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Style / Coats of arms

This season’s outerwear provides plenty of options for identifying with one’s clan

Coats by Wanda Nylon

Photos provided by vendors


Our annual family reunion festivities are ceremoniously interrupted. Robert, the eldest brother in the clan, stands up, clears his throat, hoists his wine glass and proclaims, “It is time. It is time to binge watch the first three episodes of the seventh season of Game of Thrones. It is time because I said so.” He doesn’t have to order us around. All but one of us is onboard with the suggestion, anyway.


The only newcomer to the show is my mother, who, after each slaying scene, is heard muttering in small-font-sized letters, “I just don’t … oh, this is gross.”


“It gets better, Mom,” we take turns lying. As the screen fades to black for the third and final time, my niece stands up in front of the TV and says, “Every family should have a seal.” She pauses. “The queen of the House Targaryen has a three-headed dragon as hers, so I thought...”


“The house who?” my mother asks.


“Targaryen. That was the queen with the white hair and the dragons,” she explains. “We should have a seal. Our family’s survived long winter nights that seem to last a generation. And, no offense Uncle Eric, but you aren’t always the loudest; we all are and we are all kind of bossy, too, and, most important, we stick together. So more than a seal, actually,” she continues. “I think our family deserves a whole coat of arms, the kind that has a war cry inscribed across the top.”


“Go Bills!” brother William suggests.


“More like, ‘I’m not driving you if you miss the bus!’” my nephew offers.


“This is hardly appropriate family fare,” Mom says.


I study her for a second. “Is that your cheer suggestion,” I ask, “or are you complaining about Game of Thrones?”


“C’mon,” my niece cuts back in. “I’m talking about a real rallying charge, something like ‘chlanna nan conthigibh a’ so ‘s gheibh sibh feoil’ which I think means ‘sons of the hounds come here and get flesh.’”


“Like I said,” William stretches, as a warm up to getting his backside up and off the couch. “Go Bills!”


But my niece will not be dissuaded. “Fine. Put a pin in the slogan. Maybe we can focus on the crest, that thing on top of the helmet—a falcon, for example, or an eagle or one of those semicircles of bristly red horse hair like we’ve seen these in the movies. A crest is supposed to be frightening, or at least impressive enough to parade about in. We come from Vikings. Our crest could be horns.”


“Actually,” her father corrects, “we come from Ohio. Will a cardinal be terrifying enough?”


“How about a hand spade,” my mother suggests, warming to the idea of what my niece is shooting for: brand building. I can see Mom’s concept too, a gray-metal trowel. The handle is glued onto the forehead part of the helmet. The scoop end points to the sky. “Your father and I were such good gardeners once upon a time. Or else a trident,” she continues. This time she offers no explanation, and it seems like no one wants one. Within a split second, though, the hand spade in my mind’s eye is replaced by the last trident I remember seeing, the one held by Lego Batman Movie’s version of Aquaman, the comic book character who—despite bearing Poseidon’s three-pronged weapon—never  looks more fierce than an unchilled surfer dude.


“Don’t go for refills yet,” my niece persists. “I’m almost done. The most important part of the coat of arms is the shield design. We could create a pattern to have embroidered onto a sweater or woven into a coat, or printed onto a running vest for, let’s say, the Turkey Trot. Yes! The Thanksgiving day race, that’s where I’m going with this, guys. We always run it.” She looks into her phone. And now, at the mention of the Turkey Trot, everyone else seems willing to look to her for a few more seconds. “It says here that according to the College of Arms, the shield can be divided up into four quarters, and we can put a separate design or color into each if we want. The shield color options are gold, silver, blue, red, purple, black, or green, or the fur of a weasel or squirrel.”


As if “squirrel” were a cue, opinions start to fly. “Eww. I’m not doing fur.” “Aren’t chipmunks so cute? Can we do chipmunks?” “I dream that I run with cheetahs. I vote cheetah.” “Dog hair. Dog hair seems to be a universal theme with this family,” a sister-in-law says as she brushes away at her pants. “Hey, can you get a degree from this College of Arms?”


My neice ignores the unruly. “That’s just the background color,” she continues. “We also have to think about the symbols on the shield. We could do geometric shapes, like a stripe or a chevron. Or we could depict a person, animal, or plant. Any or all of it, we get to choose. Don’t forget the two big ‘supporters’ on either side. A supporter is usually a deer or a bear, but it doesn’t have to be an animal. And we have to decide on a motto inscribed on a banner across the bottom.”


“Another saying?”


“Technically they’re not the same. A slogan gets yelled out, while the motto is more for our inside voices,” she says to a family without inside voices. “Got it? We need a cheer, a crest, a shield, supporters, and a motto. So, does anyone have some ideas of what our family coat of arms should be, what we can get printed up for racing in next month?”


The idea of communicating through clothing is not new. The component parts of heraldry (also known as this “coat of arms” business) had been used long before the days of medieval knights to signify brand and brand allegiance. My house. My tribe. My enemy’s house. My enemy’s tribe. The house of my most trusted best friend. We even use the word “house” when describing the great fashion empires like Dior and Chanel. But branding does not have to be universal to be effective. Quieter brands can hold their own, too. My plan this month was to write about coats, not coats of arms, but, in asking my mother about the kind of coat she wore in her teens, we ended up in a discussion about the Hudson Bay Beacon coat. She could not remember the name, but one phone call to her sister led to an email to my cousin in Calgary, which led to me learning how a whole lot of Canada in the late 1700s discovered the benefits of wool over fur pelt-clothing construction. This discovery happened via the Beacon design, a blanket woven from natural white wool and patterned with broad stripes dyed in the colors available from the flora found in North America. The English traded these blankets for furs, and the indigenous population quickly began sewing the wool throws together into coats, creating an effect that seemed astonishingly just too modern for that era. The look spread over thousands of miles and across hundreds of years. Not everybody likes them, true. “My mother made me one when I was in high school and I hid in the corner for four years,” an acquaintance confessed to me, but her memory came fast. “Have you heard of the Beacon blanket?” was all I had to ask. That’s what good brands do. They are powerful enough to stick. They deliver a message.


This season’s outerwear provided plenty of options for identifying with one’s clan, whether you were born into that clique or you have made an association by choice. Want to feel connected to the tartan wearers from Ireland to Scotland to China? There is a checkered or tartan pattern made into everything this year from suits to bags to boots. My favorite is found in the “jacket” jacket—a man’s cut suitcoat top, sans trousers, worn as a dress or a coat offset by over-the-knee boots (which seem to compensate for any material absence). Maybe you feel more velvety this season. Velvet, the fabric of nobility that came to us from the Middle East and Africa via the Viennese merchants who spread it westward, is revived this season by being partitioned into delicate little island nations, as in the fabric used by Off White. It also appears in its hardier, sturdier form—as corduroy—made all the more hardy and sturdy when cut and sewn into an iconic trench. Dye that corduroy trench turquoise, as Nina Ricci did, and you have the kind of coat that will cause a future generation to stop in awe when, in twenty years, they find it in the closet, and say, “Wow! I didn’t know Grandma had such good taste.”


Maison Margiela’s, actually, were the designs that most inspired me into shooting for some type of heraldry. Start with wool, your basic work-horse fabric and any one of a number of proven cuts, from pea coat to drape, and create stunning signature cut-outs, weave in stories, or embroider, embroider, embroider. But if I had to single out one company for coat designs this season, it would be Montcler. I had always thought of them as a ski jacket company for jetsetters in the Alps, and that may still be true, but their runway offerings this year found a way of embracing traditions from so many origin stories and carrying them forward. A revival of sorts. Alpine sweaters, plaid pants, knitted hats designed to both flatter and protect, while the Montcler Grenoble—and I don’t know if this was a coincidence—used the colors found in the Beacon blanket, and created coats that would absolutely keep you from ever hiding in the corners. It is one thing to find so much stunning beauty in fancy dresses. To find so many coats that you would rather keep on all day, every day, feels like a much grander victory. Fortunately, whether in Sweden or Western New York, retailers understand this need. They appreciate the joy in looking amazing in the face of lake effect blizzards and very long nights.


“OK, we’ve settled it” my niece announces. “The cheer is ‘Go! Go! Buffalo!’  The crest is a triad of a tennis racket, sand wedge, and baseball bat set into a bar bell base. And yes, Aunt Marlene, we promise this will be tasteful. Now, our shield is an orange-red zinnia on top of a green field, lined for soccer. Two cocker spaniels serve as the supporters. One cocker is black, the other blond. Each is wearing a red-cross vest. And the motto underneath is the title of that song from the Lego Movie, “Everything Is Awesome,” because, as Grandma said, sometimes, in this family, everything just is awesome. As long as we aren’t spending too much time in front of the TV.”            


Catherine Berlin is Spree’s longtime style writer.


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