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Life

Stalking the Perfect Coat

It's cold! Time to bundle up with an old friend.

By Dorothy Woodend 15 Nov 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes film reviews for The Tyee every second Friday, and co-writes the Gladrags series.

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Gladrags: The quest for sustainable clothing.

Some people are pants people, others love shoes, while a few pine for mittens. I am a coat person. A coat is not just a coat. A coat is a faithful friend, a sheepdog, something that will save your life, keep you warm, armour you, or swaddle you like a baby. It is not an easy garment to find. Like the perfect love, you must go through a lot of frogs before you find a prince. The problem is that the frog coats still hang in your closet, croaking sadly at you whenever you open the door. "Why don't you wear me?" they say. "Gropp, gropp," and look at you with their mournful eyes.

Really, what can you say? "It's not you, it's me." Sometimes, under cover of darkness, you hustle them into a bag, take them to the clothing collection bin across the street, and stuff them down the chute. The sad, "gropping" sounds follow you home and the other coats wonder where Old Red disappeared to, and start looking at you with suspicion, wondering, "Who's next?"

Outerwear, inner you

In younger times and colder Canadian climes, I lived mummified in a huge coat and giant boots from September until May. God help you if you didn't like your coat -- your coat was you, your second skin.

One year, my sister and I received as a Christmas present, a matching set of coats. Clothes for Christmas is every child's worst nightmare but even worse were the coats themselves, miniature fake fur creations, like something Mrs. Havisham might wear. One was a dreary shade of taupe, the other the dark brown of wet soil. Under pain of death were we forced to wear our fake fur finery to school for an entire winter. Whenever I looked at my sister's glum face, framed in tufts of taupe, I saw the pain of feeling a traitor in your own skin reflected back at me. Everyone else was in ski jackets. We were twin wieners, forced to waddle primly about, lost and adrift from our true selves. It was hell.

I tell you this to indicate the level to which your coat can affect your life. If you leave the house wearing the wrong choice, the whole day can quickly sour into a cold and damp misery. Conversely, a good coat can make you seem better than you actually are. And so: how to best find one?

Part of the ethos of the Gladrags mission embraced by Vanessa Richmond and myself is to dress only in sustainable clothes. But sustainable is a slippery animal. While buying locally may help support Vancouver designers, you must often be ready to fork out some fairly sizable chunks of cash. For those with little coin but plenty of time, you can haunt Value Village, or other local vintage stores.

And then, of course, there's always eBay.

Cybervintage

eBay has fundamentally changed vintage shopping, turning every person with a trunk of old clothes into a one-man or -woman store. If you have something highly specific in mind -- say, a darkest navy, grosgrain-ribboned, A-line, Peter Pan collar, Jackie-O swing coat -- than all you have to do is type that in, and up pops your perfect little item or sometimes two or three. Now all that is left is the fighting, I mean the bidding, which can get very nasty indeed.

Veteran eBayers have developed means of bidding at the last possible second, setting their clocks for the middle of the night, swooping in at the last moment to steal something out from underneath another bidder, a practice called "sniping." It is a war out there, and if you want the good stuff, you have to fight dirty.

Of course, the other thing about eBay is that there is always more stuff, and more and more. If something you like got away, simply wait; you'll find another something you love even more.

At least that's what I tell myself, because believe me, it is very easy to get carried away in battle with anonymous combatants with names like BiGTool4You or Kittenboots245. If you find yourself shrieking, "Oh, no you di'nt!" at your computer as the clock ticks down and the price for a certain lovely bit of cloth and buttons climbs into the stratosphere...stop, breathe. Don't go there, girlfriend, don't bid the house out of sheer competitiveness. Be cool.

Lately, I find myself developing odd eBay habits like bidding on weird things that no one else seems to like, because they seem like underdogs in need of a little love and support. Or justifying the act of buying stuff from some woman in Illinois who is selling her dead mother's wardrobe. It might sound morbid, but wouldn't you rather your beloved Grandmother's alligator clutch was having a gay old time with some bag-loving babe, than lying discarded in a landfill?

Rollerboogiewear

You also have the option of buying locally products snagged via eBay. Jennifer Haslett runs Le Robo Vintage out of Vancouver. Says the lovely Ms. Haslett, "In late 2001 I was experimenting on eBay with my own clothes. I sold some vintage pieces and did quite well, and then took it on as a hobby in addition to my full time job. So many people e-mailed me asking, When are you listing more? What should I wear with this? More, more more! So I just took a risk and transitioned into doing this full time."

Le Robo sells very particular items, carefully edited and chosen for a specific market. "We have dear memories of the eighties, we love sixties mod and early punk. I was born in 1979 and that was a pretty special year. I mean Rock 'n' Roll High School and Roller Boogie -- does it get any better? The Internet is a place where you can gain a cult following because you are an expert in what you love. I like that."

Warm memories

Is it wrong to love an object? Probably, but appreciation is still morally acceptable, especially if you only paid a few bucks for that dark grey miracle of sober authority, or a vision in plaid. So, I am a coat polygamist, I accept it, I can't be faithful. Why have just one when, like orgasms, you can have multiple? You need one pea coat, one lady-like number, one plaid jacket for hunting grouse in, something black, something camel, and something navy.

There's a deeper reason people collect stuff, often because it carries memories. As you get older, it is more difficult to part with those memories since they are ostensibly the traces of your life. This is especially true of a good coat. Getting rid of something you have lived and loved in is like saying goodbye to an old friend. Which is what appears to be happening right as we speak.

In Vancouver, some people are still strolling about in tank tops and shorts. (At night!) Certainly some people insist on doing this all year round, but their numbers, up until recently, have been small. I saw a pack of people doing exactly this the other day, and a small voice in my head said, "We're in trouble." The heavy coat's days may be numbered: another extinction in the globally warmed years ahead.

One day we might sit in our underground cavern cities, hiding from the brutal sun, and tell tall tales of coats so big and heavy that they almost walked on their own, mastodons of fashion from days gone by. Excuse me while I cry a little for the outerwear I have known. But even as we (you too, most likely) clutch our lovely coats to our collective bosoms, the frivolity of fashion starts itself to seem an antiquated notion, a frippery available only the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen on the planet Titanic who glittered beautifully as the dark water closed over their heads.

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