Monday, January 17, 2011

FF:Baby, it's Cold Outside- Outerwear of the World

A gorgeous beaded amauti- the hood would be worn down for carrying babies.
Cold weather is relative. What a crippling winter storm is to one part of the world may be a simple case of the flurries to another. Everyone has some kind of inclement weather: be it rain, snow, wind, or whatever else happens to be flying through the air at the time and throughout history people have found ways to cope with Mother Nature's bouts of peevishness. Here are some examples of outerwear (including boots and hats) that in an alternative past, possibly kept people warm, dry, or protected during airship voyages or expeditions elsewhere.

A Nunatsiarmut-Inuit sealskin parka and trousers. McCord Museum.
This section of the article is dedicated to my friend, Jade Luiz, who is a Portland, OR native experiencing her first winter on the East Coast. She still thinks snow is interesting- bless her...

Of course, nobody knows how to handle snow and cold better than the various indigenous peoples of the Arctic, who not only managed to survive in the harsh climate, but thrive- mainly with the help of animal products (a high-fat diet, hide or fur clothing, and oil for burning lamps. There was no such thing as a vegan Koryak). When Western explorers made their races to the poles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they commissioned Inuit and Koryak artisans to outfit them with their traditional, perfectly adapted snow-wear.

A group of Koryaks in 1915, Northern Russia
One of the biggest concerns in trucking around in a snowy climate is keeping your feet warm and dry, lest frostbite leave you disfigured. Luckily in an age before snow boots (or uggs- so perhaps a better time), the peoples of the Arctic developed several fuzzy, warm options. Reindeer-herding tribes such as the Nenets of Russia and the Saami of Scandinavia wore felted wool boots. Wool on its own does a fairly good job as an outerwear fabric, but after felting you're left with a thick, dense, insulative material perfect for walking through powdery snow.

Felt and leather Nenai boots from Northern Russia
Similarly, kamik (also known as mukluks) are soft, hide and skin boots perfect for hunting or traversing snow. Different animals were used by the Inuit, Koryak, and other Arctic peoples to give them special properties: reindeer and caribou for insulation and toughness, sealskin for resilience to water.

Seal and caribou were also used for that most quintessential of Arctic outerwear: the qulittuq (AKA parka or anorak). The parka was worn in cahoots with an inner jacket called an atigi in an effective insulation strategy: the atigi was worn with the animal fur facing in and the parka had the fur facing out, effectively trapping warm air between the body and the outer layer. In fact, these garments were so efficient that vents had to be put into parkas to prevent hypothermia due to sweating. They were often decorated with embroidery, beading, and fur tufts. But don't forget about baby! The amauti was a parka modified with an extra, deep hood for carrying babies and small children close to the warmth of their mothers and under their watchful eye. The hood was deep enough to be pulled over up in times of storm or at night and roomy enough for mom and baby.  They've made a comeback in Canada, Greenland, and even the United States today!

An Inuit mother wearing an amauti containing a dozy child.
When it comes to protecting the body from the physical stress of living in a snowy environment, the Inuit thought of everything. Ladies and gentlemen, steampunks of all tropes, I present to you: goggles.

Made in the 1860s, courtesy of the McCord Museum

These sweet pieces of native tech were carved from bone or wood and protected against that joyful sensation of snow blindness, improved central vision (by reducing the peripheral), and were also shown to improve problems like near-sidedness.

Screw the future, the past is so bright you've gotta wear shades!

In 1824, the Mackintosh company of Scotland revolutionized outerwear with their coat of rubberized cloth; the first modern raincoat. However, people have been successfully coping with wet weather for some time- and much of it thanks to the wonders of plants.

As you may recall, the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast of the United States used spruce and cedar fibers to create naturally waterproof hats and cloaks (in fact, even after Western clothing had been introduced to many tribes in the 19th century, they still preferred to keep their raingear as it was far superior). Well- other cultures the world over were also making wet weather clothes out of plant fiber: from South Pacific islanders, to Japan, to Central Asia, all the way east to rural Spain. The Maori of New Zealand wore a cape called a he pake, made of loose hooked grass and often worn as an alternative to the ceremonial feathered capes in addition to rain duties.

A Maori woman in a he pake- which looks a bit like a shag carpet.
The Japanese had a similar garment called a mino, instantly recognizable for those who have seen Hayao Miyazaki's movie Princess Mononoke. The mino was made from long stems of rice straw and was often worn along with a conical hat or a matching hood. This was also a form of snow protection, as the straw acted as an excellent insulator.

A man wearing a mino in 1885
Thatched garments made for rainwear have also popped up in Mongolia, Tibet, Eastern India (I'm sure they would be very helpful during monsoon season), and portions of rural Europe- such as Galicia, in Spain. The appeal of these capes amongst farming or hunting peoples is obvious: they're naturally waterproof, easy to make (using the same processes as, say, thatching a roof), and made from cheap materials- which is why they continued to be worn into the 20th century, some even further.

Creating waterproof fabric was also a goal of the Japanese, having been inspired by Mackintosh or other European inventors' raincoats. This Meiji-era cotton raincoat is made in the style of a Japanese garment (save for the lapels, a Western feature) but coated in persimmon juice and natural oils (from plants and animals, such as fish). Japanese raincoats were also made from silk and even paper, using the same process of oil-coating.

It almost looks like it's made from thin leather- ideas anyone?
But what about keeping your feet dry? Rubber Wellington boots weren't developed in the West until the 1850s- so how were people keeping their shoes out of the damp? It was a simple matter of elevation. Pattens and clogs had been used in Europe for centuries on rainy or snowy days, but the idea of a wooden platform or cover to protect one's feet was hardly restricted to the West. Japan had a similar style of footwear called geta, which look something like a pair of high-rise wooden flip-flops. Geta vary in size from minimal platforms of two inches all the way up to 10 inch behemoths or higher (given the treacherous condition of Edo's streets on rainy days).

A geta shop in 1890s Japan.
Why don't we dry out a little bit? Normally one doesn't associate hot weather with a need for outerwear, but in desert environments it's essential. The Bedouin and Amazigh peoples of the Middle East and North Africa have developed clothing to aid them in this arid, hot climate using insulation principles similar to the Inuit and Koryak.

In addition to protecting the body from the abrasion of wind and sand, enveloping garments such as abas (overcloaks), thobes (voluminous robes and gowns), and tajellabyt (men's hooded tunics) trapped cool air amidst their layers, which were composed of wool or linen. Natural fibers such as these wick sweat away from the body.

Sargent's portrait of a Bedouin man, wearing loose white layers, perfect for keeping cool.
In addition, the square veils and scarves that desert people wear are not a result of Muslim modesty (in most cultural groups) so much as the practical need to keep wind and sand away from the delicate skin of the face. Again, when Western peoples came into this environment, the smart ones adopted this garb (such as T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame). To this day, these are the preferred garments of desert dwellers and nomadic groups.

The French Camel Corps, making several nods to the locals in their layered, lightweight dress.
Stay warm, dry, or cool everyone! I'll be doing a special article on desert clothing some time in spring so you all can draw some inspiration for possible summer outfits-believe me, it's helpful to have a lighter-weight option when you have a picnic in 90 degree heat and high humidity.

Helpful links:
-Directions on how to make your own geta written in a snarky manner this blog approves of.
-The McCord Museum of Quebec Canada has an extensive collection of clothing of the Arctic peoples, just click on the geographic areas to see the local artifacts.
-Make yourself a pair of cozy felt boots with this tutorial from the Renaissance Tailor. Warning: the process is quite extensive, so not for the faint of heart.
-A blog post about amauti and their resurgance with modern moms. It would be a great way to carry wee ones around a convention or event!


  1. Great article! I love those Russian boots and the bone goggles. It's -6F here right now, so they look extra cozy.

  2. Good day,

    many greeting from one of your readers from Germany.
    Just a note about the japanese raincoat. I think it's chintz (is that also the correct english term?). Which can be made by coating fabric with a variety of stuff like wax, gum (again, right word?) etc. You can then apply pressure and heat to give it a shiny surface, like the raincoat's.

    Pink chintz e. g. was a very common lining material for things you did not wash (like clerical garments) in the 18th and 19th century, because it did repel dirt to a certain degree.


  3. Dear Sanne,

    I'll do some research into it, but I think you're right- that does look like chintz. If so, I'll make a note in the next corrections post.

    Thank you,

    Miss Kagashi

  4. Ah yes! I actually made myself a pair of geta using that same website. Now if only we could get a proper downpour...

  5. great blog! I was just looking for this type of information for my character design. The information you have backs up my idea for rain coat. I never knew other cultures also used fiber material for water proof type clothing but always seen images when I was growing up. Thanks again.