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Against the Caterpillar Coat

Why do so many women choose to wear the equivalent of a tailored sleeping bag?

In New York, the snow is here and so are the coats. By “coats” I don’t mean “coats” traditionally conceived. I mean the strange coats. The coats that are quilted into fleshy segments like caterpillars, the coats that come down past the knee. The coats like close-cut sleeping bags that must be creeping across town every night and enveloping the body of every second woman while she’s sleeping. It is the only explanation.

To clarify, I’m talking about these coats:

I’m pretty sure that America is the only place people wear these (although I could imagine German women in them, too). There’s something so very specific about wearing clothing that is both highly engineered and totally unnecessary. Such “functional” clothing does not really fulfill any function at all. Women who wear them are the spiritual relations of the men in Boston who wear hiking boots and waterproof trousers and body-warmers to take the T between their apartment and their laboratory. Ironically, these coats make their wearers look bound at the knees, like they couldn’t take a large step over a puddle of snowmelt if called upon.

Let’s call them caterpillar coats, these coats that rustle against you from head to toe on all sides on the subway. Caterpillar coats are often insanely expensive, but not as insanely expensive as their equally strange cousin, the Canada Goose jacket. The CG jacket looks like a regular parka, except it costs somewhere in the region of one thousand dollars. According to a colleague of mine, the rich Yale sorority girls who wear these jackets—they’d descend en masse upon Science Hill in identikit black robes—were known as Dementors.

It’s not anger that I feel when I see one of these flexible coffins, just bafflement and a little despair. I do not see what is wrong with the coats we used to wear. A wool coat, if you want something long. An old-school puffer jacket, if you want something down-filled. When I was a kid and my brother an adolescent, he had this glorious knock-off Tommy Hilfiger puffer jacket in bright colors that looked like it had flown directly from America to our dull British hallway coatrack.

These elongated caterpillar coats insult their ancestors. They take the shape of a traditional wool coat in a feminine cut and combine it with the hi-tech material of a down jacket. In some ways this makes sense: Why not jam together ideas into a new thing?

Because it is hideous, I counter. Other hybrid articles of clothing include the sneaker-dress shoe:

The formal yoga pant:

And the fashion gilet:

Innovation is a good thing. So is not caring what other people think! But the caterpillar coat (and the other hybrids above) represents the symbolic opposite of avant garde inventiveness. They combine a disrespect for the old rules of dressing with an amazingly bourgeois sensibility. Everybody else is wearing these things, so I shall, too. I will take my credit card directly to the counter at Nordstrom or wherever, ignoring all the other coats that are for sale, pleading for me to notice them.

There are plenty of wearers for whom this hideousness doesn’t matter. Little kids can wear whatever they want. So can anybody who works outdoors or otherwise has some legitimate practical reason for wanting down spread across the maximum surface area of the body. Old ladies—do your thing. I’m not going to begrudge a parent for making any decision at all.

My friends’ reactions to my coat opinions vary. After I tweeted some thoughts, my friend Hannah replied that she thinks the sleeping bag coat is “lovable and admirable,” since it “shows us our mutual frailty and the vanity of worldly things.” My friend Emily has a little kid. She observed, “If you live long enough, one of them just comes and wraps itself around you. You relax into it, feeling sad but relieved.” Her tweet made the caterpillar coat sound like death’s comforting embrace. I imagined the coat slowly zipping up over the face, carrying its wearer off into her grave.

This is personal, of course. Like all maddening phenomena, my hatred for the caterpillar coat makes me worry that in fact I am concealing a repressed lust. What if I secretly wanted to give up, to let this coat creep through my bedroom door at night and wrap itself around my arms and legs? Indeed, many years ago, I briefly wondered if I could wear Ugg boots. They are so comfortable, everybody says.

But no. I have thought long and hard about this. There are lines and everybody has to draw them for themselves. Boundaries, if you will. I draw one here, with no resentment against those who have different lines, but with a firm will and clear conscience. Until the day I’m forced to ski, a day which will never come, hybrid functional clothing has no place in my heart or cupboard. Perhaps you’ll join me in finding uses for useful things, and no use for the useless. Quilting is not the only fabric: You are more free than that.