Coat vs. Jacket: What’s the Difference?

Coats and jackets living together in harmony.
Coats and jackets living together in harmony. / Dole08/iStock via Getty Images

As you pack away your heavy winter outerwear for its long hibernation in the bottom of a box or back of a closet, you might find yourself wondering which garments are technically coats and which ones deserve “jacket” designation. According to Lands’ End, there’s really only a single distinction between the two.

“For many, these terms are interchangeable. And we don’t have a problem with that,” the company says on its website. “But as the maker of both coats and jackets … we do have a hard opinion on the matter.”

Basically, it comes down to length. Jackets usually cut off around your waist or hips, while coats don’t stop until part way down your legs; some even go all the way to the ankle. The types of garments we call “jackets” mostly follow this convention: jean jackets, bomber jackets, leather jackets, starter jackets, and suit jackets are all short. Trench coats and overcoats, on the other hand, are often long. There are definitely exceptions—sport coats are short, as are many peacoats. There are even jacket coats, a phrase originated in 16th-century Scotland that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a coat similar to a jacket; a relatively short and lightweight coat.”

This touches on another commonly cited difference in the coats-versus-jackets discourse: the level of warmth a given garment offers. Since coats cover more of you, they’re generally considered the warmer of the two. But there are so many exceptions to this trend that it doesn’t really work as a way to tell the two apart. Plenty of jackets are made from down feathers or other heavy-duty materials that insulate you from the cold much better than a trench coat would, for example.

Though it probably won’t matter if you mix up the terms jacket and coat in casual conversation, knowing the difference might help you narrow your search if you’re trying to shop for the perfect one online.

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