Though the terms are often incorrectly interchanged or confused, topcoats and overcoats basically serve the same purpose: to provide an elegant outer layer of warmth for the urbane gentleman when he’s wearing a suit or jacket (or not). The two coats are similar in many ways, especially from the waist up where they have a design and structure that resembles a jacket or blazer. Their shell is usually a fine wool, cashmere or a blend thereof. Where they differ mostly is in the length. Overcoats extend below the knee, and topcoats hit above the knee.
My preference has always been the topcoat. It’s an essential piece in my fall/winter rotation. While the overcoat technically provides more warmth since it literally covers more of the body, I find the topcoat to be lighter, less cumbersome and better for travel. It also manages to provide all the warmth where it really counts. And the shorter length has a slightly less formal or aristocratic look to me, which makes a topcoat a really versatile garment that can appropriately complement dressier suit and tie situations and nicely punch up a t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
I have two topcoats. One is a tan wool coat I got at H&M five or six years ago. I bought it in a pinch and, to be quite honest, I didn’t expect an $80 topcoat with an 80% wool / 20% poly shell to hold up as long as it has. Since I made the decision years ago to no longer support the fast-fashion retail model, I would’t buy it again today. Regardless, I remain impressed with its little design details inside and out. Outside, it has everything a topcoat should, but with the added flourishes of pick-stitching, slanted pockets with a ticket pocket and an orange collar felt. Inside, the coat has a full lining in navy with orange trim and a striped lining down the sleeves. I’ve often said that if I ever had the money to get a topcoat custom made, I’d have this one remade exactly but with a nicer wool or cashmere (and no fusing). As it is now, I’ll wear it until it dies.
My other topcoat is from J.Crew. Like my other coat, it observes a classic, single-breasted Chesterfield design, with notch lapels, a structured shoulder, a welt chest pocket and side pockets with flaps. At first touch and wear, I could immediately see and feel the superior quality and construction of this coat over the one from H&M. Its shell is a black wool and cashmere blend with a beautiful hand. The wool/cashmere is also significantly warmer with a more fluid drape than the stiffer wool/poly in the other coat. The lining is bemberg – much softer than the poly used to line the other one, which makes a huge difference when wearing the coat over a t-shirt on the weekend. I also love the little smartphone pocket in the interior. Other little things speak of a higher quality coat, too, like the buttons and the fabric that lines the pockets. This is a topcoat made to last – one that I expect to be wearing for many years to come. It set me back a fair $450.
I know some men who “size up” with their topcoats, opting for a 42 if they wear a 40 suit or jacket. I keep mine the same size. Off the peg, my jacket size would be a 38R, which means my topcoats are also 38R. It makes for a nice tailored fit for one of my favorite fall/winter garments.