Fashion: How the parka became go-anywhere super-cool outerwear
The parka is the turn-to coat when the weather turns cold. Stephanie Smith has tips on how to wear one, and picks out key looks for winter.
Easy, warm, practical – and seriously cool – the parka has become less a garment of protection and warmth, more a way of life for the many of us who have no idea what we would do without one.
It’s the ultimate throw-on and go piece, to wear over jeans, sweaters and trainers at weekends, over your office attire during the week, and over your party frock (mini or maxi – it works with both) on a night out. No wonder we love it.
But what, exactly, is a parka? Well, technically, it should have a hood and a zip that runs from the top to the bottom on the front of the coat (if the zip is one of those two-way ones that allows you to adjust how far it is open at the top and the bottom, so much the better).
Traditionally, the classic parka is made from a heavy cotton and is long and roomy enough to wear over layers of clothing and provide an outer layer of insulating warmth and protection.
The origins of the parka go back centuries to the Inuit people who inhabited the freezing Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska. To protect themselves and their children from the bitter cold, they made hooded coats out of seal skin, lined with fur and treated with fish oil to keep them waterproof. Some say they were traditionally worn by women and included a baby pouch, for easy, cosy child transportation.
The word “parka”, however, is actually derived from the Nenets language of northern Russia, and simply means “animal skin”.
Roll forward to 1940s America, when the US military introduced a sage green version of the parka, complete with traditional fur hood, for its simplicity and practicality value. Windproof and able to withstand freezing weather conditions, the long length offered full body protection and pockets sewn inside allowed troops to carry ammunition, food and medical supplies. The fishtail parka was developed to give extra protection against the wind as it allowed the tail to be tied through the legs to stop it flaring out.
Then, in the late 1950s, British Mods hit upon the idea of picking up parkas from army surplus stores, to protect their sharp suits while they rode their scooters. So it was that the parka become a symbol of youth and rebellion, etched into the history of pop culture, cemented by The Who’s Quadrophenia album cover and later, Nineties Britpop, when bands such as Oasis and Blur adopted it as the all-weather, outdoor-meets-indoor, on stage and off, supersonically cool uniform of choice.
And so it has remained ever since, becoming an ever more ubiquitous part of British life. You can barely move at the school gates for all the chic mums in fur-hooded parkas and skinny jeans, although the name “parka” is being spread about pretty liberally, used to describe any coat with a hood and a zip.
This season brings us a fresh crop of super-chic, padded and quilted versions, perfect for when it’s freezing out. Volume is important for this autumn/winter, so we are seeing a return to the traditional parka silhouette, allowing room for plenty of layers and billowing out pleasingly on breezy days, when left open over knits and jeans.
Then there are the supersize options. The parka has become so huge and padded, it’s morphing into the huge duvet coat, surely one-season wonders, if only for the amount of space they take up on the coat hooks.
If you want a parka you’ll be wearing for years to come, invest in a traditional style in a substantial fabric, lined through the body for warmth and also with a fur-lined hood, roomy enough for plenty of layers but not so voluminous that it’s awkward and cumbersome to wear. And there’s no reason why you can’t try men’s styles.
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