There’s no such thing as ‘the best jacket’. Some leathery-faced, tobacco-chewing old ranch hand might like the warm embrace of a shearling lined Sherpa jacket, whilst a weekend warrior wandering wearily round Windermere will settle only for the Gore-Tex taped-seal of approval. Different people like different things, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But imagine, if you will, that the planet had imploded and you were the only human alive, hurtling slowly towards Mars in a small tin pod — what jacket would you take with you to show the inhabitants of Mars how good earth was?
For many, the jacket stuffed next to them on that fateful voyage would probably be the Woolrich Arctic Parka — that big down-filled jacket often cited by outerwear enthusiasts and jacket bores as the ultimate parka.
Like all the good things in life, the Woolrich Arctic Parka was designed for a very specific purpose, but before we get to that ‘specific purpose’, here’s some important information about oil…
For thousands of years, the Iñupiat people of northern Alaska had used the strange, damp, black peat that lurked under their feet as fuel for cooking walruses and things like that. This didn’t go unnoticed, and in the late 19th century dignified gentlemen stared poking around Alaska with sticks in search of oily gold. By 1968 they’d discovered the largest oil field in North America — Prudhoe Bay.
Having 25 billion barrels of oil is all well and good, but it’s not much use if it’s stuck under permafrost in north Alaska. So after talks with Boeing about making a massive flying oil tanker fell through, it was decided that an 800 mile pipeline running from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez in the south of Alaska would be built.
And it’s here that the Arctic Parka comes in. Working long hours in the freezing cold building a massive metal pipe isn’t much fun with a rubbish jacket on — something serious was needed.
Andrea Cane is the Creative Director for both Woolrich and WP Lavori in Corso, an Italian company who have been selling Woolrich jackets since the 80s. Here’s what he had to say on the subject. “At that time, Woolrich was very well known for the production of work clothes for workers outdoors, as at the beginning of the century they were producing clothing for railroad contractors and lumberjacks. Woolrich introduced the Arctic Parka in 1972 to clothe thousands of workers living for months in the north of the Arctic Circle to develop the Alaskan Pipeline.
The idea behind the creation of the original Arctic parka was to design a garment to withstand extreme conditions; this soon became the indispensable coat to protect workers from the wind, the rain, the snow and average temperatures of 30°C below zero.”
Whilst it was a hit with the construction world, it took a while for the jackets to be worn outside of the building site. Andrea explained more, “WP Lavori in Corso started to import the parka on 1984 in Italy. It took some years to be successful and to become a garment used in daily city life. It was a challenge in the first years, but the boom arrived in the mid 90s. Although it was created to withstand the harshest weather conditions for the workers of the Alaskan pipeline in the 1970’s, the Arctic Parka is an iconic timeless garment, perfect for the cold weather both along city sidewalks and in the outdoors.”
There’s no such thing as sidewalks here in Manchester, but the Arctic Parka was also perfectly suited to our pavements. Oi Polloi founding father Nigel Lawson mused on the subject, “Part of Manchester folk-lore is the parka. It started with the mods, then there was the snorkel parka from the army and navy store. Because it rains in Manchester, the parka has always been quite important. For me, the challenge was trying to find the best one."
"I think Geese used to sell American made Woolrich ones. I remember seeing them, and thinking, ‘That’s quite good,’ but they only had them in black. But it was the Italians that did it — going to Italy and seeing them all — they had them in gold and beige and brown and bright blue and navy and all these amazing colours. And there was the realization of how light they were. You think about a parka, a big winter coat that’s going to protect you at -40 degrees, and you think it’s going to be dead heavy — but when you put them on they’re super light.”
Of course, no poorly written article about an ‘iconic’ item of clothing would be complete without a bit of waffle about who looked cool in it. So who looked cool in an Arctic Parka?
“Spielberg looked cool in one, but there was also a guy in an old programme called Northern Exposure. It looked like Twin Peaks and it felt like Twin Peaks, but whilst Twin Peaks was weird, this was like Coronation Street — just pleasant — it was what you’d want Canada to be like. And this guy, he used to wear a sand one. In fact, that’s why I went out looking for this parka in the first place… I’d seen him wearing it on Northern Exposure.”
Sadly, neither Spielberg or that guy from that Northern Exposure programme we’re available for comment, but if they were, this is presumably what they’d say, “Yeah they’re great jackets, we wear ours all the time — and everyone who sees us always comments on how great we look in them. If you’re going to get one, and you definitely should, we recommend buying yours from that wonderful shop called Oi Polloi.”
So there you have it — it was made for pretty much the worse conditions imaginable, it looked mint and loads of people wore it — there may be no such thing as the ‘best jacket’, but the Woolrich Arctic Parka comes pretty close.
This article originally appeared in Pica~Post #10. Issue 11 on the way soonish.