One of the key ideas to emerge from theories of material culture is the communicative power of objects. This communicative power is amplified when applied to dress artifacts, which, by virtue of their interaction with the artifact of the human body, are given extra layers of meaning. There is a sort of inherent honesty to material culture artifacts that textual accounts do not have; as Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim articulate in The Dress Detective, this is due to the fact that “clothing and accessories […] are objects created by man and thus reflect the cultural milieu in which they were designed, created, and worn.” (Kim, Mida, 12) This mention of the reflection of knowledge in the wearing of a garment is part of what makes material culture analysis different from textual analysis, for example – it is much more difficult to ‘cheat’ the way a garment was worn.
Studying clothing is significant to the study of culture because it reflects both the wearer’s habitat and cultural identity. Tom Svensson contends that it is second only to verbal communication in its communicative powers, particularly among Northern peoples, and I will be borrowing from his theoretical framework and turning it towards North American Inuit garments. His article, written about the Sami people of northern Sweden, Finland, and Norway, provides some general insights into the types of messages communicated by their various types of dress that he claims can be extrapolated to a wide variety of northern communities. He claims that their clothing makes a statement about their identity within a culture (displaying group identity and the individual’s status within the group) and makes culture-specific statements that reflect their norms and standards to individuals both within and exterior to the group.
He also posits the concept of a ‘language of clothing’ that points to three separate elements of a given culture: the available environmental resources (which is particularly important when considering Indigenous clothing, as it is often heavily influenced by their home region and what is available within it), technical developments (referring to the techniques used for construction such as cutting, sewing, and the preparation of the natural materials they may be using), and cultural standards (which help reinforce the prevailing practical and aesthetic norms of the culture) (Svensson, 62).
Rather than generally exploring the clothing practices of North American Inuit peoples, I will be more specifically examining the winter parka, as I have access to a modern-day example and wish to compare and contrast between historical practices of parka-making (and wearing) and current ones via a material culture analysis of this garment. We would not immediately presume to refer to culturally-specific Indigenous dress as a ‘fashion’, but we should perhaps examine why we are hesitant to do so; in Dress Detective, a ‘fashion’ is a garment or accessory that “reflects ‘the cultural construction of embodied identity’” (Kim, Mida, 18). Within that definition, the Inuit parka would certainly qualify as a ‘fashion’, and I would encourage readers to think of it as such, if only to begin to distance the term ‘fashion’ from its often Western connotations.
A Brief History of Inuit Parkas and their Cultural Significance
My examination of the history of parkas begins in the early twentieth century, although of course these communities have been on this land, producing their own garments, for much longer than that. I specifically aimed to study the parkas of the Inuvialuit people of the Mackenzie Delta, which is an area of the Northwest Territories near the Mackenzie River and the area where it flows into the Arctic Ocean. This is the same area from which my modern parka originates.
In the early twentieth century, the parkas of Inuvialuit people were more similar to those worn by the Alaskan and Siberian people than they were to those found in the rest of Canada. Writing in 1914, Vilhjalmur Steffanson said that the styles of the two groups had become so similar that differences could only be discerned through extensive, detailed questioning (cited in Issenman, 100). At that time, men’s parkas were described thusly: “the parka is a loose, flared pullover that reaches below the hip, with a round hood that comes forward from the face and is made of the animal’s headskin. The lower edge is even and rounded.” (Issenman, 100). Women’s parkas differed from the men’s in a few significant ways: “[the parkas] had a large hood and neckline, wide shoulders, narrowed waist, and long, broad flaps that rose in a gentle curve to the thigh” (Issenman, 102). The most common way for women to wear their hair was in a coil atop their head, which the hoods accommodated, and some augmentations were made with child-rearing in mind: “the back of the amauti had a full cut over the back and neck rather than the pierced amaut known in other parts of Canada. Because of the fullness, a child could still be held against the mother’s back, secured by the amauti cord.” (Issenman, 102). An amauti (or amaut; the terms are often used interchangeably) is the name for a specific style of women’s parka that has a pouch sewn below the hood specifically for the purpose of carrying a child. To an outsider, it can simply appear as if the child is resting inside of the parka’s hood (and is often represented erroneously in artwork as such), but it is, in fact, a separate structure.
The amauti is an example of cultural values communicated through the design of a garment, as suggested by Svensson. Guislane Lamey of the McCord Museum in Montreal outlines some of these cultural connotations in an interview for Up Here Magazine. For the first two or three years of their life, Inuit babies are carried almost constantly by their mothers: “it’s like a uterus. This is a place where mother and child have a very close contact, have a very close dialogue. It’s a privileged space between mother and child” (Ryder).
The parkas also communicate information about the technical developments, to return to Svensson’s idea of clothing language. Cathy Towtongie, an Inuit woman who was taught how to make traditional-style parkas by her elders and continues to do so, elaborates on the highly technical forms of construction that the garments require: “dealing with caribou skin, I prefer to have it shot second week in August or towards the last week, between August and September, not any further. The skin is good for clothing and for breathability, for survival and for perspiration” (Ryder). These carefully-selected skins must then be sewn using a very particular form of stitching using sinew; the stitches must be both durable and flexible, but must also avoid creating any holes in the fur. This technique could take years to master.
These parkas are created specially for the individual wearer; their body is the only pattern used in production. As such, these are highly singular objects, to borrow from Igor Kopytoff; while a parka may be handed down within a family, my assumption is that they would be difficult to exchange due to the highly personal nature of their creation.
Material Culture Analysis: The Modern Inuit Parka
With this information about traditional parkas in mind, I would now like to analyse a parka purchased in Inuvik, Northwest Territories in the 1980s-1990s. I will be loosely following the method laid out by Kim and Mida in The Dress Detective to do so, and will be contrasting my findings about this modern parka against what I have read about traditional parkas to try and identify differences in the communicated cultural meanings.
This parka is one that belongs to my mother. She purchased it while living in Inuvik between 1980 and 1990, from local Inuvialuit manufacturers. There is only one label, sewn somewhat crudely to the interior of the parka, which identifies the makers as SEA (or S&A) Outerwear from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada (fig 5). There is no care label identifying the materials used in construction, so I must rely on self-reporting from the coat’s owner for several details. She believes the interior to be polyester, the shell to be a cotton mix, and the fur trim on the hood to be wolf fur. The parka is largely machine-sewn, with the exception of the decorative yellow stitching on the parka’s pockets and upper layer, which was done by hand. This parka maintains the thigh-grazing hemline mentioned as a feature of women’s parkas by Issenman, but lacks any amauti-like features.
There are some immediate, obvious differences between this parka and a more traditional one. The clearest difference is the materials used; very few regionally-specific resources were used to make the modern parka. It employs only wolf fur, whereas a traditional parka would be entirely constructed from animal hides procured from the region. The modern parka communicates less about the environmental resources of the Mackenzie Delta as a result. The modern parka communicates a different message about technical developments, as well; it shows that, with the advent of more modern technologies, the Inuvialuit people were able to adapt their existing patterns and methods to incorporate these new methods. This likely made it much more efficient to produce parkas; not only was a significant amount of time required to learn how to perform the traditional hand-stitching method with sinew, it was also highly technical and often had to be undone and restarted (Ryder). If the traditional parkas were highly singular objects, this modern parka, by comparison, is much more common; I would argue that it has more value as a commodity than the traditional parkas, which have primarily cultural value. I could continue to wear this parka after my mother, or she could sell or donate it with little difficulty.
It can be easy to see this more modern style of parka as having fewer cultural connotations than the traditional version due to its more mass-market materials and construction method. However, I think the newer style mirrors some changes in values among the Inuvialuit (and other Indigenous peoples): namely, cultural conservation. After the attempted eradication of Indigenous cultures via forced enrollment at residential schools, many elements of these cultures are in danger of being lost to history. Adapting to more modern modes of production allows garments such as the winter parka to be produced on a wider scale, which facilitates their transmission of cultural values. With that being said, a more modern parka such as this is missing the valuable information that is communicated via the usage of traditional materials such as caribou skins and sinew stitching, so I believe it is still vital that these traditional methods be preserved and taught – the wider consumption of modern parkas may serve to reignite interest in these culturally rich methods.
For fun, I also had my mother send me some photos of a very similar parka she purchased for me as a toddler; this smaller version is also made by SEA/S&A outwear, but the trim on the hood is not real fur. My mother grew up in the Northwest Territories, but we only lived there as a family for a short time when I was very small, so this coat and a surprisingly large collection of tiny moccasins are my only memories of that time.
Do you believe there has been a shift in the values represented by Indigenous crafts? If so, what sort of shifts? If not, why? (This question is purely speculative, of course).
Issenman, Betty. Sinews of Survival: the Living Legacy of Inuit Clothing. UBC Press in Association with EÌTudes Inuit, 2000.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” in The Social Life of Things, ed. Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 65–91.
Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: a Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Ryder, Kassina. “Anatomy Of An Amauti.” Up Here Magazine, Up Here Publishing, 15 June 2017, uphere.ca/articles/anatomy-amauti.
Svensson, Tom G. “Clothing in the Arctic: A Means of Protection, a Statement of Identity.” Arctic, vol. 45, no. 1, 1992.
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. “The Stefansson-Anderson Arctic Expedition: A Preliminary Ethnological Report.” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 14, ser. 1, 1914.