Originally created for the US Army in Korea but brought to the mainstream by mod culture in the 1950s and 60s, the fishtail parka is one piece of outerwear with many uses: of course as a rain jacket, but can also work equally well as a city coat over a suit or in the wilderness on a hike. Here’s our attempt to dig a little deeper at the origins and the history behind the coat itself.
Like many classic pieces of outerwear, the fishtail has roots in the military. The standard issue cold weather parka in the late 1940s was the N3-B or “snorkel parka”, but the frigid and wet climate of Korean peninsula necessitated a warmer coat for American troops in the Korean War.
The Army designers went back to the drawing board and developed the M-1951 (Military 1951) Cold Weather Parka as a result. The key concern for the US military during the Korean War was to keep the soldiers warm and nimble without wearing a thick and clumsy piece of outwear. The fishtail parka accomplished these needs with a three-quarter length, so it could keep someone’s entire body warm without hindering their movement, and constructed the coat out of waterproof nylon and cotton, so the material would shed Korean snow and freezing rain.
But the true innovation came from the split in the back of the jacket with a drawstring on each hem. The wearer could tie each half of the split around each leg, this trapped more heat and kept the wind out. Many GIs thought the split looked like the tail of a fish, and voila, the fishtail name was born.
Mainstream love for the fishtail, however, came about not in Korea or the United States, but in the UK. In the late 1950s and early 60s the Mod subculture had taken London by storm. A large portion of British teens suddenly loved Vespas, slim cut suits, modern jazz music, and fishtail parkas.
The fishtail parka started as a cheap piece of military surplus that could keep dust off of a Mod’s suit while he was on a scooter, but the fishtail soon became an essential part of the look itself.
As Mods danced their nights away on amphetamines, love for the parka itself began to grow beyond the subculture and into the mainstream. Like the M-65 after the Vietnam War, the fishtail soon became just another piece of casual clothing.
Vintage milsurp fishtails are still aplenty on eBay, but many modern brands have tried their hand at making their own versions as well. Here are a few of our favorites:
Entry Level – Urban Outfitters x Alpha Industries
Don’t let the model’s stupid crop sweats fool you, Alpha Industries is one of the military’s longest running outerwear contractors. This fishtail is cut a little bit shorter than the typical knee length and has a slimmer fit, but is made of the same OD material Alpha uses on their mil spec models.
No longer available.
Mid Level – Buzz Rickson’s
Buzz Rickson’s is one of the definitive Japanese repro houses and this fishtail shows them at the top of their game. The parka is made to pretty much the exact same specifications of the 1951 original, coming with a detachable quilted liner, Crown zipper, and a leather toggled hood.
End Level – Ten C
If you’re ready to take your fishtail game to the next level (and tax bracket), have a look at Ten-C. Short for “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the Italian label makes no compromises when it comes to producing the highest quality garments imaginable. Their fishtail is made of a micro-fiber fabric milled in Japan and then finished by hand in Italy. The hood even has an internal wire frame to stay just open enough while it’s on your head.
On sale for $870 at Haven