The most famous parka wearer, other than Nanook of the North, is likely Kenny McCormick from South Park. Kenny is known for hiding his face deep in the hood of his parka, even tightening it when he’s frightened. Kenny’s voice often comes out as muffled, though his friends seem to be able to understand him.
Kenny’s voice is muffled because parkas are notoriously thick and not very breathable at all. This is a garment that was meant for warmth after all. Warmth typically means sacrificing breathability.
A parka is good for the mountain towns of Colorado; not so much for a Florida beach.
History of the Parka
The parka was created by the Inuit people of Canada for the purpose of staying warm in Arctic winters. They were often made out of seal or caribou skin. Fish oil would be applied to make the garment more waterproof.
The word “parka” is thought to be borrowed from the Nenet people of northern Siberia, their word for “animal skin”. Pilots and soldiers from the United States military found the parka to be not only comfortably warm but large enough to have pockets to store anything they might need. While the original parka was fur lined, pile was used by military issue parkas due to rationing.
In 1951, a drawstring was added to trap in more heat. When the Korean War was over, mod subcultures of the Swinging Sixties adopted the parka as a customizable fashion statement that kept clothes clean while riding motorcycles or scooters. It’s been in and out of style since, as fashion is cyclical.
As they were a fashionable bit of Brit Pop back in the 90’s and 90’s retro is becoming fashionable, parkas will become de rigueur in colder weather.
What are Parkas Made From?
The original parkas were made out of the skin and fur of a caribou or seal. The modern parka is made out of nylon or other synthetic material. It may be lined with wool fleece or insulated with duck or goose down for more warmth.
There are vegan parkas on the market with insulation that is not only synthetic and cruelty-free, but recycled in order to be more environmentally friendly. In any case, the parka is made with the purpose of keeping the wearer warm and dry. Breathability is not an intended feature for this garment, so very thick materials are used in its manufacture.
How is a Parka Different From a Jacket?
One major difference is length. Jackets typically end at hip length. Parkas will go down to mid-thigh, sometimes as far as the knees.
Parkas also have a hood, often trimmed in fur, either real or faux. Most modern parkas have faux fur. Some will have the option to detach the hood.
Because parkas are bigger than jackets, that means lots of room for pockets. The parka will often be warmer than a jacket simply because it covers more area. However, this largely depends on the materials used to make the garments.
A parka is good for cold winters but tends not to be as breathable as the traditional winter jacket. If you do need some fresh air inside your coat without taking it off completely, both jackets and parkas may have ventilation zippers under the armpits to increase breathability.
How to Select the Right Parka
The way to get the parka that’s right for you is to consider what your personal needs will be. Do you plan on taking the parka somewhere that’s just kind of chilly or somewhere that’s freezing cold? Keep in mind that insulation works on the principle of trapped air so a well insulated coat will not be very breathable.
Synthetic insulation is less bulky and has somewhat more water resistance. Down is a more effective insulator and compresses more easily. If you want breathability, a shorter parka may be what you need.
Some parkas have conveniently located zippers so that you can modify your parka as needed. Some adjustability zippers will allow greater freedom of movement if you need it to ride a bicycle, do some uphill walking or run from a polar bear.
Celebrities and Parkas
Parkas are a utilitarian garment rather than the haute couture associated with the rich and famous. Still, some celebrities find use for them. Actor Daniel Radcliffe pulls up the hood of his parka when he doesn’t want to be recognized.
“I’m 5-foot-5, and I’ll wear a big parka and put the hood up, and nobody gives me a second glance.” states the former star of the Harry Potter film series. Former Spice Girl Victoria “Posh” Beckham has since turned in her microphone for a drawing pencil to be a fashion designer. She noted that the parka isn’t exactly figure flattering, but she could probably pull it off anyway.
“I could wear a great big parka, that could be quite fabulous.” the former Project Runway judge confidently stated.
Parkas are usually built for warmth rather than breathability, but an exception to the rule is the parka built to withstand humid, rainy days. Gore-Tex is the pioneer material for this sort of garment, but many garment manufacturers make materials that keep water out without trapping in vapor. Cuffs without elastic on the cuffs are also good for making a parka that is waterproof without being too stuffy.
Mesh lining contributes to a breathable parka. Some are even made without any insulation at all if you just need a hooded raincoat. And, of course, you want to look for zippered options so that you can adjust your parka to the changing weather.
Velcro and drawstring hoods add to the adjustability of your parka’s comfort.
The parka as we know it today has come a long way since the animal skin garments worn by the Inuit people. Since parkas now are used for other climates than the frozen north, they are made out of a wider variety of materials, some manmade but all with a specific purpose in mind. Some are just naturally more breathable than others and some have zipper attachments that make it easy to modify the parka for different weather conditions.
The parka you choose to wear will be based on what your personal needs in a parka will be. If you like to go camping in winter or just walk around town in chilly or damp weather, you must get a parka that works for you. There is a wide variety of parkas out there.
Shop around, keep your eyes open, and you may find a parka that works not just for your primary use but sudden changes in circumstances.