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Seeking one stylish spring coat

Max Mara in a contemporary incarnation of the spring coat

With some kind of coronation event in the air this month, it’s time to consider that staple for every female royal’s appearance on the public stage between March and June: the spring coat.

In shades from lavender to primrose and all tints in between, we can expect the full range of light coats on the palace balcony on 6 May, almost certainly with matching handbags. But while this garment might be vital for bringing a splash of colour to civic ceremonies from Basingstoke to Dundee – not to mention bringing warmth to chilly mornings spent shaking hands and cutting ribbons – has it had its day on the British street?

A 1968 original, the spring coat remains a style staple

In general, I consider myself a sceptic where any style “must-have” is concerned, and particularly suspicious of the niche fashion item. The industry has no scruples about new ways to sell you track pants or scratchy underwear, and mostly they involve a fantasy life: there’s cruise wear (have you ever met anyone who went on a cruise? I have not) and spa wear, there are get-ups for city breaks and dirty weekends. Most notably there is the “mother-of-the-bride” outfit, for which this is also the season. Every May, it seems, a stampede of women of a certain age bear down on the high street in search of a pastel skirt-suit or floral dress with matching bolero, suitably dignified (but never, ever black), that will go with a hat. At the till they enact identical conversations with the salesperson as to how much wear they will get out of it when the wedding is over – but all the same once the confetti is thrown it disappears into the bowels of the wardrobe, never to be seen again.

My own surrender to the spring coat came from a desire to share Italy’s decorous dress code

This then, was my thinking on the spring coat: I’ve got a raincoat already. I have two jackets that I wear one on top of the other in winter, and then separately when the cold abates (the season occasionally known as spring). Except that when I saw it – the perfect spring coat (unlined wool in camel with four buttoned patch pockets and bracelet-length sleeves, since you ask) – I was in Italy not Britain. Not only in Italy but in the kingdom, the very throne-room, of good, clever, stylish and above all practical coats, MaxMara. It was here that such typical British pragmatism about fashion was revealed as mere grumpiness.

Style icon Audrey Hepburn immortalised the stylishness of the spring coat

Because where was a spring coat ever more useful than in the British Isles, where the seasons are fluid and temperate and unpredictable and above all mild? No, we would rather complain about how hot it is for April, when we’ve gone out in a down jacket and the sun comes out for the first time in four months, or how cold it is for May, when the sun goes back in again and we haven’t bothered to bring a cardigan.

In Italy, where full-blown summer follows scorching-hot on the heels of the last frost, the spring coat might seem even less of an essential, and yet – because it is also the land of dire warnings as to wearing sandals before June or leaving your vest off even in August – the Italians consider it a garment worthy of celebration. My own surrender to the spring coat came partly from a desire to share in that country’s decorousness – its communal belief that for every gradation in temperature and daylight hours there is an appropriate dress code, and abiding by it will bring a sense of security and fellow-feeling. But in truth as I stood in front of the mirror under frescoed ceilings (such is the throne-room of Italian fashion) I found myself wondering, where have I seen this coat before? Answer: a coat by Valentino, on Audrey Hepburn, in the late 1960s, which were her Rome years. And instantly a vision sprang to mind, in which I’m sitting on the Via Veneto, in round black shades and chignon, with a low-heeled slingback dangling from one toe, sipping a Campari soda in bracelet-length sleeves and four patch pockets. Sold! One fantasy life – and one spring coat.*

Style icon Audrey Hepburn immortalised the stylishness of the spring coat. EVERETT COLLECTION INC / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

*Pre-loved and environmentally-friendly versions of this fantasy life are also available in second-hand stores, vintage boutiques and Oxfam shops.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, May 2023, Style Maven

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