So eagerly looked forward to and so disappointing, Northern winds dash our dreams of an early Spring and even though the almond blossom flashes knicker pink as I cycle past the University church and fragile petals on plum trees light up Woodstock Road, those winds are shaking them down like snowflakes. This morning as I buttoned up my new coat, made specially for me by Anna Fink and snugly encased against all calamities, I remembered the pride of place that coats had in my mother’s winter wardrobe.
She had several “swagger ” coats: a black dressy one from Harrods, a pale aqua mohair from Fenwicks, another from Fenwicks, fingertip length, in tangerine wool, a short sporty jacket worn with trousers. They were the best quality and cut generously, with room under the arms and comfortable amount of girth. Nothing like the trussed up, material-saving styles made of 50% wool and 50% polyamide fibres that you buy today. Hers were all crafted in England and probably cost no more than £20 (Jaeger sells coats made in China for well over £500).
In the fifties and sixties an English coat was a must for any self-respecting upper middle class Indian lady who spent the winters in North India. Those wonderful department stores- Selfridges, Debenham and Freebody, Marshall and Snelgrove, Swan and Edgar, were Aladdin’s caves of magic and plenty. Harrods in Knightbridge and Fenwick of Bond Street (more exclusive) were also favoured. But because my mother travelled to Europe quite regularly for those days, Mrs Sheila Hoon, Mrs Ishwar Lall and other friends would ask her to buy them a coat and transport it in her capacious ship’s luggage allowance. And winters in Delhi were much more severe then, because there was no blanket of pollution hiding the sky and coats allowed you to sit in the sun, snug and warm while you watched your husband play cricket at the Roshanara club. Those coats from London were highly coveted and the swagger style looked so good over a flowing sari. It could have also been taken as a mark of close friendship that Shakuntalaji troubled to search out the right style at a favourable price for Sheelaji and Koshji.
On my way to Marlboro College, Vermont, in 1963 I stopped in London to buy a coat and found a dark green tweed for £12 at Selfridges. It was slightly more fitted than my mother’s coats, but hung so well and kept me from frostbite in the Vermont hills.
Then I inherited (or to be accurate stole) my mother’s favourite Bond Street creation: a tangerine coloured swing back, fingertip length cunningly cut, with patch pockets. No buttons, because it was all style of course, with a satin lining and beautifully cosy to wear.
This last autumn I realised that I had a craving, not for chocolate, but for a tweed coat. It would have to be a traditional cut and cosy to wear, something that would cocoon me and instantly create reassurance and security, light in weight but robust. The shops were hopeless. Even Toast, that outpost of nicely crafted traditional materials, didn’t have anything that met my needs. Their tweed coats with raglan sleeves on me looked like tarpaulins: I was too short and my shoulders were too narrow. So I decided to journey to Wales in order to choose a tweed and have it made up to suit my frame and my colouring. I located a mill just south of Newport, but then found they were quite used to sending out samples and posting the yardage, which saved me an overnight stop at a B&B. Three and a half metres cost £120 and soon I was heading to Anna Fink’s colourful atelier in Hernes Road to be measured up. We pondered long and hard over the style until she thought she had the hang of what I was after. She would cut it from her own pattern, line it with a striking satin lining from Masons in Abingdon and source some nice buttons . It took three fittings and a weighty decision about shoulder pads, but at last it was ready.
When I slip my arms into my new coat I scarcely feel it, it’s thistedown light. And yet it is as warm as I could wish. The tweed is a muted heather colour that would be home on a mountain moor. It makes me feel protected and safe. It is the coat my dreams. It cost what I’d have paid in Jaeger, but it is infinitely superior to anything I could buy off the peg.
Here are some of my other winter coats: