A very cozy history of the puffer coat

Come winter, it seems like you’re never more than 10 feet away from a puffer coat. People run down subway stairs bundled into jackets that look like duvets with sleeves. Restaurants are packed with puffy jackets thrown over the backs of chairs, sleeves poking out into the aisles. They’re found in Costco next to the paper towels and in Balenciaga next to the $900 fanny packs. Moms wear them, Rihanna has one the size of a Christian tent revival, and in South Korea, it’s the mark of class divide.

Down coats never go out of style, but they had a real moment last winter and are poised to enjoy the same attention as this winter approaches. Orolay’s $140 Amazon coat first took over the Upper East Side and then the world, earning its own fan-fueled Instagram handle. Moncler released puffer coat couture gowns during 2019 Milan Fashion Week, adding a ski-weekend touch to ballgowns. And as of August, Aritzia has been back to promoting its “Super Puff” coat, which inspired a slew of memes in 2018 poking fun at the bulgy puffer jacket.

The puffer reappears year after year because of the relatively slow cycle of outerwear fashion, and the rotation is sluggish because coats have a purpose that’s outside of style. “Utilitarian clothing, there are certain things they can’t sacrifice. Outerwear in particular needs to do its job,” says Marjorie Jolles, co-editor of Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style.

This makes people replace coats slower than they would shirts, for example, which have a more aesthetic investment. “The ratio of aesthetics to utility is really different when you’re standing on a train platform in February. You don’t care as much.” Since puffer jackets are well insulated, trap body heat, and are champs at keeping you warm during the worst of winter, they come back year after year, including this season.

Outerwear also has a slow turnover rate because coats only get trotted out during certain months of the year, so it extends their life in a wardrobe. You don’t get tired of it as quickly as the shirt you wear weekly. “Coats have a different signifying power. You’re taking it off as soon as you’re indoors, so not only does it have a short life in the calendar year, it has a short life in the day,” Jolles says. Basically, you’re not going to replace the coat that keeps you the warmest — which you only wear for a few hours a day anyway — just for aesthetic reasons.

Puffers have been around since the 1930s, introduced to the market after Eddie Bauer nearly died of exposure when his wool sweater froze from rain on a fishing trip. Not anxious to knock on death’s door a second time around, Bauer came up with a waist-length quilted puffer coat with a knitted collar. But it was designer Norma Kamali in the early ’70s that came up with the ankle-length coat we know and love today. And much like Bauer, the idea came to Kamali during a moment of discomfort. (If we can call hypothermia discomfort.)

Kamali found herself on a post-divorce camping trip with a friend in the middle of August in Upstate New York. The weather was already turning nippy, so when Kamali got out of her tent in the middle of the night for a bathroom break, she wrapped her sleeping bag around her shoulders before sprinting for the trees. The pee run turned out to be a source of inspiration. “As I’m walking into the woods I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God this is such a great coat.’ So I went back home, I took my sleeping bag, and I cut a coat out of it and I didn’t waste one part of the sleeping bag,” Kamali told the Museum at FIT. That pattern was the one that she has used ever since for her Sleeping Bag Coat, which launched in 1973 and still sells today. She even included a sleeping bag cover that the coat could be neatly folded into.

The sleeping bag coat immediately took off. Elton John, Cher, and Elizabeth Montgomery all bought one. The doormen at Studio 54 used to wear them, and it was seen as just the thing to wear indoors when President Jimmy Carter’s energy-saving plan lowered thermostats to 65 degrees in the winter of ’73.

Today, if you want to follow in the footsteps of the Rocket Man or disco club bouncers, you can still buy one of the many versions of the coat on Kamali’s site, NormaKamali.com, ranging from $500 to $1,450. The coat still has a demand, and has made a quiet appearance in popular culture throughout the years. André Leon Talley, Lady Gaga, and Solange have all worn the iconic red version.

Editor Andre Leon Talley in a red Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

The sleeping bag coat wasn’t just quirky. It ushered in a culture-altering trend that would make puffer coats as much of a winter staple as Ugg boots.

The long parka echoed extreme environmental wear, and people liked to wear the sleeping bag coat to feel modern. “In Los Angeles, where mercury hit the high 70s last week, students were roaming college campuses in parkas, shorts and bare feet,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1976. “In New York, where the wind chill factor was 50 below zero, people wore down-filled coats and jackets for everything from theater openings to job interviews.”

People bought the coat both for its Arctic-like quality, and because it was so eccentric. You had to have a sense of humor to wear it because it was so unusual at the time. “It just looked so preposterous I had to have it,” Janet Carlson, a director of an advertising firm, told the LA Times in 1976. “ It makes me feel like a little girl tucked in a big man’s pocket. And it’s turned out to be a shelter from the cold, an umbrella for the rain, an evening or a daytime coat. But I don’t take it seriously. I wear it as if it’s something funny I just said.”

Hilarious or not, the trend caught on, even if passerby were bewildered by the marshmallow-like jacket. Stephanie Baum of Greenwich Village was just leaving her apartment for her secretarial job when the man she lived with poked his head out of their bedroom window and called out, “Hey, you forgot to take off your sleeping bag.” Baum just smirked over her padded shoulder.

“And off she went, hands deep in the pockets of her purple quilted coat, to join the world of other working women in their quilted coats. It was 28 degrees outside, but inside her down-filled coat it felt ‘like summer,’” the New York Times reported in 1979.

People had a whole host of theories why the long parka trend exploded. Some thought it was a sign of an imminent doom. “And now, people seem to be tossing out the frivolous in favor of anything practical — as if they’re preparing for a cataclysm,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1976. Paco Rabanne, a Paris fashion designer, told the paper it was a sign that World War III was right around the corner. “Women already are starting to look like refugees, he says. They’re dressing in practical layers, piling everything on under all-purpose jackets. To Rabanne, this means the next world war will start in 1983.”

While the apocalypse obviously didn’t happen, Rabanne might have been onto something. When the World Trade Towers collapsed in 2001, Kamali’s sleeping bag coats spiked in popularity. “People wanted to feel comforted,” Kamali told the Financial Times in 2019. “Even though it wasn’t the season for us to be making them, we had to get the factory back to work. They just worked with whatever materials they had, so we had little notes in with the coats saying ‘This is not necessarily an outerwear garment, it is intended to make you feel safe.’”

Los Angeles psychologist James Douglas Scott had another theory. “Some people are concerned about conserving natural resources and surviving in an energy crisis. So they turn down the heat, wear parkas indoors or out to help the ecology and prove they can endure,” he told the Los Angeles Times in ‘76. “But primarily, I think parka partisans are probably the more sexually liberated part of the population. After all, down-filled jackets are soft, cuddly and comfortable. People who wear them are the ones who want to stay loose and have fun. Feeling good is nice, and parkas feel good.”

Scott wasn’t wrong. To mark the coat’s 10-year anniversary, Kamali invited owners of sleeping bag coats via a Village Voice ad to create a meetup on Wall Street in New York. In 1983, a group of 75 padded folks in all sorts of coat colors assembled on the steps of the Stock Exchange to create one of Kamali’s fashion videos.

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“What is the most provocative thing that’s happened to you in your sleeping bag coat,” the group was asked. One woman said, “I can say one thing: thank god they’re machine washable.” Having affairs in puffer coats aside, fans of sleeping bag coats found many other uses for them.

“The coat works incredibly for keeping your take-home food warm for those cold days when you have blocks to walk and you want a nice warm dinner,” one owner said. “You don’t have to reheat it, you just put it in your sleeping bag coat and it’s warm when you get there.”

Others used theirs as picnic blankets, a bed for a cat birthing kittens, or as a cozy blanket. “It’s good in the movie theater because you feel like your at home watching television with your comforter,” one person said. “It feels like a portable futon.”

One drawback was the mammoth size, though. “Another quite embarrassing situation with the sleeping bag coat: walking into a tiny little restaurant, with tiny little tables, with tiny little aisles and walking by and knocking over someone’s drink onto someone’s lap.”

But one thing the mob agreed on was the sense of community wearing the unusual coat. When you saw someone with the same puffy sleeves and blobby silhouette, you instantly acknowledged each other. “You’re like instant friends and you’ve got something in common. It’s the biggest sorority, fraternity, all over organization going, the sleeping bag coat club.”

As the years went by, the ankle-length down coat became less of a novelty and more of a staple. The more that folks saw puffers briskly walking down streets, the more normal they became. The sleeping bag coat began to multiply and be knocked off by other brands, mostly because Kamali didn’t have the resources to stop the copycats. In 1999, Maison Margiela created the duvet coat, which looked like a comforter with sleeves. More recently, River Island released a pink “sleeping bag coat” in 2017 that hung around the shoulders like a pulled-on blanket, and Moncler released a sleeveless floor-length puffer in 2018 that made you look like a walking bedroll.

“There are times when you own your own business and other people are influenced by something you’re doing, and they have more money and more advertising power to sell it, and you’re still trying to figure out how to pay the rent,” Kamali told the New York Times in 2018. But she wasn’t one to brood. “You can have them. I’m on to the next thing.”

With the slower cycle of coat trends and the convenience of being well insulated once temperatures drop, long puffer jackets have stuck around. So go ahead, swaddle yourself with a sleeping bag with sleeves. It’ll never go out of style.

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