The Fascinating History of a Fashion Icon: The M-51 Fishtail Parka

Posted by McGuire Army Navy on

One the most iconic military jackets to ever hit the mainstream fashion market is the M-1951 Fishtail Parka. To understand how that happened and the history behind this unusual looking coat, we’ll be looking at that arcane piece of military trivia today.

The Korean War started on June 25, 1950, when 75,000 North Korean troops crossed over 38th parallel and invaded the Republic of Korea, otherwise known as South Korea. By July of that year, the US had entered the war, and by the winter of 1951, the Korean War was fully underway.

In order to weather the cold Korean climate, the US Army needed a warm, versatile coat for the troops that wouldn’t hinder mobility. Out of this necessity, the M-51 Fishtail Parka was born. It was warm, with a detachable hood, and was a three-quarter length parka, aiding movement. But what made the jacket unique was the unusual lower-hanging back of the coat, with a split in the middle.

The innovative split was made to give soldiers the option of tying the hem of the jacket around each leg, trapping more heat in. The strange look of this feature earned the jacket the nickname, “fishtail.”

How well did the fishtail parka work? Well, it definitely kept the men warm, but by July, 1953, the war was over. The South Koreans got an extra 1,500 square miles of territory, and, sustaining losses of almost 40,000 men, and the Americans went home.

But the fishtails’ work wasn’t over. The unused coats were sold to dealers around the globe, and they waited patiently in army navy surplus stores.  A few years after the war, they began resurfacing, this time in the unlikeliest of places.

As the 1960s came around, a new subculture was forming in London.  Known as the “mods”, this movement was focused on music and fashion, and gathered in coffee houses till the early morning hours.

The mods liked fancy clothes, and amphetamine-fueled all-night dancing. These fashion-conscious rebels were very particular about wearing tailor-made suits with narrow lapels, and their preferred mode of transportation was Italian scooters, such as Vespas and Lambrettas.

In order to protect their precious tailor-made suits from street grime and mud when riding their scooters, the mods took to wearing military parkas when zipping around London. Ostensibly this was also a fashion statement, as it was important to the mods that they look anything but conventional.

In particular, the M-51 American military parka was the favored jacket for these hyper-fashionable youths. Images of stylish mods riding vestas with their fishtail parkas began appearing in the mainstream media.

In time, the mods began appearing everywhere, including television shows like “The Mod Squad”, about young social outcasts recruited as undercover detectives, and later, in the film “Quadrophenia”, about a young working-class mod.

As part of the mod “uniform”, the fishtail was now a part of the mainstream – and thus the fishtail was reborn as a modern fashion symbol.

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  • I still have mine from the army in the early 90s

    Eric L Shaw on
  • I wore one of these in the winters of the early 1990’s during deployments to Hohenfels, FRG. Great coats.

    Bill Welcher on

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