Stories / November 2019

Style 101: The History of the Parka

We trace the evolution of this all-weather garment to its origins in Inuit antiquity and military functionality.

Insulin. Peanut butter. Electric wheelchairs. IMAX. Pacemakers. The Wonderbra. Garbage bags… Canada is responsible for giving the world a host of great inventions, eh? Among the greatest of them all, from the perspective of this publication at least, is the parka.

Today, ‘parka’ characteristically refers to a hip-length cold-weather coat, generally lined with down or a warm synthetic fibre, with a hood trimmed or lined in fur. The original parkas sported in the wilds of Canada, however, took rather a more rough-hewn form.

Worn for millennia by the country’s indigenous Inuit people, who dubbed this garment an ‘amauti’, the prototype for today’s parka was more akin in design to what we’d nowadays term an anorak. (Anorak itself, you may be interested to learn, is derived from the Greenlandic word ‘annoraaq’.) It was a heavy pull-over jacket made from the skin of a carabou, seal, or other animal pelts, the fur side facing outward and treated with animal fat or fish oil to increase water resistance. Robust carabou skin provided natural insultation and was best for cold, dry environments, while seal proved better in temperate climes, offering wind and water resistance but remaining lightweight.

In frostier conditions, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic would wear these garments coupled with an inner pelt jacket, the fur facing inwards onto the skin. An amauti’s hood or neckline could be lined or trimmed with the fur of wolves, dogs or fox, the latter a ‘luxury’ alternative most often used on garments worn only in the relatively civilised surrounds of the village.

According to Merriam-Webster, it was in the 17th century that the word parka was first used in literature referring to a garment of this type. In one of the earliest instances identified, describing the people of the north Russian Arctic within a rare tome titled ‘The English Atlas’ — copies of which today trade for £80,000 — Moses Pitt wrote: “Their garments are all of Fur; that next their bodies (called by them Mallek, or a shirt) of young Fawns, Hares, or Swans-skins, very soft and well-dressed; the outward (called Parka) of stronger and thicker Fur.”

Tags