The Parka was originally designed and worn by hunters in the Arctic regions for protection against the freezing temperatures and wind. Originally made from reindeer or seal skins and coated in fish oils to retain water resistance. Used by the US military in the 1950’s and then copied and sold to the general public. In the 1960s the Fishtail Parka became popular with the Mods, wearing it to protect smarter clothes underneath when riding their scooters. As popular today as it was in the 60’s and manufactured by many of the top brands the Parka seems like it’s here to stay!
The Fishtail Parka
The fishtail parka was first used by the United States Army in 1950 to help protect soldiers from the elements in the Korean War. Following the end of the Second World War the US army recognised the need for a new cold weather system for fighting in as the existing kit was inadequate; the fishtail parka solution was the result of a concerted design effort.
There are four main styles of fishtail parkas: the EX-48, M-48, M-51 and the M-65. The M stands for military, and the number is the year it was standardized. The EX-48 model was the first prototype or “experimental” precursor to all of them. The M-48 then being the first actual production model fishtail parka after the pattern being standardised on December 24, 1948.
The name fishtail comes from the fish tail extension at the back that could be folded up between the legs, much like a Knochensack, and fixed using snap connectors to add wind-proofing. The fishtail was fixed at the front for warmth or folded away at the back to improve freedom of movement when needed.
The EX-48 parka is distinctive as it has a left sleeve pocket and is made of thin poplin, only the later production M-48 parkas are made of the heavier sateen canvas type cotton. The EX-48 also has a thin fibre glass based liner that is very light and warm, the M-48 has a thicker wool pile liner with an integral hood liner made of wool. Both are distinguishable from any other type of parka by having the sleeve pocket. This was dropped for the M-51 onward The fur ruff on the hood is also fixed to the shell of an EX-48/M-48 and is of wolf, coyote or often wolverine. The M-48 parka was costly to produce and therefore only in production for around one year. The pockets were wool lined both inside and out. The cuffs had two buttons for securing tightly around a wearer’s wrist. The later more mass-produced M-51 parka had just the one cuff button. The liner had a built in chest pocket which again was unique to the M-48 parka.
The next revision was the M-51, made because the M48 was so good and of such high quality it was just too expensive to mass-produce.
The outer hood of the M-51 Fishtail Parka is integral to the parka shell, an added hood liner as well as a button in main liner make the M-51 a versatile 3 piece parka. The idea behind this 3 part system was to enable a more customisable parka that allowed for easier cleaning of the shell as the hood fur was on the detachable hood liner, not fixed to the shell as in the M-48. It also allowed for both liners to be buttoned in or our depending on the temperature and hence warmth required. It was also cheaper than the M-48 to mass-produce The early M-51 was made of heavy sateen cotton, the same material as the M-48. Later revisions of the M-51 were poplin based. The later liners were also revised from the “heavy when wet” wool pile to a lighter woolen loop or frieze wool design that dried easier and were far lighter. The frieze liners were constructed of mohair and were designed using a double loop system which repelled cold weather.
The M-65 fishtail parka has a detachable hood and was the last revision. It features a removable quilted liner made of light nylon / polyester batting which are modern synthetic materials. The M-65 fishtail parka first came in to production in 1968. These parkas featured synthetic fur on the hoods after an outcry from the fur lobby. As a result, only hoods for these parkas made in 1972 and for one year later have real fur.
Designed primarily for combat arms forces such as infantry, they are to be worn over other layers of clothing; alone, the fishtail parka is insufficient to protect against “dry cold” conditions (i.e. below about -10 °C). As such all fishtail parkas are big as they were designed to be worn over battle dress and other layers.
In the 1960s UK, the fishtail parka became a symbol of the mod subculture. Because of their practicality, cheapness and availability from army surplus shops, the parka was seen as the ideal garment for fending off the elements and protecting smarter clothes underneath from grease and dirt when on the mod’s vehicle of choice, the scooter. Its place in popular culture was assured by newspaper pictures of parka-clad mods during the Bank Holiday riots of the 1960s