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Freeze Frame Scott Polar Research Institute

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Traditional Clothing in the Arctic

Traditional Inuit and Greenlandic clothing has practical, spiritual, decorative and political elements to it. Those early polar explorers who adopted indigenous clothing techniques suffered less from frostbite and hypothermia than those who tried to adapt western clothing for the polar climate. However, at the time many indigenous groups were viewed by the west as inferior or uncivilised, so their clothing techniques were rarely adopted. In some instances, particularly where forced settlement occurred, indigenous people were made to wear the less appropriate western clothes. For indigenous people, this loss of their traditional clothing made them anonymous, as clothing was used to mark gender, age, status, locality and family groups (Buijs 1997:2).

The central materials of indigenous clothing were fur and animal skin; these are very good at insulation. Fur is made up of two layers, an outer layer of longer coarse hairs and an inner layer of short soft hair. These hairs are hollow in the centre and this space is filled by air. The arctic clothing system works on the principle of layering to trap warm air next to the body. Europeans followed this system, but would wear close fitting garments made from wool, linen, cotton or silk. Wool was often found to be too warm and would cause perspiration; it would then absorb the perspiration making it heavy, and would take a long time to dry and would often freeze before it dried out. A fur garment will also get wet and heavy making it uncomfortable. However, a fur can be left outside to freeze as, unlike wool, the water does not cling to the fibres but forms a layer on top of them. The Inuit will often hang fur clothing out in the cold, allowing the moisture to freeze so that this layer can then be removed. This will then return the insulating properties of the fur and it can be comfortably worn again.

Whilst fur may lack waterproof properties, sea mammal gut and fish skin are extremely waterproof and were used to make coats, anoraks, parkas and boots. These can be combined with fur to keep the wearer warm and dry. Certain stitches also work well to keep garments waterproof – seams are made without piercing all layers of the material so that water cannot penetrate. Sinew is used for sewing and will swell when wet, closing any holes in the seams.

Indigenous clothing is not purely about utility, it is also an expression of identity. Clothes are commonly patterned to reflect age, gender and status. For example in Greenland women would traditionally use glass beads traded from the whalers to decorate their anoraks with elaborate patterns. Cultural factors have at times resulted in a design of clothing which is not always best suited for the polar climate. For example women in East Greenland would wear short trousers with long boots exposing their thighs to the elements. It would be reasonably common to see women with blackened thighs suggesting the onset of frostbite.

There can be no doubt that those explorers in the heroic age who took on or adapted indigenous clothing styles were more comfortable than their counterparts who wore European style clothing.

Today indigenous clothing is a mix of traditional and western styles. Many indigenous people will live in heated homes where they no longer need the thick furs. However, if they are going out hunting or on an especially long journey, traditional clothing may be worn. Traditional and western clothing styles can be mixed, they are not mutually exclusive.
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