Greatcoat, overcoat, topcoat: there are a lot of different names for a gentleman’s outerwear, and depending on how technical you want to get and whom you listen to they can each mean specific things from the length and girth of the garment to the heft of the fabric. And that’s not to mention more specific styles like Ulsters and Raglans and British warms and Chesterfields and Meltons. One point is easy to agree upon: the choices in outerwear include of a lot of great coats. (And we’re talking coats that are great in general here, not just greatcoats—one word—which are generous garments made of heavy cloth that stops well below the knee).

Ultimately outer garments descend from unfitted clothing: cloaks and kilts (the original great kilts worn in Braveheart that were big enough to wrap to the shoulders and sleep in). When tailoring brought fitted coats with sleeves, they evolved in the two typical directions of men’s wear: military and sports. You can still see the army’s influence in the greatcoats that have cloth straps on the shoulders for epaulets. A number of others, such as the covert coat, came from hunting. The voluminous polo coat was not meant for actual playing in, but for draping yourself in between chukkers.

But even if you’re not enlisted, a shooting enthusiast or on a polo team, you still need outerwear for two reasons: to stay warm and look good. To the latter end, concern yourself with a few points. Shoulder stance will define your silhouette. A subtle cap treatment, as exemplified by the Brioni heather-gray, three-quarter-length topcoat shown, tends to broaden the shoulders.

Raglan sleeves, with their slanted seams to the neck, minimize the shoulder. The Brioni coat’s peak lapels convey height on the wearer and certain majesty (especially when paired with a silk scarf, also Brioni). The understatement of notched lapels is often preferred with formalwear. Not surprisingly, double-breasted coats accentuate the chest, but retain the option of being worn open, which a D-B jacket should not be. Length is always an issue, and current fashion is for the three-quarter silhouette, which is jaunty and allows you to wear your coat in place of a jacket in some casual indoor situations. If a jacket is worn beneath, however, the coat should always be longer.

When you get the look, consider the function. Above all, the cloth should keep you warm and comfortable against the elements.