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City Life in Winter: Nanook, Arctic Fashion, and the Ubiquitous Quilted Down Parka

With the arrival of bitter wind chills and snow this winter, walking in New York feels more like an expedition than a stroll.

It's not surprising then to see people on the street dressed in Arctic wear. Quilted down parkas with hoods trimmed in fur or faux fur have become a common sight on the streets of the city, worn by men and women alike, and I've even seen small short-haired dogs wearing them, too.

While some women still choose to show off their legs by continuing to wear leggings under short coats - brrrrr, others like me have fully embraced the Nanook of the North look. Bundled up in a knee-length quilted padded parka with a big fur-lined hood, often with a shaggy dog by my side, I feel safe setting out for the wilds of the West Village, braced against the howling wind. The only accessories I am lacking to complete the look are rugged snowshoes and a long harpoon.

Wondering how the residents of New York City have come to resemble the indigenous people of the Arctic Circle, I've spent some time learning about the history of the parka. The Caribou Intuit, the inland group of Inuit (Eskimo), are said to have invented this type of hooded jacket as protection from the bitter cold weather. The word "parka" comes from the Aleut word for skin or pelt, and the original types, as opposed to the ones on sale at Bloomingdales, were often made of caribou or seal.

The lining of parkas, made of down (the fine feathers underneath the outer large feathers on birds) or with synthetic material, creates the sense of warmth. According to the Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume by Josephine Paterek (1996), Aleutian black and white parkas made of horned puffin skins were much coveted by Russian officials. The authoritative Arctic Clothing of North America - Alaska, Canada, Greenland (1995) includes first person narratives about making parkas, a labor-intensive process that not only requires art and skill but also serves as a handed-down tradition that binds generations together. I know no one in the city who has made their own parka.
The story of how parkas entered mainstream western fashion may begin in the 1920s with the screenings of explorer Robert Flaherty’s landmark documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). The film follows a year in the life of Nanook and his family as they survive the harsh climate by hunting and fishing. Though Flaherty staged many of the scenes through reenactments, the portrayal of Eskimo life, including memorable scenes such as hunting a seal and building an igloo, attracted success at the box office.

Prior to Nanook, the publication of Edward S. Curtis's images of North American Indians, financed by New York's own J. P. Morgan, may have contributed to the general awareness of Arctic life and its material culture, including articles of clothing. (Like Flaherty, Curtis would sometimes dress up his subjects to make them look more traditional.) Slide lectures by veterans of polar expeditions also attracted large audiences.

According to the Aspen Historical Society's website page on Ski Fashion, designers created specific fashions for skiers beginning in the 1930s. During this time, skiers started donning parkas to protect against the cold weather and wind chill factor. According to company information, in 1936 Eddie Bauer of Seattle, Washington filed a patent for his invention of the quilted goose down jacket, and a few years later, he created the B-9 Flight Parka, just one of several types of parkas developed for Arctic duty during World War II. In the 1960s the Mods in London started picking up parkas from the Army-Navy store as retro practical fashion touches to wear while riding their scooters.

The contemporary luxury parka seen on the streets of New York is often considered part of the urban warrior style, a mix of masculine and feminine fashion tendencies that has been around since 2006. Prada, among other designers, introduced stylized versions of the parka that included more shaping tailored to the body. In time, the designer parka trickled down to the ready-to-wear collections. Expedition retailers like The North Face that helped popularize rugged outdoor clothing for the city consumer eventually introduced more chic versions of the parka to sell in department stores.

Now thousands of New Yorkers are ready to do battle with the elements. A well-made parka does a fine job in protecting against the cold and wind, especially while walking around the wind tunnels of Midtown or while getting lost in the vast wilderness of Central Park.*

* Not totally tongue-in-cheek. See amNY's story from Feb. 2, 2010, "Coyote spotted in Central Park."

On a related note, Fashion Week begins in New York on February 11.

Images: Scene from winter, Washington Square Park; Family group - Noatak (The North American Indian; v.20) by Edward S. Curtis. Original photogravure produced in Cambridge, Mass. by Suffolk Engraving Co., c 1928, Library of Congress, American Memory Collection. Walking Off the Big Apple is considering changing her name to "Prada Parka."

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