When I was a young Brownie Scout in Milwaukee, we attended a symphony concert as a troop on a Saturday. As an 8-year-old, imagining that this would be a sophisticated affair, I wore a sweet little dress under my grey, wide-wale corduroy coat. Upon arriving at the concert, I noticed all the other Scouts taking off their own coats to reveal their little brown uniforms and shoulder sashes with a booty of patches. I had missed the memo. And after a hard swallow, I knew what I had to do. No matter how many times our leader asked me if I was hot, (which I can remember her doing several times as my cheeks became red from both the heat and humiliation) there was NO way I was taking off that coat. I sweat through the entire performance – but no one ever knew of my mistake. A coat hides a multitude of sins.
The same goes for you! With a very chic coat, what is underneath can remain a secret. Too dressy? Too casual? Not cool enough? A tragically forgotten Brownie uniform? It is one of the reasons I love fall so much. It is one of the best times for travel, anyway – not too hot, not too cold, not so many people in line for the same museums. The weather is just right that your coat can serve as accessory just as much as necessity. At this time of year, for me it is not so much what is IN my bag as what I choose to wear ON the plane, train, street, hike... wherever. I want it to be practical, but a true reflection of the real me. A coat defines your style! Sporty spice in a lightweight puffer (which can also double as an airplane pillow), or elegant sophisticate in a wrap duster made of wool. International woman of mystery in a classic trench, Love Story-tomboy-chic in a peacoat. I can go on. For me, the best and most versatile is a safari-style field jacket. It makes me feel like Christiane Amanpour in the very best way. When travel includes lots of coming and going, the coat is your most important choice. It could be your lifesaver. And you must wear it, not pack it. You could, in fact, lose your luggage and use this as an excuse to have yourself a genuine cultural experience at the local Target equivalent, where you can buy cheap stand-ins to wear underneath. (My very favorite is Monoprix in Paris, where they happen to have great baby clothes and underwear.) As long as you've got your coat, you are set. This advice is not gender-specific, either. Sid does the same. Sporty down vest — denim jacket – banker-type topcoat – spy trench. Actually, he mostly wears a sport coat on the plane and then just layers all of the previous coat listed. Even so! I love a coat.
There are three more have-to-haves in my fall suitcase. An all-black outfit is the first. Boring, I know. But barring black tie, this will work for everything – you never know what invitation from some fancy (or equally rugged) individual might be forthcoming. Boring, I know – I will explain. A few years back we were in Paris for Premiere Vision. PV is a huge fabric fair that everyone from the design world attends – it kicks off their design process. It is barely even in Paris – it's housed at a convention center an hour outside the city – and a pain in the neck to get to. Despite this, I had visions of fanciness ahead for the trip. A friend had invited us to his incredibly chic apartment on the Ile St. Louis for drinks and then dinner at Tour d'Argent. I have no idea how many Michelin stars it holds at the moment, but just like the Milwaukee symphony performance, I felt certain that it would be another sophisticated affair. So I packed what I thought would be fancy enough, but sufficiently versatile to qualify as "mixed use" to borrow from real estate jargon. Fitted black crewneck sweater... chic pull-on pants that were basically elevated leggings... and little Chanel heels. (I was in France after all!) I looked a bit like Edie Sedgwick borrowing her mother's shoes. I felt perfect. And it would have been... except that we were not going to Tour d'Argent but Rotisserie d'Argent, a casual chicken bistro at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. An optimistic mistranslation on my part? I may have screwed up the name, but I STILL got it right with my outfit. This chic little getup can take me almost anywhere. All I did was change my posture a bit, and have one extra drink before we left the apartment (since I didn't have to be afraid of getting a little sloppy in the chicken joint!). Et voila. Okay, and I did change my earrings. A small tweak.
Men have it easier in these kinds of situations. My husband Sid would tell you to always pack a tie – he usually wears one, but sometimes I make him take it off if I feel too underdressed in comparison; easy enough to stuff into a pocket – wear your jacket on the plane, and make sure you have one pair of pants that aren't jeans. You just never know. I think the point I am making is that with just a little space in your suitcase, and the right attitude, you can be prepared for nearly anything. You may not be the most colorful one in the room – but who cares? Amanda Brooks has that book that tells us to Always Pack a Party Dress, and that is excellent advice, but a chic black get-up does the trick for me.
The next one is boring, but it will look great with that black outfit. You need a walking boot. You need to be able to move around and put in some miles and keep your feet dry and warm. (There is nothing worse than wet feet!) I take a pair of Chelsea-cowboy-boot hybrids that I cannot live without. They have a high enough heel that they give me support and a few more inches which I need. They can look dressed up with my black outfit, casual with jeans, and all moods in between... and they are not too precious to be a distraction. Because you can't let your fear of ruining your shoes hold you back. You have already invested in the trip. And never ever take new shoes – I once got blisters on my feet from a new pair of shoes, wore sandals the next day with a warm spell in September – and got an infection from the open sore that nearly put me in a French hospital. Bad idea.
Last one is a wild card of sorts. I always pack a bathing suit—even in the winter, even on a city trip—because you just never know. Sid and I spent the most hysterical afternoon looking for swimsuits all over Paris on another trip to the fabric show, squarely out of resort season. We had to switch hotels last-minute and could not resist the surprise steam room and sauna in the new one. We finally snagged mine at Zara, and a Euro-Speedo for him at a sporting goods store. In hindsight, if we could have gotten over our shyness, we might have saved ourselves the trip—the spa was clearly a clothing-optional kind of place. No one else in there was worried about swimwear. But even if your hotel doesn't have a fancy spa, nothing is better to me than a few laps in the pool, so a tank suit is in my bag always. And by the way, the Speedo style comes in handy at home when we want to have a laugh.
So there you have my most important four for fall – in ascending order of importance! Coat, black getup, boots, and a bathing suit every time. It may be the Boy Scout motto to "be prepared" – but the little Brownie Scout in me thinks ahead too!