Inuit and arctic dress
People throughout the circumpolar region, including Inuit and Inuvialuit in Canada, Yup’ik and Inupiat in coastal Alaska, Inuhuit in Greenland, Saami in northern Europe, and many groups from Siberia such as the Khanty, Nenets, Evenki, and Siberian Yupik, are recognized as the first people to make tailored garments. In ancient times, rather than wrapping skins around themselves, pieces were cut and laced together to provide protection from the weather and from spirits, which enabled these northern peoples to thrive. Each region developed its own styles, and people could tell where someone was from by looking at their clothing.
Generally, children wore miniature versions of adult clothing styles. Clothing was beautifully sewn and elaborately decorated with light- and dark-haired skins, skin tassels, beading, hair embroidery, stained or dyed skins, and different types of animal skins. Decorative treatment reflected the individuality of each seamstress, the regional identity or group affinity, and it also helped women appease the spirits, enabling the animal spirits to offer animals to hunters. Hunters saw skin clothing as their most important hunting “tool,” without it they were unable to protect themselves from harm, bad weather, evil spirits, and show the respect needed for animals to wish to give up their lives to the hunter.
Inuit and Inuvialuit from Canada wore hooded pullover skin parkas. In the eastern and central Canadian Arctic women’s parkas had a sculptured hemline creating front and back tongues or flaps. The length and silhouette of these pieces changed as a young woman entered puberty. A pouch-like area was sewn into the back of parkas worn by women of all ages and used to carry children. Parkas worn by women who were not carrying children had a much smaller pouch than those worn by mothers of young children. A small piece of polar bear or bull caribou skin was placed at the base of the pouch and cleaned when soiled by an infant. Men’s pullover parkas were usually about thigh-length and had either a center front or side splits to allow for extra maneuverability. Men and women wore skin pants; in the eastern Canadian Arctic women wore shorts with leggings.
In the western Canadian Arctic and coastal Alaska women’s parkas were much longer and had a relatively straight hemline. The back panel was cut extra large creating enough space to carry a baby; a sash tied around the waist of the parka prevented the child from falling out. Men’s parkas were shorter, often hip-length. Both men’s and women’s parka hoods were finished with a large “sunburst” ruff made from strips of wolverine and wolf.
Siberian Yupik women wore a pant-top combination suit, which they put on by slipping through the extra-large neck opening. In other areas of northern Siberia and Europe, women wore unhooded parkas with center-front openings. Infants were bundled up separately and carried in carrying boards. Men wore hoodless parkas with distinctly styled hats.
Inuhuit men and women from northern Greenland wore short, waist-length pullover hooded parkas. Women’s parkas had a small narrow tab or flap at the front and back and a pouch for carrying children. They wore skin shorts with long boots. Men wore polar bear skin pants.
In the early 2000s, people from each of these regions wear traditional styles made from contemporary fabrics. Some seamstresses have developed new styles, such as waist-length “packing” parkas made from lightweight fabric for carrying young children around modern homes. As transportation systems shift from dog sled to snowmobile to automobiles, styles used by women carrying children have changed so it is more comfortable to sit in a car seat. Hunters, herders, and other people who travel on the land extensively continue to wear traditional skin clothing as it provides the best long-term cold weather protection. They wear an inner parka with the fur next to their bodies and slip on an outer parka with the fur to the outside in extremely cold weather. Although the styles change regionally, each region’s style works together with each of the components to trap warm air. For example, hot air rises up the pant legs, circulates around the torso, and exits at the face opening. When someone gets too warm, the outer parka is removed, along with the waist sash and hood to allow more hot air to escape.
In the past and today, caribou and ringed sealskin are the most commonly used materials for skin clothing throughout the circumpolar region. Caribou skin is ideal for cold, dry weather as each hair has a honeycomb core that traps air, which is an excellent insulator. Sealskin is ideal for milder, damp weather as the hair provides very little insulation, however, sealskins are wind and water-resistant. Arctic hare, fox, muskrat, ground squirrel, birds, and other northern animals are used for parkas in areas where caribou is scarce. These skins are more fragile than caribou, but they are extremely warm and lightweight. Wolf, wolverine, and dog skins are preferred for hood ruffs; sometimes parkas that are only worn around the village are trimmed with fox. Fish skins and intestines are used for waterproof clothing in a few areas, especially in southern coastal Alaska. For example, commercial herring fishers from Tooksook Bay in Alaska still prefer intestine parkas to heavy-duty raincoats, as they are lighter and allow body vapor to pass through the skin membrane while preventing rain from entering.
Most skins are dried, scraped, wrung and twisted by hand to soften, and then used for skin clothing. Skins are stained red with a variety of mixtures, including shredded and boiled alder bark, powdered ocher (red clay), and, more recently, red dye leached out of wet crepe paper and concentrated red fabric dye. In northern Greenland, skins are de-haired and then painted with acrylic paints, creating a wide range of vibrant colors; plant dyes were used in the past. Special techniques are used for specific skins, for example, fat is sucked from bird skins to protect the quill end of each feather from being damaged by a scraper. Intestines are scraped to remove the inner layer, blown up, and dried before scraping and wringing them until soft. Fish skins are soaked in prepubescent male urine to remove some of the oils, dried, and then scraped until soft.
Skins are sewn together using sinew or connective tissue collected from caribou, muskrat, birds, and other animals. Sinew is cleaned, dried, rumpled by hand until soft, and then split into threads, which are either twisted or braided before being used. Today a synthetic waxed thread is often used as a substitute for sinew on most skins. Needles were made from bone or stone; today fine steel needles are commonly used with a metal thimble. A few still use the skin thimbles, which were passed down from one generation to the next. A few seamstresses use sewing machines to sew their skin clothing today.
See also Inuit and Arctic Footwear; Parka.
Oakes, Jill and Rick Riewe. Spirit of Siberia: Traditional Native Life, Clothing, and Footwear. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
____. Our Boots: An Inuit Women’s Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2000.
Oakes, Jill, et al. Pushing the Margins: Native and Northern Studies. Manitoba, Canada: University of Manitoba, 2001.