The Arctic is perhaps best known for being, well, cold. Compared to the super hairy, blubbery animals that make the Arctic their home, humans are pretty lean and hairless, making us physically quite badly suited to the climate. However, what we lack in natural furriness we make up for in ingenuity. This week we’ll be exploring the traditional clothing used in the Arctic that has allowed humans to survive in what is seasonally such an extreme environment. As always this is a broad overview of the topic. Each culture and area has its own fashions, different readily available materials, and slightly different needs too, so think of this as a general introduction rather than a definitive guide. Enjoy!
Let’s start from the bottom with shoes. Aside from exposed skin, e.g. on the face, feet are probably at the greatest risk of frostbite in cold weather. Part of this is because they are the part of the body that has the greatest contact with the cold ground. Also, when the body gets cold it pulls it’s internal heat to the most essential places, this being the brain and organs in the torso, so things like hands and feet are given lower priority. It’s pretty clear the that keeping feet warm is important, and in an icy wintery landscape your feet also need to be able to keep grip on the ground if you’re going to be able to get anywhere, so the choice of shoes has to be carefully done.
As it turns out indigenous Arctic people have a great way to keep feet warm in winter. Boots are often made of animal hide, sometimes with fur still attached, these hides coming from animals like moose, caribou, seals or bears. The leather is tough and durable, whilst the fur is already perfectly adapted to keeping the animals warm in the cold Arctic nights, so can do the same job for feet. Amongst the Inuit in the coldest depths of winter, shoes can often come in five layers, starting with alirsiik stockings with the fur facing inwards, then ilupirquk socks, pinirait stockings with outward facing fur, then kamiit or mukluk boots, and finally sometimes tuqtuqutiq, overshoes with thick soles, sometimes used indoors as slippers too.
Another often used material in Arctic shoes might come as a bit of a surprise- grass! Various northern indigenous groups traditionally stuff their hide boots with dried grass or hay which insulates the feet really well. In fact, this method is so effective it has been used for thousands of years, as proven by Ötzi. Ötzi the Iceman was the name given to mummified remains of a prehistoric man, 5,300 years old, found in the Ötztal Valley Alps (Okay, this isn’t the Arctic, but it has similar principles of coldness and snowiness). Ötzi’s body and his clothing were unusually well preserved, including his pair of leather and straw boots. Petr Hlavacek, a researcher at Tomas Bata University in the Czech Republic, did some experimental archaeology to recreate these boots using materials and construction methods similar to what Ötzi would have used. Petr then wore them on a hike in the Alps in temperatures of -6oC (21F), and said it was like walking barefoot, but only better, and his feet remained toasty throughout. In fact, he said the bearskin sole was grippier on the ground than his normal hiking boots. Adding a cosy layer of moose fur to these straw and leather shoes in the Arctic, would make walking around in winter no problem!
Basic Tops and Bottoms
Next up is trousers. Traditionally this is somewhat similar to shoes. Leather is a freely available resource from hunted animals that can make durable clothing. Sewing the hides inside out with the fur left on makes cosy fleece lined leggings which can sometimes be worn in two layers for maximum heat.
Tops are usually the most visible item of clothing, and so often the most ornate and distinctive. For winterwear, once again hides with fur both on the inside and outside are often used in the form of parkas. These can be decorated through the careful choice and matching of furs, or through intricate beadwork. Skins can also be dyed and turned into mosaics to decorate parkas. Warm felt-like fabrics are also often used for outerwear by groups like the Saami, which can be in a variety of bright colours, along with bright woven belts. The Saami also use pewter and tin art to adorn their clothing. The patterns and decoration on clothes serves many functions, from the general enjoyment of creating and wearing something beautiful, to using specific designs, patterns and symbols to express where someone is from or what they hold dear.
A special form of Inuit outerwear also worth a quick mention is the amauti, a women’s parka which has a special in built pouch for carrying children around. It is cosy and practical as the child can share some of the mother’s body heat.
These traditional outfits are still used by many Arctic people as they are very practical and warm. More and more people also use synthetic materials with this principle of layering, with a base layer of leggings and a top, often made out of warm merino wool, followed by many intermediate layers of fleeces, down jackets, or synthetically insulated jackets. Knitwear amongst especially Nordic and Icelandic cultures is also very popular. Knitting involves knotting strands of wool together to create a wool mesh, and the spaces between this mesh trap pockets of air, acting as great insulation, just like air trapped in the layers of animal furs. Different regions have their own traditional colours and patterns for knitwear making them distinctive as well as cosy. Whilst knitwear is good at keeping heat in, it’s downside is that it absorbs moisture and holds it close to the skin, cooling it, meaning if you start sweating underneath you can end up damp and chilly. However, it can be useful as part of a series of layers kept off the skin.
Of course, the Arctic isn’t only cold, it can also be wet. This can either be in the period between winter and summer when the snow is melting and the land is wet, or in areas with open water where people might use this water for fishing, movement or just general enjoyment. With all this water around, waterproofs are also essential in many Arctic environments. The waterproof clothing many of us are used to are usually made out of synthetic materials like Gore-Tex, that keep water out yet are still breathable. However, there are also older alternatives to these modern plastic based products.
Amongst Inuit who spend a lot of time on water hunting marine creatures, gut skin parkas are the ideal outerwear. Our guts, and the guts of animals, are filled with various kinds of fluids from the foods we digest. It is important those fluids don’t leak out, or other fluids don’t leak in, so the wall of the gut is very watertight. By taking many sections of gut from animals like seals and sewing them together, various Arctic peoples like the Yu’pik have been creating totally waterproof parkas or even waterproof shoes too. The traditional thread made out of sinew, swells when wet filling out all the sewing holes from the needle, preventing water getting in that way too. Nifty technique!
Never fear fashionistas, just because it can get to -40 degrees outside in the Arctic it doesn’t mean you can’t accessorize. There’s the classic cosy bobble hat or some traditional fur lined seal skins gloves to keep you cosy and classy. There’s also some super clever Arctic takes on accessories we often see further south, like the Arctic version of sunglasses.
Much of winter is dark in the north, but when the sun does come up it falls on a landscape covered in snow. All this white surface reflects the sun, making it’s light super intense, which is why you can get surprisingly tanned in these cold areas. Sunglasses and tinted ski goggles are often used to protect the eyes from all this brightness, but before these were invented indigenous peoples had their own clever alternative, the snow goggles. These goggles are often a strip of material from wood, caribou antler, bone or walrus ivory, which are held across the eyes with a sinew strap. The Dolgan in North-central Russia, also use reindeer leather for the main part of the goggles. Very thin slits are cut into the goggle strip to allow you to look through whilst vastly limiting the amount of light reaching the eyes. Sometimes soot is even put on the inside to reduce glare.
The use of snow goggles isn’t just to make everything a bit more pleasant on the eyes. For those spending hours outside everyday in a sunny snowy landscape there is a real risk of snow-blindness, which is basically sunburn of the cornea caused by too much exposure of the eye to UV light. On this note, though it might seem odd in the cold, sunscreen is definitely useful to have on hand.
Other accessories that are traditionally worn in the Arctic include a needle case that can be strapped onto a belt. Clothes in winter are, after all, essential for survival, so any tear that may compromise their warmth and waterproofness needs to be fixed quickly. Also strapped onto a belt might be a little pouch to keep tinder in for starting a fire, an ornately decorated knife for any hunting or foraging needs, and sometimes even wooden cups and bags of coffee so you can have a nice warm drink wherever you are.
Naturally what to wear in the Arctic depends on the season, what materials are locally available, and what the local fashion is. After all central Russia and coastal Canada are miles apart, so what is worn traditionally in each varies quite a bit. Here we’ve just explored some of the common items traditionally worn by people in the Arctic. Also, nowadays there are literally thousands of different kinds of Arctic clothing made out of various synthetic materials, far too many to cover here. However, though some of the traditional options are little used today, others still remain part of peoples winter apparel as, quite frankly, if they worked for hundreds of years they’re probably pretty effective!
For more info:
You can read more about the remaking of Ötzi the Icemans shoes here.
An article from the British Museum on parkas, where they comes from and what exactly they are, can be found here
Cover image: Ansgar Walk/CC BY-SA 3.0)