Arctic fashion is as distinct as the Arctic’s myriad dialects. Clothes tell stories and reflect lifestyles while fads are often specific to geography and culture. One’s attire can also sometimes reveal more than it hides. In a southern airport, a northerner can be spotted a mile away, fitted out with bulky jackets, furry garments, or oversized boots. Likewise, you can spot a southerner in a northern community the minute they step off the tarmac, either bundled head to toe in trendy gear, without a bit of flesh to be seen, or slightly underdressed without the slightest clue of how northern life will transform their fashion sense. Those who stay in the north often succumb to the local style and modify their look by learning to sew, purchasing a crocheted hat, a homemade parka, some kamiks (sealskin or caribou skin boots), or a fur accessory to become fully immersed in and appreciative of their hamlet’s rich cultural environment.
Style has evolved significantly in the territories over the past decade. Most new arrivals to Nunavut discover that dressing up is a formality reserved for specific occasions and that most of the outerwear they brought up is only briefly appropriate for in-town activities.
People can walk to work in their store-bought gear for the better part of the year but are persuaded to upgrade to the homemade version for going on the land. Living north of sixty makes it challenging for people to afford or access the variety of clothing available to their southern counterparts.
As a result, Arviat has a large contingent of seamstresses who use their ingenuity to produce everything from baby carriers (amauti) to sealskin accessories. Living in isolation necessitates making clothes. The creation of graduation dresses, mitts, snow pants, boots, or jackets for family is a phenomenon no longer specific to the past.
Inuit identity is very much woven into clothing. Garments help to make life in a precarious place all the more comfortable and survivable. People have created a new style, merging traditional concepts and materials with bold colors and trendy haircuts. There is pride in the re-emergence of creating with traditional materials. The hunt for furs and skins that landed so much money in other people’s pockets once upon a time should not really surprise those who do not see the use of such fashions today. Today Inuit want to use what they have always known and depended on to make a living and a fashion statement for themselves, and more power to them. I challenge skeptics to come here donned in down coats with faux fur in -50 degree temperatures and see if their perspective is altered.
How people dress often reflects conformity; adolescents rebelling in the face of customs to keep up with the trends they see in popular culture. Style in Arviat, however, stems from an awareness of cultural norms, a desire to support local industry, or a need for societal acceptance. The latest rage in the North is florescent color-dyed fox fur sewn on jacket hoods and sleeves. Scraps of sealskin are transformed into hair and jewelry accessories. Kids are using what’s at hand to be fashion-forward in their own right. People are blending cultures and moving into the future while desperately fighting to preserve tradition.
One of my first out-of-town excursions revealed how ill prepared I really was for Arctic survival. Having grown up in Newfoundland, I felt confident that I knew how to prepare for camping trips out on the land, like layering my clothes. That is, until I found myself in the back of a wooden qamutik (sled) dressed in my southern-bought duds with my hands and feet frozen. My Inuk companion firmly instructed me to start kicking my feet against the sled and move around. Painfully, I took his advice and sensation returned. In the midst of a mug-up, following a caribou hunt, my hands froze a second time. I was appalled when my friend told me to start rubbing my hands in the snow, which, he claimed, would produce the opposite effect, warmth. Reluctantly, I thrust my hands in loose snow and it worked. First law of the Arctic: dress appropriately for it.
When I returned to town I immediately sought out any and all opportunities to learn how to cut patterns and sew. I started producing my own stock of homemade outerwear. The use of caribou or sealskin kamiks and mitts was clearly non-negotiable and I became an advocate for wearing fur from experiencing its necessity for survival. I commissioned a local seamstress to make parkas, complete with fox fur trim on the hoods, for my husband and I, as we realized that what we’d brought just wasn’t going to cut it. Traditional style outerwear quickly trumped the modern. This would be my first of many important lessons on what not to wear in the North. Every time I have left the Arctic, in spite of hairy stares and harsh opinions, I proudly wear my homemade garments, fur and all.
The use of caribou or sealskin kamiks and mitts was clearly non-negotiable and I became an advocate for wearing fur from experiencing its necessity for survival.
The other day, the collective sartorial efforts of a family uplifted the soul of their displaced daughter and sister who is far away from those who are dear to her. A surprise package arrived from her home on Baffin Island. My friend opened her mail to discover a new pair of sealskin kamiks and was overjoyed for many reasons. She explained that this was not just a gift but also a testament of their love for her. Apparently, her entire family had had a hand in this creation. Her father hunted the seal, her mother prepared the skins, and her sister sewed the boots. Together, their purposeful actions led to this young woman getting what she needed, physically and emotionally.
Clothing does more than keep us warm. It alters people’s opinions of each other. The way an amauti is cut can tell you if a woman is married or not. A parka can reveal your identity, or your favorite hockey team, while boots and mitts will disclose your social status. Knowing who made your outerwear is preferable and more revered than buying a brand name. Going to work in the North does not require business attire, unless you are in uniform, and dressing down is often important to ensure you don’t stand out like a sore thumb. However, as much as people are loyal to their traditional items and enjoy not having to dress up all the time, when the opportunity for formal wear presents itself, people are all over it. Girls will order their grad dresses, or, like the olden days, have one homemade. If they’re lucky, they get a flight south to select one. Remote living begets innovative and inspirational approaches to fashion. Many Inuit successfully fuse their funky forward fashions with homemade gear and have created a whole new style that communicates more than any dialect ever could.