The Pleasure and Power of Outerwear: Six Iconic Coats in Film and Television

Nicole Kidman walking alone in long red coat
One of Nicole Kidman's many gorgeous coats in The Undoing. Photograph by Niko Tavernise/HBO

This winter, I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go. I’m reaching for my bottomless black parka and a medical mask — nostalgic for the days of frolicking in faux fur, stopping by the apartment of a friend of a friend and perusing the bookshelves while someone props a window to accommodate more guests. The films and television I’ve been consuming mirror this languishing: the uptown apartment packed with velvet and hushed tones of Metropolitan (1990), the intricate, if not entirely historically accurate, formal affairs of Bridgerton (2020). It’s impossible, in all of the longing and mourning, not to miss the simple act of dressing up to leave the house. 

Passing masked faces on the street, standing in line to get into the grocery store — our traditional indicators of festivity have been replaced. Jackets are utilitarian in the chill of New York. But they can also be armor, a high collar to hide a sullen expression or a long sleeve to tuck into a pocket nervously. Jackets can be indicators or intentions. While evolution — style or otherwise — feels confined to tiny spaces and computer screens, it’s comforting to think that a person can change. Like all sartorial signs, it’s never just about the garment, but the story the piece is telling about the character dressed in it. And it’s stories I miss the most about the “outside world”; stories of chance, of high drama, of the frivolity of kissing strangers, of hundreds of bodies, all in motion, a mirage of narratives. 

Without a personal reason to slip out of a floor-length coat and into a smooth, candle-lit banquette, I’ve turned to the perennial comfort of costuming. Almost no piece of clothing is as immediately notable on screen as outerwear—whether it’s draped coolly off a shoulder or buttoned in disgust.

Take Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace Fraser, in the recent hit The Undoing, for example. Her jewel tone, ankle grazing coats do more than protect from the chill of a winter in New York. And viewers took note, setting the internet ablaze with round ups of her best looks and desperate searches for dupes. Costume designer Signe Sejilund explained to Town & Country that the coats were created specifically for Kidman and her character. The longing for places to wear beautiful garments — maybe sans murderous secrecy — is palpable. 

The nuance of a character is communicated in a hemline or a zipper, in an arrival or a departure. So maybe the missing has more to do with the unspoken human-ness that simply can’t exist in isolation or under a mask. In the meantime, I’ll be taking lessons from some of film and TV’s greatest outerwear moments in transporting films fit for quarantine.   

Iconic coats. Gwyneth Paltrow in a leopard fur coat and hat.
Paltrow’s character shifts into leopard fur. Screenshot, Paramount 1999

Gwenyth Paltrow in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

The first half of this film takes place on the glistening northwest coast of Italy. Paltrow plays a young, bright-eyed woman, hoping for a summer filled with long nights and strong drinks. But in the second half of the film, her character’s blissful ignorance, wrapped in pastel cottons, is lost. In a pivotal scene featuring a confrontation between her character and Mr. Ripley (played by Matt Damon), she walks up to a cafe table in a leopard coat with a matching hat and a cigarette. The whole thing — the look, the slant of her gaze, the sound of her heels on the cobblestone – makes me nostalgic for the symphony of senses that gets squashed in video calls.

The outfit indicates a hardened exterior, as the location moves north to Rome, temperatures drop and the plot thickens. She demands answers as she takes drags from her cigarette between her painted red lips. Marge (played by Paltrow), dressed in animal print, expresses her growing suspicion toward Tom Ripley and eagerness to trap him in his lies. The seasons have shifted. Summer is over. The leopard coat and matching hat aren’t just for warmth. They’re a message to Tom that he’s being watched, a stylist’s nod to a woman’s intuition.

Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind (1960)

There’s a certain comfort in a coat, modeled by Marlon Brando in the film The Fugitive Kind, written by Tennessee Williams. Even a man on the run needs the companionship of a signature piece. A once drifter with hopes to “turn straight,” Brando can’t seem to shed the person he’s been, or really, the snakeskin leather jacket he’s in. All he has is the jacket, a guitar, and the vision of a better version of himself.

In one scene, a local artist, Vee Talbott (Maureen Stapleton), explains her impressionistic style of painting to Val (Brando), saying, “I paint a thing how I feel it instead of always the way it actually is. Appearances are misleading, nothing is what it looks like to the eyes. You got to have – vision – to see!” The story continues; a jealous husband, orders to leave the town, pregnancy drama. It’s two hours of Tennesee Williams’ genius. But what still moves me about this film is that as much as Val “Snakeskin” Xavier changes, his jacket stays on him, even to the last tragic scene. It’s a reminder that clothing is often just a symbol, a relic, but regardless, always belongs to the person embodying it. 

Kate Hudson in Almost Famous (2000)

A coat can signal to others who we’re projecting out into the world, even if we don’t buy in fully ourselves. The way we dress can bring us closer to that vision, like Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in the film, Almost Famous. She opts out of teenage awkwardness and hops on a tour bus with enough charisma and confidence to rocket herself (plus the band she’s hitched to) straight to stardom.

In designing Penny’s unique coat, Betsy Heimann, the film’s costume director, was inspired by a 1920s opera coat. The cream of the oversized collar was created in collaboration with the cinematographer for the perfect haloing effect. It reminds me of the first leather jacket I bought for myself and wore tentatively to a concert in deep Brooklyn. I wasn’t convinced until the friend I was meeting kissed my cheek and immediately broke into a smile and said, “Loving the new look.”

The jackets we wear can usher us closer to the person we hope to convince others we are. And it works. Penny Lane is more than a character. She’s a way of moving through the world. 

Keanu and his famous coat on the Theatrical Release Poster for The Matrix, Warner Bros. 1999

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (1999)

Black can be grounding, timeless, and honestly, a little boring. But in the case of Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix, there’s more to the choice of costuming than meets the eye. First, the unexpected sheen material of Neo’s jacket gives the outfit an instantly futuristic feeling. When entering the Matrix, characters get to create their own persona. The long duster jacket and tiny sunglasses are how Neo wants to be seen. The coat feels superhero-like in its length. Or maybe even clergy-like? Like spaghetti western silhouettes hiding a dangerous stranger as they stagger out from a dusty horizon line, there’s a certain timelessness to the look.

It’s a great example of dressing for the kind of day (or existence in another dimension) you hope to have. Some afternoons, choosing a dust-collecting faux fur collared number from the back of my closet and taking it for a walk is my own interpretation of positivity. When the future feels distant and unknowable, immersing oneself in speculative fiction can feel like an exercise in optimism. 

Kerry Washington’s signature stride in one of many brilliant Scandal coats. ABC 2014

Kerry Washington in Scandal (2012-2018)

Some on-screen outerwear is so iconic that life begins to imitate art. In 2014, Kerry Washington built on Olivia Pope’s unique sense of style to create a collection at The Limited.

Scandal centers on Pope’s unflinching intentions and power. Seeing a compassionate, decisive woman in a position of power certainly has its own comforting quality in these times, even if it’s fictional. While Olivia Pope, a D.C.-based crisis manager, wears a range of jackets — there is no signature piece (as Penny has in Almost Famous) — there is a signature posture: shoulders back with perfect poise. As important as costuming is to the believability of a character on screen (or on the street, for that matter), the way any piece is worn means more than a color or pattern.

I’m constantly inspired by the certainty that our Vice President Kamala Harris sports her signature sneakers and sharply tailored suits, an indication of the kind of power that moves through her. Olivia Pope is proof that the way we wear clothes is as important as what we wear, and her posture projects a certainty that a woman’s place is wherever she sees fit.

Diana Ross in Mahogany (1975)

What Mahogany, a kitsch-filled film from the peak of Diana Ross’s career in 1975, lacks in feminist plot, it makes up for in sartorial grandiosity. As Tracy Chambers, Ross is transformed in a clichéd tale of rags to riches. But the riches aren’t just opulent. They also reflect Ross’s personal interest in fashion at the time — she agreed to do the film on the condition that she get to design the clothes for the fashion shoot scenes. 

A chance meeting in a department store with a celebrated fashion photographer changes Tracy’s life. When Diana as Tracy (now known as “Mahogany”) — a design school student in Chicago turned runway model in Rome — struts down the street in her crisp white coat and matching hat, it’s obvious she’s walking toward something brighter.

Light-colored outerwear is a sure sign that practicality isn’t her priority. It seems all I can manage to do is dress practically, ignoring the bell bottoms in the bottom drawer and silk slips on the rack. But Tracy is dressing for the woman she only imagined she could become: galavanting, adored, a diva in every sense of the word. But ultimately, Tracy leaves her complicated, albeit, glistening, ideas of personal fame in Italy and returns to a life centered on her community in Chicago. Even the best coat or the most perfect outfit can’t always change a person. Fashion is a fantasy of who we are, how we move through the world. Greats like Diana Ross, as herself, understand this and dress accordingly.

Inside my apartment, dressed in a steady rotation of loose fitting outfits, without any events or confrontations or flights to catch, I’m left with the comfort of entertainment to remind me that you can change your life. And sometimes, it all starts with the right jacket. 

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Erika Veurink is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Iowa. She received her MFA from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Review, Cheap Pop, Hobart, Midwest Review, Fairy Tale Review, and elsewhere.