How The Traditional Inuit Parka Transformed Winter Fashion Forever

And the ways in which Indigenous designers are working to push its legacy forward.

by Maura Brannigan
TZR/Getty Images; Shutterstock

As a young girl growing up in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of Canada’s Yukon territory, Taalrumiq’s earliest memories are of her mother sewing. It was, the Indigenous Inuvialuk (which is shorthand for Inuit peoples from the Canada’s Western Arctic region) fashion designer learned, one of the most meaningful ways to honor her heritage — and ensure its lasting impact on generations far outside herself.

“We come from a long line of talented Inuit seamstresses, and that's just carrying on the tradition of our people,” says Taalrumiq, whose English name is Christina King but who was given a family name at birth by local elders in the customary Inuvialuit way. “It was all for community survival, family survival, and personal survival.”

When it came time for Taalrumiq to enter college, she found herself drawn to fashion courses, where she learned to bridge more modern techniques, like pattern drafting and garment construction, with the traditions of her ancestral community. Today, Taalrumiq works to share Inuvialuit culture and history with the world, crafting couture pieces and accessories with the same skills inherited from her mother, and mothers long before her.

For the Inuvialuit, a subset of the culturally related Inuit peoples inhabiting the Arctic, these traditional garments still consist of a parka, alongside pants, mittens, inner footwear, and outer boots. Historically, the construction of these key pieces was as much about function as it was form: In polar temperatures, warm, durable clothing ensured the community’s very survival, and it has remained strongly intertwined with Inuit religious beliefs.

This was true for all clothing, but especially the Inuit parka itself. Called an amauti in the Inuit language, the now-familiar silhouette features a distinctive hood that can be tightened to protect the face from extreme weather, as well as an amaut, or back pocket in which mothers could carry their children through toddlerhood. The outerwear is also richly decorated, embellished with intricate patterns or designs that could take years to master.

Amauti, as with so many facets of Indigenous culture, has hugely influenced how we dress for winter today. Its core design tenets have moved into mainstream fashion — both with and without the creative direction of Inuit artisans, like Taalrumiq. Which begs the question: How can non-Indigenous brands and designers continue to carry on the amauti’s legacy, and do so respectfully?

To answer this question is to understand the greater history of the amauti itself. Though the word “parka” is said to come from a Uralic language spoken by the Nenets, a Samoyedic ethnic group native to European Russia and Siberia, the design itself originates from what is today called Nunavut, the largest and northernmost Canadian state that forms most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

In the 20th century, the U.S. military began adopting amauti-style parkas for soldiers stationed in frigid climates, often layering them atop already-cumbersome uniforms. And come the Korean War, military personnel, including President-Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, added a drawstring in the hem to better trap heat around the legs.

In a post-wartime era, military surplus gear became an en-vogue symbol of youth culture, parkas included, with stylish baby boomers taking to personalizing their jackets with patches and badges. The parka reached a new cultural fever pitch in the 1990s, thanks in part to the dawn of Britpop and Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, who was rarely seen without one.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower visiting American troops in Korea in December, 1952.Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
Mick Jagger, circa 1964George Wilkes Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Elizabeth Taylor, circa 1968WWD/Penske Media/Getty Images

Now decades later, the parka’s insulated, hooded design is a ubiquitous wintertime staple among high-fashion and mass-market brands alike, this season gracing luxury labels like Rick Owens and Loro Piana. The amauti, as well as similarly crafted overcoats, are still in use among Inuit peoples across Nunavut, its sparsely populated territory flush with tundra, rugged mountains, and remote villages, accessible only by plane or boat.

“In my personal and professional experience spending time in Nunavut, seeing the continued use, adaptation, and evolution of traditional garments, like amauti, is very front and center,” says Doug Chiasson, executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada. “Walk outside when it's minus-50 degrees and there's not a whole lot of [other coats] you'd see folks wearing on the street in Montreal or Toronto.”

According to Chiasson, the overcoats one may spot in Nunavut in 2023 have striking aesthetic differences from those worn by Taalrumiq’s ancestors in the Inuvialuit Settlement region — located in the Northwest Territories — where she's still located today. For one, many modern parkas are no longer solely made from animal skins (like caribou or seal) or fur, and are also more loosely fitted.

“If you look at our clothing before contact [with European colonists], we had these gorgeous, thigh-high mukluks and a fitted parka, which looked fashionable, but actually had very practical uses for life in the Arctic,” says Taalrumiq, who points out that all the design elements of the Inuit’s traditional clothing were for survival first and aesthetics second. “We had to be able to move around in a very difficult environment, to walk along ice and snow.”

When it comes to accessibility, collaborations between mass, non-Indigenous brands and Indigenous artisans have worked to keep the parka’s cultural relevance alive. In 2019, Toronto-based outerwear retailer Canada Goose launched Project Atigi, a social entrepreneurship initiative that commissioned 14 Indigenous seamstresses — who represented nine communities across the Inuit regions — to create bespoke parkas using their traditional skills and Canada Goose materials. (Atigi is Inuktitut for "parka.”)

In 2020, Canada Goose (which declined to comment for this piece) expanded Project Atigi to 18 designers from 12 communities, and in 2022, partnered with just one: renowned Inuk fashion designer Victoria Kakuktinniq, who was born and raised in Rankin Inlet, an Inuit hamlet in eastern Nunavut.

"Project Atigi is so empowering — for myself, my community, and other Inuit women,” Kakuktinniq shared in a statement in 2022. “Bringing my designs to the global stage is important because it celebrates, educates, and inspires. I'm grateful to be a voice for my culture and to give back in such a profound way."

As with both of Project Atigi’s prior collaborations, all proceeds from the sale of Kakuktinniq’s line went to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national representational organization that works to improve the health and well-being of Inuit in Canada.

For Indigenous designers like Taalrumiq, it feels imperative that major labels give back to the societies from which they draw inspiration and design expertise. It’s a crucial deciding factor in whether such collections help or hurt her fellow Inuit peoples, who experience the highest levels of poverty in Canada, with 56% of the Inuit population being classed as food-insecure compared to the Canadian average of 14.7%. Taalrumiq recalls families in her community that still rely on a subsistence lifestyle, in which they hunt and fish to provide a large part of their diet to offset the high cost of living, like modern groceries.

“We very much would like to see, whenever possible, that as many of those benefits come back to the community as realistically can,” Chiasson says of his work at the Fur Institute. Its Proudly Indigenous Crafts & Design Program, created in the fall of 2020, showcases products made by Indigenous crafters and raises awareness for traditional sources and values.

Like Taalrumiq, Copenhagen-based fashion designer Bibi Chemnitz, who was raised in Greenland by her Inuit parents, combines her Indigenous heritage with modern, non-Indigenous trends. For a broader, non-Indigenous customer base to shop her work isn’t just necessary for the survival of her own business, but for that of Inuit craftsmanship as a whole.

“I don't think it would be possible for me to make a living if only Indigenous consumers purchased my designs,” says Chemnitz. “The consumer just has to respect that the production costs of making very few pieces is not the same low cost as it is for high-street brands that produce thousands of each item. But I love to see all kinds of people wearing my products.”

Still, Taalrumiq knows that her designs are her livelihood — and the most effective method to preserve traditional garments, like the Intuit parka, for future generations. She and other Indigenous craftspeople are resolute in their dedication to maintaining as many ancestral customs as possible, she says, but there’s no way around using modern materials and tools.

Last summer, Taalrumiq had the opportunity to see an assortment of her great-grandmother's traditional outerwear, the exact likes of which are no longer visible today. It was amazing, she says, to see how far the Inuit have come in just a few generations — and how their ancestral impact is still with us, far outside Nunavut, in every hooded parka.

Taalrumiq admits that even she, despite being an Indigenous Inuvialuk fashion designer herself, has never owned a customary, head-to-toe garment, like an amauti that comes paired with thigh-high mukluks and other pieces. This doesn’t hinder her career, she says, but rather fuels it.

“I didn't always have access to traditional knowledge, so I'm relying upon my blood memory and my intuition and, of course, my contemporary training to create these garments and accessories that are inspired by my culture, and to make them accessible to others,” she says. “I'm still using the same skills and passion and creativity as my ancestors, just in a new way.”