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canada 150

Once a survival garment imbued with meaning, Nathalie Atkinson finds that this coat's design has become generic. Still, it remains a crucial item in the winter wardrobe

To mark Canada 150, Globe Style's Clearly Canadian series explores iconic examples of domestic design.

The word parka comes from the Aleutian islands, off Alaska, where it means "animal skin" in Nenet. The generic garment with that name that is recognized the world over is descended from the long body, ample fixed hood and baby pouch of the amauti coat traditionally worn by female caregivers in the Arctic to house an infant directly in contact with their skin. According to Sinews of Survival, Betty Kobayashi Issenman's study of the living legacy of Inuit clothing, differences in sex, age, local origin, marital status and role are reflected in clothing. The back of a male hunter's parka would be longer than the front, to bundle for warmth while sitting and fishing, for example.

In the Arctic, one of the most extreme climates in the world, clothing is integral to survival. The parka offers both physical protection and visual information about identity. The Kimmirut Inuit band on the southwestern shore of Baffin Island was one of the first Inuit groups to come into contact with Europeans and made coats as trade items. Antique specimens in Gatineau's Canadian Museum of History are made of caribou or sealskin and were worn as a combination of inner and outer layers depending on the season.

When Europeans adapted the coat in the 1900s, what was once animal skin coated with fish oil for water resistance became wax-treated cotton canvas (and later, silk and polyester). The parka enjoyed early fame in well-publicized adventurer expeditions and, later, on-screen fame – the U.S. military-style 1950s fishtail parka worn by Jimmy in The Who's Quadrophenia, for example. It now also enjoys a starring role on countless film sets worn by actors between takes.


The Inuvik Parka Enterprise version, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, was manufactured in the Northwest Territories of coloured, virgin wool cloth, and is commonly referred to as a James Bay parka. The pockets and back are often adorned with figures made of patches (like sealskin polar bear appliqués) and embroidery that depict typical icy scenes. A fox-trimmed version is housed in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection.

The company now known as Canada Goose was founded by Sam Tick in 1957 as manufacturer Metro Sportswear. It made custom-order outerwear for rangers, security forces and municipal workers (as well as for other brands such as Woods). Most Canada Goose parkas today are cut from Arctic Tech, a proprietary 85/15 cotton/polyester blend made in Quebec, and hoods are trimmed in the traditional way with coyote fur (prized for its dense underfur and long guard hairs that keep the face warm and shield it from the wind).

The original parka had many variations by function and region. Characteristics in parka decoration – a banded hem here, a stripe or distinctive hood shape there – also once identified the wearer's band or community; the Labrador Inuit man's parka would be edged with dog or polar bear skin, for instance. On modern Canadian labels including Canada Goose or Moose Knuckles today, the exterior decoration has been replaced by badges and patches that identify the maker's brand instead.