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Last winter, I bought a coat. It started the same way that most things in my life start: with sudden inspiration of indeterminate origin, followed by weeks of obsessive, fastidious Google searching. In this particular instance, I was watching an ancient episode of Law & Order when it occurred to me that the thing I needed most in life at that exact moment was for someone to pay off my credit card bills or, barring that, I needed a leopard faux fur coat that would increase those bills by as much as, like, $200.
I’ve spent nearly a decade writing about shopping for a living, and in that time I’ve well learned the difference between a passing appreciation for an item of clothing and something I need to own. In the case of my proposed coat, the fixation was an unusual one because, even after six New York City winters, my outerwear collection is minimal. I spent the first 25 years of my life in a warm climate where few people put thought into coats; I hate layering, long sleeves, and anything high up around my neck, as well as cold weather as a concept. I resent the idea that I should have to pay money to live through it by buying outerwear and knit hats and gloves. Somehow, though, having a silly fur made winter joy seemed possible, even if I assumed I’d only occasionally wear something so ostentatious. Maybe the right coat could make me a person who doesn’t completely hate the cold. Fashion is, among other things, an opportunity to buy into an idea of yourself.
In late 2015, faux fur wasn’t the trend it is now, and I’m plus-size, which limits my shopping options for literally any particular type of clothing down to a handful at best, even on an infinite internet. My searches turned up around a dozen faux leopard furs in my size, and maybe three of them were actually attractive. I settled on a version from Steve Madden that was marked down at Nordstrom to a little over a hundred bucks; it looked like it was made from the pelt of a soft, expensive stuffed animal that rich little kids are given but not actually allowed to play with. It looked like baby heiress decor. I wanted it on my body.
When the coat arrived and I tried it on, I fell in love. I looked less like a stuffed animal and more like someone’s third wife — the one who makes the grown kids from the first marriage nervous that she’ll get all the money when Dad croaks. Just putting it on made me feel like a huge bitch in the best way imaginable. In a way that made me feel immediately, giddily sure men would hate it, and maybe other people, too. It felt like too much, but in a very purposeful way.
Serious coats are never small, but parkas are big in a way that is immediately apologetic. I know this is adding bulk to my body and I’m taking up more space than I normally would, but it’s functional. You understand. My penance is that it’s black so no one will notice me. On the other hand, fluffy fur coats are demonstrative and demanding of both space and attention in a way that women, and especially fat women, are taught from birth they should avoid. In a culture obsessed with female obedience right down to physically limiting our bodies with everything from juice cleanses to sausage-casing shapewear, wearing something purposefully large, round and soft feels like a direct rebuke. So much of consumer fashion hinges on what “flatters” a woman’s figure, but the very concept of “flattering” is tied up in the assumption that Western culture at large has already agreed upon which physical attributes are acceptable and which aren’t. If those messages others give women about our bodies are microaggressions, then maybe what we wear can be a microrefusal.
And so the coat I thought would be fun on special occasions turned into the coat I used for everything, all the time. I threw it on to take out the recycling. I wore it to the bodega with running tights, like the most budget-conscious Kardashian you’ve ever laid eyes on. The more I wore my leopard coat, the more I noticed how others reacted to me in it. People made room for me on the subway and deferred to me when a nearby seat came open. Strange men opened doors for me and the familiar ones picked up checks with no discussion. Once, in Grand Central, another woman in an animal-print fur gave me the little recognition head-nod that’s normally reserved for suburban bros in open-top Jeep Wranglers acknowledging each other while passing on the street. Game recognize game, I suppose, even if the game is sending the people around you passive signals to get the fuck out of your way.
I’ve always been a person with a look; I was the only girl in first grade with little black Keds instead of little white ones, and at 31 years old, I have partially purple hair and fake nails sharpened into menacing points. Those little things always mattered in little ways, but it took making myself physically larger and aesthetically unmissable to meaningfully expand the space I took up in the world. When I demanded the extra room — when I demanded to be seen and acknowledged — I got it. Capitalism is a poor salve for oppression writ large, but on a personal level, any tool available to carve out a spot for ourselves in daily life can be useful if wielded correctly. And, hey, when winter comes again, you’re going to have to buy a coat anyway.