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The Parka: A History

10/22/14

To protect yourself from frigid temperatures and blistering wind, you’re going to want a coat that affords maximum protection. Either that or you buy yourself a one-way ticket to Bermuda… at least in theory.

Long before the days of commercial air travel, the Caribou Inuit weathering all sorts of storms in the Arctic developed what has become a winter staple around the world: the parka. The original parkas—derived from a Nenets word meaning “animal skin”—were made out of caribou or seal, treated with fish oil to maintain water resistance. Hey, when temperatures are bottoming out and you’re hunting in a blizzard, you probably don’t care much about smelling good.

In the 1950s, the US Air Force developed the N-3B “Snorkle” Parka, used by flight crews stationed in areas of extreme cold. Crafted with a nylon shell and lined with a blanket-like wool (no seals were clubbed this time around), the jacket was made to handle temperatures as low as −60 °F and designed so that it could be zipped up the neck and above the nose, so that only a hole to see out of remained. As one might imagine, where the N-3B excelled in wind- and cold-proofing the military experience, it lacked in maintaining a sharpness of the senses. With the hood up and zipped, it was difficult to see or hear—abilities one imagines they might need during times of war.

But wait, there’s more.

The Fishtail Parka, developed by the US military following WWII, was a little different, intended not to be worn alone like the N-3B, but layered over other pieces. Designed with an extra bit of fabric in the back (hence the “fishtail” reference), the parka could be tied around the knees for extra wind-resistance or snapped up for increased mobility during combat. This particular shape resulted in four different iterations—the EX-48, M-48, M-51 and the M-65—with each version taking away from the original elements that weren’t working on building on the ones that worked.

As is the case with many pieces of clothing that stand the test of time, the parka has evolved from its practical beginnings to become a cultural icon in its own right, remembered almost less for its sartorial origin than for the people who have worn it since. Mick Jagger, South Park's Kenny, Liam Gallagher: They've all lent the parka some time in the spotlight (for better or worse) at one point or another. Most notable still is the Fishtail Parka's persistent presence in Britain's Mod movement and '60s scooter culture.

Each parka iteration--from the Snorkel to the Fishtail--has been repurposed for commercial purposes over the last few decades, designed and redesigned with fabrics and in styles that reflect the current version of modern life, falling in and out of favor with the tides of various pop culture movements.

But you know what stays constant?

The need to be warm. 

 

Photos courtesy of LIFE and fubiz.net.