Some women think they can escape the long, dark, puffy coat. But many have succumbed
Come winter, there seem to be just two kinds of women in Boston: Those who have succumbed to the long, dark puffer coat, and those who are naive enough to think they can escape its clutches.
But live here long enough, and you’ll learn that when the frump is coming for you, it is coming for you.
It came for Nicole Russo the winter after Boston got 110.6 inches of snow. “I was sitting there in my cute, shiny silver jacket and I said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Russo, 45, a Boston hospitality and restaurant publicist.
It came for Laura Hottleman, 48, after she got tired of being cold. “I’m buying it,” Hottleman, the owner of a massage and chiropractic business in the Financial District, told herself several years ago. “You have your hood on, you pull it tight, and no one knows who you are anyway.”
It came for Sue Muscato, 48, after her boyfriend moved in with her. “There are three reasons a woman doesn’t wear the coat,” said Muscato, an accountant from Hanson. “She’s single. She’s young. She doesn’t have self-esteem.”
The city doesn’t keep an official count of black puffy coats. But here’s one indication of the garment’s dominance.
“I went to a bat mitzvah recently and there were 20 identical black coats on the rack,” said Wendy Pierce of Brookline. It was the same at a funeral. And at her women-only gym.
“Once, someone took my black puffy coat with my car keys in it,” she said. “They thought it was their own coat.”
Looked at one way, the coat is just a coat. But clothing carries messages, and as women increasingly seek to define their own narratives, even the practical matter of keeping warm is swept into the conversation.
Some onlookers see the puffy coat as a sign the wearer has given up. That she cares so little about her appearance she is willing to appear in public dressed as a sleeping bag. That she is one slippery step away from ceasing to brush her hair.
Or maybe, in fact, the coat represents the opposite of surrender? A bulky symbol of empowerment, the rightful subject of an Aretha Franklin anthem. P-U-F-F-E-R.
That’s how Allison Mitchell, 35, a fund-raiser from Salem, sees it. She spent her 20s shivering in fashionable but un-insulated outerwear, choices she now regrets.
“What my ankle-length down coat grants me is not just warmth but freedom,” she said. “To deprive women of that kind of freedom and protection is to permanently limit us in an already unequal world.
“Too long has misogyny dictated that our looks should be prioritized over our comfort,” Mitchell added.
“In my Land’s End full-length parka, I am unstoppable — protected from Boston winds and the blustering harassment of unsolicited male attention.”
(Men, it seems, can wear any coat they want and no one will say a word. Unless, of course, it’s a cape.)
But despite its ubiquity, here’s what the puffy coat is up against: Even some women who own one are critics.
“News flash people!” Victoria Vessella, a marketing associate at Repsly in Boston, said in an e-mail to the Globe. “There is no need for an ankle-length puffy coat and snow boots on a 40 degree day when there’s no snow on the ground.”
By her own admission, Vessella owns a long, black North Face down coat.
But, she emphasizes, she only wears it in “extreme” conditions.
“What’s even more mind boggling,” Vessella added, “is the money spent on this unflattering outerwear. The way I see it, if you have the disposable income for a . . . Canada Goose jacket, you are in a position to dress more elegantly.”
Here’s another way to measure the coat’s everywhereness: It was front and center on New Year’s Eve, worn by Senator Elizabeth Warren as she stood outside her Cambridge home that day to discuss launching a presidential exploratory committee.
To the untrained eye — that, say, of an eighth-grade boy — every long, dark puffer coat looks identical.
If it’s not black, it’s brown or gray or navy. It hits mid-thigh or at the knee or ankle. And there’s no mistaking the vibe: shapeless mom or grandmother.
But any woman who has shopped for a puffer understands there are tiny style distinctions that take on outsize importance, which sometimes allow a woman to think her coat is — however marginally — cute: The slightest shaping at the waist. A faux fur ruff around the hood. A sophisticated silhouette.
Hard as this may be to believe, sometimes the puffer coat has problems larger than even style.
Karen M. McManus, author of the forthcoming young adult thriller “Two Can Keep a Secret,” remembers when she first got an ankle-length puffer to keep her warm while waiting for the bus near Harvard Square.
The coat did its job — and then some.
“As soon as you get inside, you are way too hot,” she said, “and you have to rip it off.”