THE HOTTEST COATS

The coat is the talk of the town this season. Long coats over slacks, over mini skirts, and over long, flowing skirts. Short coats, three-quarter coats, buttoned-down coats, open coats, cape coats. This year's coats add a splash of yellow or pink or houndstooth to the understated grays and taupes of the season. They create new mixes and matches -- like a three-quarter coat paired with a mini- or just-below-the-knee skirt or dress; a long ``spy'' coat worn over slacks.

Coats add texture and pattern to fashions -- in wool, fur, leather, and fleece.

Whether you wear a practical duffle coat, a wool houndstooth, or a canvas jacket, the abundance and variety this season's offerings defy you to just choose a coat as a mere throwaway -- a covering for the dress or suit underneath.

For those really snowy days, you can go for warm and practical designs, and make sure the coat is ample enough to accommodate a suit or a heavy sweater underneath; and you don't have to neglect style, cut, and good looks.

This season, as every season, certain timeless rules apply:

Never wear a sporty coat over a dressy outfit, even if you think you can ``get there'' and take it off before anyone spots you. But a dressy fashion coat works well over jeans when you want to look casual but well-dressed.

Make sure your coats are always clean and crisp -- treat them as kindly as you would a silk shirt. Although over-cleaning can destroy a garment, don't be afraid that it will wear out if you clean it a few times this season.

How you wear your coat is just as important as what coat you wear. If you like mid-arm sleeves, or if you like to roll up your coat sleeves slightly so they don't interfere with your hands and wrists, wear long gloves, or let your jersey top slide down under your coat sleeves.

Scarfs are an attractive accent, and big, bold, sparkling pins can add an unforgettable personal touch to an otherwise plain coverall.

If you like perfume, a coat is an OK place to spray your favorite scent. And if you want to publicize your political views, a coat is a better place than your blouse to display your button.

Those who prefer to wear an open coat at all costs should make sure the sweater underneath provides enough insulation. Layer dressing, knits, and thin thermal underwear are great for letting you keep a slim but warm demeanor.

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