Come walk with me down the memory lane of winter coats.

I’ve been thinking about coats, and how they’re one way to chart our lives, since I dove into the dark recesses of my closet last week, finally conceding that it was getting cold in Chicago and I could no longer avoid covering up.

As I pawed through the hangers, I was whisked back to other nippy autumns and bitter winters, taken on a time traveler’s tour of all the coats I’ve worn and loved.

Long coats, short coats, coats in black or brown or red, button coats and zipper coats, coats with hoods and those without, so many coats come and gone.

Do you remember your first coat?

If you arrived in Chicago as an adult from somewhere warm, your first coat is likely to be as vivid in memory as your first kiss. It was probably not great, but there’s a good chance you remember it.

I’d never owned a coat before I moved to Chicago, and my first winter coat wasn’t one.

“That’s a fall coat,” serious Chicagoans tsked when I arrived at work one October day proclaiming that I’d just bought a winter coat. It was long, black, billowing, buttonless, stylish. The serious Chicagoans sneered that it would be worthless by November.

They were right. On the subject of Chicago winter, always trust the natives.

When the cold bored in that December, I bought the cheapest heavy wool coat I could find. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really wool. It was a wool “blend” with a cheap lining that had shredded by March. I was very cold.

People who grow up in Chicago winters have an instinct for what constitutes a proper coat, but transplants almost always get it wrong.

“My first coat in Chicago was a burnt orange wool faux pea coat a little past the waist,” recalls a friend who grew up in Southern California. “Needless to say I was never warm enough and learned my lesson by the following winter.”

It took me more than one winter to learn my lesson. Why? Because like so many winter fools, I had trouble understanding that being both stylish and warm in a Chicago winter is like being both short and tall. You can’t be both.

No. You can’t. Your long, poofy coat may be stylish compared with the truly hideous long, poofy coats, but that is not the same as being truly stylish.

Peering into my closet the other day, I pulled out an ankle-length blue cashmere coat, bought on deep discount in my second Chicago winter. Talk about stylish. It had a little fox collar that I happily wore until I learned that wearing fur could get you pelted in the street.

Having grown up in Sun Belt places where I’d never seen a fur coat except in photos of movie stars, I’d never considered the ethics of fur. When I discovered the problem, I removed the fur collar stitch by stitch. I wore the coat for the rest of that winter, shivering all the way, because without the fur, the neckline was as gaping as the Grand Canyon.

Other coats and other winters followed.

For a couple of seasons I wore a parka designed for skiing. The sales clerk at the outdoor store promised that this miracle parka would keep me warm when it was 10 below on the slopes.

Too bad I don’t ski. And it took me at least one more winter before I understood an essential Chicago winter principle: You can’t be warm if your butt is cold.

In coats, as in the rest of life, we learn what works by making mistakes, and I made a couple more, most notably the second-rate shearling bought on deep discount that turned out to be like wearing a coat of bricks.

Finally, a decade or so ago, I bought one of those ugly poofy coats, with snaps and a zipper from neck to knees and a hood that obscures everything but your eyelashes. I am ugly but no longer cold.

I look back fondly on all the coats of my life. I remember their weight, their color and texture, and how all of them, even the wrong ones, brought me some protection and pleasure.

With winter coming on, now’s the time to take your own walk down the memory lane of coats. It will warm your heart.

And if you’re new to Chicago, wondering which coat to buy, let me repeat: Cover your butt.

mschmich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @MarySchmich

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