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As September unfolds into October and winter once again becomes a reality, the matter of keeping warm hits home.

When people think back to last year's pre-Thanksgiving blizzard, those who were stranded know all too well what it was like to be dressed improperly.

Perhaps they didn't have a pair of gloves -- or the ones they wore got soaked. Maybe they were stuck without a hat or boots. Or maybe the coat they were wearing, though fine for routine commutes from attached garage to parking garage, was far from suitable for hoofing it from abandoned cars.

After last year, packing a parka, warm socks and extra hat and gloves along with other winter survival items doesn't seem so mother-always-told-you-so.

Extreme conditions, indeed, but it does prompt people to rethink their fall and winter outdoor garb. We're not so much focusing here on the active gear designed for skiing and other winter sports -- although many of these items can cross over to street wear -- but the stuff people wear every day when it's cold outside but they need to look decent.

Whether it's casual or dressy, a cloth coat is a major purchase. And a costly one. A classic wool duffel coat with toggle buttons can cost $150 to $200. A long wool dress coat may run closer to $300. Camel hair, even more.

Which is why some people shop secondhand.

"Coats are definitely an investment piece. What you want to look for, whatever your budget, is the best quality you can afford," said Betsy Thompson, director of public relations for Talbots.

What makes the perfect winter coat for everyday wear? Depends on who you talk to. An informal survey turned up such essential coat features as the following:

A hood.

No belt to get caught in car doors or left behind in restaurants.

A bright color to lift the spirits (or, contrarily, one in a neutral color you won't tire of.)

Removable lining.

Good buttons.

A classic design.

A length long enough to cover any length dress or skirt.

And so on.

Some people admit their favorite winter coat isn't necessarily tops in the looks department. In the foulest weather, you can expect to find Sheryl Raulin in her full-length down coat.

It's 15 years old. And lilac, no less.

But it's what she pulls out in storms like the one last November.

"It's ugly, as you can imagine. It covers my ears and goes down to my ankles. I love it. It's a comforting coat," said Raulin, marketing director for Eastern Hills Mall.

If you're in the market for a new winter coat, you will obviously need to spend some time trying on various styles, preferably over the sort of sweater or jacket you routinely wear.

But there's more. Feeling the coat's fabric and lining -- and examining the workmanship -- also tells you a lot about its quality.

Does the collar sit right? Is the stitching tight and even, with no loose threads? Does the lining feel soft to the touch, not scratchy, and allow the coat to slide on and off easily? Does the lining have a pleat in the back so that it doesn't pull?

Such details count.

"You want to look at the seaming, the buttons . . . buttons are a big thing. You don't want the buttons to be so tight that they pop off. They should have some give," Thompson said.

You also want to read the labels. Look for the Woolmark labels on coats -- with either the Woolmark (100 percent pure wool) or Woolmark Blend symbol, an indication of quality, recommends Colleen H. Frey, associate professor and coordinator of the Fashion Textile Technology Program at Buffalo State College.

Also remember that merino wool is considered to be the highest quality wool; you'll see it in top-of-the-line coats. Cashmere, though considered a luxury fiber, is not as durable as wool, she added.

The fibers are so fine, the coat will wear out much faster, Frey explained.

As for coat linings, acetate and rayon -- though common -- are weaker than a polyester or polyester blend, Frey said.

And look closely at the weave; a twill weave -- characterized by a diagonal pattern -- is stronger than a satin or plain weave.

A lined polyester-blend coat with an insulating layer of polyester fiber fill, can be quite serviceable in cold or wet weather, said Frey, who warns that down coats, though a natural insulator, lose their effectiveness when wet.

Also, make sure the coat fits you. It sounds obvious, but . . .

"A lot of women make the mistake of buying a coat without trying it on over a sweater or jacket, then go through the winter months not being comfortable," said Talbot's Thompson.

People also need to consider their lifestyle when choosing a coat.

If you are the motoring sort, you'll maneuver better in a shorter-length coat or jacket than a midcalf-length one, for example.

"If you spend a lot of time in the car dropping off the kids, you probably want a coat that comes to the knees. It gives you the warmth but not all that extra length," Thompson said.

Two classics to choose from: "The pea coat, which is great for a more casual lifestyle, and the duffel or what some call the Paddington Bear coat. It makes me think of tailgating at football games, and it has those big pockets you can stick your hands into," she added.

Versatility also is key, especially for those who limit their inventories to one or two coats and expect them to last for years.

"I think the all-around best coat is the long, camel hair reefer-style coat. It is incredibly warm, and it is the classic among classic coats for women -- and men. The styling of it tends to be more generous in the shoulders, so if you are a career person it will fit over your suits. But it also looks fabulous over black pants, a black turtleneck and boots, if you are going out to dinner with friends," Thompson said.

Jeff Stone and Kim Johnson Gross, authors of the Chic Simple series of style books, call a long black coat the most versatile of styles.

"It looks as versatile covering a business coat as it does an evening dress," they wrote.

They recommend a wool-and-cashmere blend -- for its beautiful drape, luxurious softness and durability.

"Changing the personality of a black coat can be as easy as wrapping a scarf around your neck," they added.

Now is also a good time to pull together other winter essentials. While most people don't reject the idea of wearing gloves, hats are another matter.

No one wants to arrive at business meetings with a gravity-defying hairdo. One idea: Choose a wool felt hat rather than a knit one (although you may want to store the knit one in your car in the event of a blizzard.)

Some women prefer a knit hood wrap of some sort or a big wool challis scarf, which can be wrapped around the neck and pulled up as a hood when needed. Berets are another option.

And a final word on boots: Your best bet is to shop early for a pair of boots that are warm, comfortable and compatible with the coat you wear. The good news is that even dressy boots now come with Thinsulate or other warm linings and soles that provide good footing.

You'll be glad you have them come January. If not much sooner.