The fishtail parka, particularly popular among the mod subculture in the 1960s, has a fascinating history rooted in its utilitarian origins.

Originally, it was introduced by the United States Army in the 1950s during the Korean War. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. military recognised the need for a new cold-weather combat garment, leading to the development of several key variations, including the EX-48, M-48, M-51, and M-65. The “M” in the nomenclature stands for “model,” and the number corresponds to the year of standardisation.

The EX-48 served as the prototype, the precursor to the subsequent models. The first production model, the M-48, was standardised on December 24, 1948. What makes these parkas distinct is the fishtail extension at the back, which could be folded up between the legs, similar to a Knochensack, and secured with snap connectors to provide windproofing. This extension could be fixed in front for added warmth or folded away at the back to enhance freedom of movement.

The EX-48 parka featured a left sleeve pocket and was crafted from thin poplin, whereas the later M-48 parkas were constructed from heavier sateen canvas cotton. The EX-48 also had a lightweight fiberglass-based liner, while the M-48 had a thicker wool pile liner with an integrated hood liner made of wool. Both versions were distinguishable by the presence of the sleeve pocket, which was omitted from the M-51 onwards. The fur ruff on the hood was attached to the shell of an EX-48/M-48 and was typically made from wolf, coyote, or wolverine fur.

The M-48, though innovative, was expensive to produce and remained in production for only about a year. The pockets of these parkas were wool-lined both inside and out, and the cuffs featured two buttons to secure them tightly around the wearer’s wrist. This model also had a built-in chest pocket, which was unique to the M-48 parka.

The subsequent iteration, the M-51, was developed due to the cost of mass-producing the M-48. The outer hood of the M-51 Fishtail Parka was integral to the parka shell, and it featured an added hood liner as well as a button-in main liner, making it a versatile three-piece parka. This design aimed to provide a more customisable parka, with detachable components for easier cleaning and adjusting warmth as needed. It was also more cost-effective to produce compared to the M-48. The early M-51 parkas were crafted from heavy sateen cotton, similar to the M-48. Later versions transitioned to a poplin-based material. The liners also evolved, moving from the heavy wool pile to lighter woollen loop or frieze wool designs that dried more easily and were lighter.

The final version, the M-65 fishtail parka, came into production in 1968. It featured a detachable hood and a removable quilted liner made of lightweight synthetic materials, such as nylon and polyester batting. The hoods of these parkas initially had real fur, but after a fur industry outcry, only those produced in 1972 and one year later featured real fur hoods.

Designed primarily for combat arms forces, these parkas were meant to be worn over other layers of clothing. When worn alone, they were insufficient to protect against extremely cold conditions. Their size and design allowed them to be worn over battle dress and other layers, making them practical for military use.

In the 1960s in the UK, the fishtail parka became an iconic symbol of the mod subculture. Its affordability and practicality, along with its availability in military surplus shops, made it the perfect choice for protecting fashionable clothing from the elements while riding the mod’s preferred mode of transportation, the scooter. It even made headlines during the Bank Holiday riots of the 1960s, cementing its place in popular culture as a symbol of rebellion and style. The fishtail parka, with its unique history and enduring appeal, remains an emblem of both fashion and functionality.