most obvious to this season's coat shopper is the prevalence of decorative buttons and closures.
Shiny brass and bright plastic buttons that measure up to 2 inches across can be found on coat styles ranging from sports shapes to evening styles. Rhinestone and jewel buttons are also available, as are more industrial-looking turn-key closures and classic toggles.