I was walking through Hazratganj the other day when I saw a gentleman wearing a full-length hooded mink coat. Not the most common of sights, I suppose, but then again Hazratganj is probably home to the highest population of trending wear in the city, so if you’re going to see one, then the placemakes for good hunting. Freezing as my face was at the time, this coat reminded me of the indubitable utility of the parka jacket.
The word ‘parka’ comes from the Nenets language used by natives of the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea, and simply means ‘animal skin’ – so etymologically speaking, this minked-up chap was wearing a parka, but it was nothing like what you and I have in mind when we think of this iconic jacket.
The History Of The Parka
Few pieces of clothing have undergone such a thorough transformation as the parka. Originally made from caribou or seal by the Canadian Inuits, this age-old outerwear staple began to evolve from its original fabrication with the development of the fishtail parka in 1950s America.
Facing severely cold Korean winters, the US Army invented the now renowned M-1947 (M48) and M-1951 (M51) fishtail parkas. Both crafted from wind-resistant olive drab-coloured cotton sateen (though the M51 was also made from nylon), they featured a large front pouch pocket, an upper sleeve patch for a box of cigarettes and a long skirt (or fishtail) that you could sit on. Finally, a removable wool-pile liner (attached beneath) formed the hood.
As with so many menswear staples, the parka became a civilian hit just a number of years after it first appeared on the battlefield. From the 1960s onwards, it was synonymous with British mod culture – arguably because its fishtail kept your backside dry on a Vespa.
While the parka has never really fallen from favour since the mod era, its enduring appeal could be attributed to its function rather than its – up until recent years – lacklustre form. Nor has its relatively lowly status on the scale of stylish outerwear been helped by menswear’s switch of focus to refined, tailored pieces over the past few years. Bulky, shapeless and comparatively nondescript, the parka found itself in the furthest recesses of the stylish wardrobe, hidden behind overcoats, pea coats, trench coats and macs.
Now, though, spurred on by womenswear brands’ immensely successful appropriation of the parka, menswear designers are re-inventing the military staple, giving it an all-new, much smarter lease of life in the process.
The Tailored Parka
This hybrid of winter utility and classic sartorial detailing is as smart and sophisticated as the parka gets. Brioni led the field in the autumn/winter 2014 collections with a formidable three-button zip-fronted lilac version replete with slanted front pockets for easy hand access and a fur-lined hood that fastens all the way up the neck. If there is a more luxurious way to fend off the elements on your walk to work this winter, I haven’t found it yet. The soft pastel shade of its wool makes it an excellent option against a light grey suit.
Interestingly, Brioni also produced a much lighter cotton check version for SS14. However, given that the tight-fitting Brioni suits of the 1960s were de rigeur for a flush mod on the Kings Road, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Italian house is breaching the fold in reinterpreting the parka.
Elsewhere, Ports 1961 produced a beautiful tailored version in exquisite midnight blue wool with a unique double lapel. Given that the hood wasn’t trimmed with fur, you could argue that it’s not strictly a parka, but it’s impressive enough to merit a mention and, as we’ve already established, the parka is pretty amorphous at any rate.