views updated


A parka is a loose-fitting hooded piece of outerwear invented in prehistoric times by the Inuit people living near the Arctic Circle. Traditionally, and most commonly, made from caribou and sealskins, parkas are also known to have been made from polar-bear fur, bird skins, fox fur, and salmon skins. Today, parkas worn in the non-Inuit world are usually made of nylon, polyester/cotton blended fabric, cotton, or wool, and given a water-repellent coating. The parka has become an item of fashionable winter wear.


Although the design is of Inuit invention, the word parka is of Russian derivation, meaning "reindeer fur coat." With the Inuit people of Canada's Arctic region living in some of the planet's most extreme climates, the parka, like many pieces of outerwear, was originally designed to provide warmth for its wearer. Often two parkas would be worn together (one with the fur facing outward, the other, fur inward) to allow for better insulation and air circulation even in the coldest of temperatures. But although several layers may be worn, the parka remains a fully functional garment, as Betty Kobayashi Issenman explains in Sinews of Survival:

The cut and tailoring of Inuit costume create garments that are loose yet fitted when necessary and that admirably meet the requirements of hunter and mother. Hood construction with its close fit and drawstring, ensures clear peripheral vision. Capacious shoulders allow the wearer to carry out complex tasks (p. 40).

It was this ease of movement and the ability to withstand subzero temperatures that led the U.S. army to adopt and adapt the Inuit-styled parka to suit its own needs during World War II.

The prototype field cotton parka was a long skirted, hooded jacket that formed the windproof outer shell for severe conditions. The field parka … was standardised after shortening to raise the lower closure to waist level. The longer version was modified by adding fur trimming to the hood (p. 188).

The later nylon-cotton mix M1951, available in olive and white colors, was developed to include a removable mohair liner, snap-fastened fly front, adjustable cuffs, and split lower-back sections, and was filled with quilted nylon.

In the mid-1960s, benefiting from fabric developments initiated by the U.S. Army, the nylon parka, worn with tapered stretch pants, became a fashion staple on European ski slopes. Parkas with reversible quilting, corduroy, leather trims, and leather shoulders were all available in a multitude of colors and patterns. Some skiers went for the longer parka while many preferred the shorter version as it was more versatile on the slope as well as for après ski.

During the early to mid-1960s, some of the pioneers in the mod subculture adopted the original army parkas as protection for their much-prized bespoke suits while on their scooters. This helped to move the parka off the ski slopes and into the conventional wardrobe. The parka has remained a winter-fashion constant since the 1960s.

See alsoCoat; Inuit and Arctic Dress; Outerwear; Windbreaker .


Amies, Hardy. A,B,C of Men's Fashion. London: Cahill and Company Ltd., 1964.

Byrde, Penelope. The Male Image: Men's Fashion in England, 1300–1970. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1979.

Chenoune, Farid. A History of Men's Fashion. Paris: Flammarion, 1993.

De Marley, Diana. Fashion for Men: An Illustrated History. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1985.

Issenman, Betty. Sinews of Survival: The Living Legacy of Inuit Clothing. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997.

Schoeffler, O.E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Stanton, Shelby. U.S. Army Uniforms of World War II. Harrisburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 1991.

Tom Greatrex