How to Dress Professionally on the Coldest Days

Reader C wrote in, wondering how to dress professionally on the coldest days when going to court. We’ve rounded up our favorite winter coats, and talked about how to interview in a snowstorm — but I don’t think we’ve directly discussed what to wear to court in winter. Here’s her question:

I’m driving myself crazy trying to prepare my outerwear wardrobe for winter. I can’t get a clear answer on what people do on the coldest days when going to court. I have a VERY warm down-filled parka but I want something more polished for court appearances. I’m curious about whether people change when they get there or dress less appropriately and just brave the walk over? Does it make more sense to get a sleeker parka for all the time or a longer wool coat for the court commute?

I’m sure this is going to vary a lot from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and I can’t wait to hear what the readers advise for how to dress professionally on the coldest days and what to wear to court in winter. (Psst, here’s all of our advice on courtroom attire for women lawyers…) For my $.02:

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  • Puffy coats have come a long way. While personally I’m still against the puffy, down-filled parka from a fashion perspective, that’s just me — they’re very in right now, even in urban spots like NYC. That said, if you want to stick with a wool coat, look for a cashmere/wool blend — perhaps one lined with thinsulate. (InStyle has even recommended layering a thin puffy coat beneath a “sweeping coat,” which works with my general advice to size up so you can wear a blazer beneath your outside coat anyway.) Readers have always sworn by these winter coats:

Above: one / two / three / four

  • For footwear, the situation matters. If you’re going to be in front of a jury for 5 hours, I think your choice of footwear is going to be a little bit different than if you’re just popping in for a meeting in the judge’s chambers. Warm, waterproof boots can go the distance either way (readers always sing the praises of Aquatalia and La Canadienne) — but if you’re going to be more comfortable in flats or pumps inside, you can always wear some of the foldable, packable snow-appropriate shoes we rounded up in our post on how to interview in a snowstorm, and do the commute-then-change one-two step. (These snowboots are like galoshes and go over your regular shoes!)
  • Layer wisely everywhere else. I just mentioned our favorite silk long johns in our post on warm winter dress pants for women — they are amazing for blocking the wind (and because they’re silk they’re crazy thin, so no added bulk). Silk turtlenecks and crewnecks also exist, as do silk sock liners. A hand-knit scarf may be super cute — but it’s going to be hard to match the warmth of a wool/cashmere/silk blend scarf from a store like Nordstrom or Brooks Brothers. (These tissue-weight wool scarves are my favorite, but you can always go bulkier if you need to.)
  • Keep in mind that if you’re dressed inappropriately it may reflect poorly on your judgment. I always shake my head when I see pre-teen girls dressed up in winter at a nice restaurant or the theater or what not, far too often wearing bare legs and a too-short coat… so don’t do that either. If the weather is truly horrible outside, no one is going to expect to see a woman with a perfect blowout, sky-high pumps and a ponte dress or something.

Readers, what are your thoughts on how to dress professionally on the coldest days? For those of you who are lawyers, what’s your advice for what to wear to court in winter? Court appearances aside, for those of you who may be running from important meeting to important meeting all day on the coldest days, what do YOU wear? 

Stock image credit: Deposit Photos / dmbaker.what to wear to court in winter - image of a woman in a wool coat

A young lawyer wondered how to dress professionally on the coldest days -- particularly, what to wear to court in winter. We rounded up some advice...

Comments

  1. FWIW, I haven’t seen any women in DC wearing a wool dress coat – maybe they’re still in style in other cities, but they’re not here. There are plenty of long down coats with slimmer profiles that are appropriate for business wear – wear that. (I got a black Cole Haan one at TJ Maxx last year for $100.)

    And on the rare DC days that we get truly frigid temps (single digits), I’ve been known to wear black silk long *nderwear leggings underneath my tights.

    • People definitely still wear wool dress coats in DC. It has been unseasonably warm, however, so other than two days last week I haven’t been wearing mine. I think the weather is why you haven’t seen them, not that they are out of style.

      • I used to wear a wool dress coat in DC, but that was year’s ago! Now I have a puffer jacket that has alot of feather’s in it and it is MUCH warmer then wool. It also does NOT itch, like the wool suit’s I used to wear that made my tuchus VERY itchey! FOOEY! I do NOT miss wool, b/c I sweat and wool does NOT work well with sweat! DOUBEL FOOEY!

    • I live in DC and have seen women wearing what I would consider wool dress coats. What are you using to define that term? Maybe you’re just not looking hard enough, because there are wool coats all over the place here.

      Personally, I have 3 main coats in the winter. One lighter wool coat from Uniqlo that I wear unless it is low-30s or below. One North Face down coat that I wear for most occasions when it’s what I consider to be very cold (low-30s of below). One longer, warm wool coat from with thinsulate for J. Crew that I wear for dressier occasions like court, winter weddings, etc.

    • If wool dress coats are wrong, I don’t want to be right. They’re sleek and classic!

    • I think wool dress coats vs puffy coats might be an age thing, too.

    • Legally Brunette :

      I’m in DC and most women on the metro are wearing wool coats. And specifically the J Crew Cocoon coat. I swear I see 3 or 4 women a day wearing that coat….

    • Anonymous :

      I am so confused, how could a wool dress coat ever be out of style? That is basically the single most timeless thing a woman can own. The ones my grandmother wore in the 40s and 50s look perfectly stylish as do the ones my mother wore in the 60s and 70s.

  2. Having appeared in state courts in NYC for a decade now I’d say don’t overthink this. If there’s snow, or puddles of slush as deep as your ankles on every street corner, you need legit cold weather boots. Everyone else is wearing them too so the courtroom and hallway floors are dirty and wet. You’re gonna slip if you try to change into heels. And stashing your sorels or hunters in the corner is no better than wearing them anyway. Also, the judge is not offended by your puffy coat, I promise. She lives here too. My rules might change for a jury trial but I’ve done many a bench trial in hunter boots and fleece tights with a skirt suit on wet or snowy days. Stay warm friend.

    • Anonymous :

      Wow. No one here would wear hunter boots to court. A

      • Anonymous :

        I have spent time in state courts all over the country, and in my observation NYC skews surprisingly casual, especially among women attorneys in limited jurisdiction courts. I have seen crazy stuff there–yoga pants, a fuzzy sweater with no jacket, a sequined tote bag…

      • Ahh but I give you kings county civil. Ankle deep slush on every corner that you cannot step over. Four blocks from the subway to court. The tap part is on the third floor you just got sent up to the tenth for trials. You have thirty pounds of paper you’ll need for those trials on your shoulder ( in a tasteful tote because decorum) and you should probably take the stairs because the judge wants you now and the elevators are crowded, if not stuck, again. It’s one thing to change from flats to heels and stash them in your court bag, quite another to try to take off your boots and drag them around with you. And you’re still left with the problem of where to put them. Court officers understandably get a little jumpy when you leaves things hanging around in the courtroom and anyway the tap judge was wrong- they want you on twelve now. God I love my job.

    • Anonymous :

      unrelated, but it made me happy that you used “she” to refer to the judge because the default is so often a man :)

  3. Anonymous :

    The secret to warmth is your extremities. Feet, hands and head. If you cover those, your trunk will be just fine. With hands and feet, often it is your sweat that makes you cold–meaning your hands sweat inside the gloves then as the water sits on your skin, you get cold within your gloves. Same with feet and socks/ tights/ hose. If you put a little powder on your feet, and then socks/ tights/ hose, you will be amazed at how much warmer they are throughout the day. Wicking material helps with warmth too. A layer of dry-fit next to the skin wicks moisture away keeping you warmer.

  4. Anon for this :

    We have had our nanny for 3 months and she is not working out. The kids don’t like her and she is only a step above incompetent. It’s so bad that my youngest decided she’d prefer after school child care. Multiple attempts to coach her have not worked.

    Today when I get home I plan to tell her that it’s her last day and pay her for the rest of the week and also one week’s salary as a holiday bonus.

    Do I need to do more? Something else? Our last beloved nanny left on her own after 12 happy years so I don’t really know how to handle this.

    • Anonymous :

      I would recommend against terminating someone immediately before Christmas.

      • Yeah, that’s usually a pretty awful time to fire someone, but paying for the rest of the week and a holiday bonus takes a lot of the sting out of it. Right after Christmas is a pretty rough time to get fired too, especially if you spent money over the holidays that you wouldn’t have if you’d known the firing was coming.

      • Anonymous :

        while yes, it seems harsh, from a nanny-hiring perspective, giving her the opportunity to try and start fresh with a new family at the turn of the year/start of the new semester is probably best.

        • Anonymous :

          I don’t agree with this. Most people have already made childcare arrangements for after the new year. You don’t have any obligation to wait – especially if she’s not carrying for your kids the way she should be. But I also don’t think it’s fair to pretend that firing her the week of Christmas is doing her a favor.

    • Do it now and get it over with and she can start the new year fresh and so can you. The Christmas bonus is plenty.

    • Give her at least two weeks salary if you can. You’d expect her to give two weeks notice (probably more) and there’s really no way she will find another job until after the New Year. I know it’s not required, but giving some kind of reasonable severance is the decent thing to do in this situation.

      • Anonymous :

        I agree. Two weeks is minimum. Paying her through the end of the year is not some kind of bonus. I can see not wanting to actually give her a bonus when you are so displeased with her work, but you could at least give her $100 on top of the two weeks notice/pay.
        Btw, what are your kids going to do during winter break, when you are (presumably) working?

    • Anonymous :

      That seems harsh to me. I’d give her an additional weeks salary on top of what you suggested, given that you’re firing her 5 days before Christmas.

    • Was she supposed to have any time off over the holidays?

    • I’m afraid of nanny karma so I’d definitely pay her the rest of this week plus two full weeks, at minimum.

  5. Anonymous :

    Unless it’s raining, snowing, or well below freezing, I have bare legs… and I am completely warm and comfortable. (Then again, I run so hot that I used to walk around in t-shirts in the winter and was likewise completely comfortable.)

    If you want to judge, you do you, but I’m doing me.

  6. Hate to be that person, but the links under the photos of coats two and four aren’t directing to the right place.

  7. Anonymous :

    Patagonia 3-in-1 coats are the best for wet, snowy, or extremely cold weather, and they are relatively professional-looking. Wool coats are great for crisp, dry weather, but I don’t like wearing wool coats in the snow because they get so stinky and uncomfortable when they are damp.

    • Diana Barry :

      Just wear your parka. I have the Patagonia Tres and it is SUPER warm. Wear boots appropriate for the weather and change inside if needed.

  8. Since this is probably relevant to anyone coat-shopping, Land’s End has 50% off today. (Every day since Thanksgiving that I checked, they had some kind of 50% off sale, but it’s varied whether it’s been outerwear only or all full-price styles.)

    I just got a down coat from them, the “Women’s Luxe Long Down Coat.” It’s not as dressy as a wool coat, but it’s so very warm (and not super puffy). And while they lean mostly toward down coats, they’ve got some nice-looking wool ones as well.

  9. I’m in Boston, and given the wind, wool coats are less common than very warm down puffies for people who commute or walk. If you drive, then smaller coat.

    It is very normal here to own boots or booties that are professional–nice waterproof boots that you don’t have to change out of.

    • I live in the Midwest, in a super windy area, and I cannot figure out why so many hold onto their wool coats. They’re not warm. #pufferalltheway

  10. Huh. It really must vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, because when I have to go to court in nasty weather, I’m sure to see two things:

    (a) Women in puffy coats, furry hooded coats, thick wool coats, above-the-knee boots, galoshes, huge scarves, beanies, gloves, and all manner of practical outerwear, which go through security and are then shed within the courtroom to be hung on a coat rack (after which, high heels are pulled from purses and briefcases),

    and

    (b) Men in thin wool coats, salt-stained oxfords, no hats, no earmuffs, and and tucked-in scarves which do not cover their necks, risking the flu for sake of looking good. (The older men tend to do better, as they’re fond of those warm hats with earflaps, and aren’t above wearing gloves and galoshes over their shoes.)

    So I’m gonna say this women in my city have the upper hand, haha. I’m a big fan of the knee-length wool coat with a pair of flat-soled riding boots and knee-high wool socks on top of my hose, with a big wraparound knitted scarf and a classy beret to top it off. I throw flats into a plastic bag and shove them to the bottom of my tote, and voila: court-appropriate wear.

    • I’m with her. Wear whatever you need to wear, including long underwear even under a dress if that’s what it takes. The key is to get to court early enough to take off the outerwear, put on your court shoes, and otherwise compose yourself. Bring a bag to put your wet boots in, in case you need to change courtrooms, but otherwise find the coat rack that if you’re lucky will be there, and if not put your stuff wherever you can.

  11. Toronto: I am not a lawyer, but I work for a professional company. I do not have clients, but clients can see me.

    On those really ugly, nasty Polar Vortexy days: I wear long johns (taken off as soon as I get to work), calf high warm winter boots, a knee length puffy coat from Lands End, fleece lined knit scarf, mitts and ear-flap hat (the others don’t keep my ears warm). I will also pull the hood up over the hat on nasty days.

    Before Toronto, I was in Calgary. They have extremes. And everyone dressed similarly. Because when it is -27C before the windchill, does it really matter?

    I do not care, as I am warm. However, layers do come off during my commute. Plus I am into the office and change out of the long johns and boots as soon as I get in (I am normally to hot by then) by 7am.

    I think being warm is more important that being professional when you are dealing with extreme weather.

  12. Late to the party, but that last point (Keep in mind that if you’re dressed inappropriately it may reflect poorly on your judgment.) just generally is very true. Two years ago I was at a big professional conference (in my extremely casual male dominated industry) and hearing men judging the women wearing pumps in the expo hall. “Why would they wear such uncomfortable shoes?” shaking their heads. They actually had a bingo game going on where one of the boxes was “most inappropriate shoes” – referring to women’s high heals. Since all the guys get to not think about it and just wear comfortable flats/even tennis shoes, while I have to spend three days coming up with professional outfits that look right with comfortable shoes.

    ((Another box on the conference bingo was some acronym that they made up – I forget what it was – but it stood for a woman who actually knew things/understood technical concepts. This is how I found out about the bingo – I was deemed to be a woman who actually understood technical concepts. As opposed to all the other women who don’t.))

    And then there was the time I volunteered at an industry golf outing and wore the wrong type of shoes (I don’t golf and didn’t do enough thinking about my dang shoes prior to the event) – loafer type shoes in a leopard print (the HORROR!), and was questioned by one of the guys (he happened to be a lawyer – must have been in house with a big company but I’m not even sure what he was doing there since lawyers are common at our industry events) if my boss allowed me to wear those shoes in the office.

    ((At the same golf outing an engineer (who I didn’t know) let me know about how I was going to want kids (actually I don’t) and I should probably get on that. ))

    Gah I’m done in this industry/this job in a week. Thank god.

  13. legal canuck :

    Another Canuck here.

    We have a lawyers robing room in our courthouse. So we wear warm winter jackets, and huge boots (for the slush) and bring our heels with us. We put our boots and jackets in there while we are in court (this room is only accessed by lawyers as we have a swipe card for it). I am for function over fashion when it comes to winter and my Sorels are the only thing that keeps my feet warm and dry. As for being in court, we have to wear our court clothes. I wear pants usually but if I am wearing a skirt I will wear tights in the winter instead of nylons.

  14. I’m late, but just had to comment on this:

    A hand-knit scarf may be super cute — but it’s going to be hard to match the warmth of a wool/cashmere/silk blend scarf from a store like Nordstrom or Brooks Brothers.

    So not true! For one thing, you can buy wool/cashmere/silk blend yarn to make your own hand-knit scarf. For another, there are plenty of different ways to knit a scarf that make it windproof and absolutely warmer than the storebought stuff.

    Now, if you think the handknit isn’t quite as sleek/chic/elegant, that’s a different argument (and I’d disagree with that too, and can point to gorgeous elegant minimalist patterns), but handknits are absolutely at least as warm if not warmer than storebought.

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