When I was a student at the University of Minnesota in the late ’70s, the fashion was a breath of fresh air. Not because there was a lot of variety, but precisely because there wasn’t. Both sexes tended to wear the same things: jeans, a t-shirt with another shirt (often denim or flannel) worn open on top of that. And a coat, of which there were two varieties.
If the weather was bad, you wore a puffy down parka made of rip-stop nylon, in one of four basic earth-tones: rust, blue, green, beige. Walking around campus was like walking in the Startship Enterprise. And if the weather was a little better, you saw the same colors in what was termed a “mountain” parka. You saw some army coats, and a few leather jackets and letterman jackets (the latter usually survivals of high school glory). But the sheer universality of this garment was worth remarking.
The author as young man, c. 1981, and his trusty mountain parka.
One of the cool things about both kinds of coat was their anonymous quality. Mountain parkas were made in the same colors (though a different fabric) as the down parkas, and no matter who made them, they were all the same: semi-waterproof outer layer with hood, partial wool (plaid) lining, four outside patch pockets with velcro closure, hand-warmer pockets under the lower patches. Zipper front with a snap-down storm flap. Drawstrings at the waste and hood. Loose fit. No “North Face” type advertising on the outside. They weren’t exactly cheap–mine cost $40, IIRC–but they were good and solid (and made in the US of A).
The mountain parka of the author as a trusty older man, c. 2012.
Mine finally wore out circa 2004, and I replaced it with a modern coat “system” that had an inner jacket and an outer shell that zipped together. I rapidly realized my mistake, and started looking for a replacement. I found that largely unchanged mountain parks were still to be had, and so I had (and have) one. In many ways, it’s not as nice as my old one, but that may be the break-in period. And of course, it was made in China and has the manufacturer’s name on the cuff. Sigh.
I think that the universality of an article of clothing may be underrated. That is to say, we had a kind of uniform as students that helped us to feel more unified. I’ve always hated the idea of uniforms (one reason I was never a Boy Scout) but I find myself drawn to them unconsciously. These were our uniforms, much as the Chinese “Mao” jacket was a uniform in another culture.
The one I own now, of course, will never be a uniform, it’s just a reminder of something past. But it’s the only coat I need or own. Nearly perfect.