How To Dress Like a Southeast Alaskan

By , October 9, 2009

Although we, like all Americans, dress in myriad styles, there are a few modes of dress that distinguish us as Southeast Alaskans. Two distinctive items can identify the person wearing them with our region to the discerning eye. That is, after you’ve followed the basic rule of thumb that the styles will be approximately five years behind the latest fashion. The first is a garment manufactured by the Woolrich company. Officially called the Woolrich Men’s Stag Shirt, but often referred to as a “shirt jacket,” it is button-up, heavy wool and nylon, collared, cape-yolked, and features slash hand warmer pockets. It is distinguished by its cloth, which is almost herringbone in pattern, a dominant color with a backing of black, giving it a heathered look.  Southeast Alaskans wear it as a coat, and when we ask for it, we call it a “halibut jacket.”

Michelle models the height of Southeast Alaskan wear.

Michelle models Southeast Alaskan fashion.

These jackets come in a variety of colors. Woolrich offers them in plaids, which I’ve never seen; solid colors seem to be preferred locally. The one my dad has had ever since I can remember is a rich green. Mine is red, appearing maroon with the heathering. Michelle’s is blue, and Aly’s two jackets are light gray, and brown. I think there are other colors as well—I don’t remember them all, but I do remember that I took about two weeks to choose the color when I finally bought mine.

It’s a singularly useful coat in this climate. The wool keeps you warm when it’s cold, and cool (within limits) when it’s warm. Like all wool garments, it insulates even when very wet. Its tight weave makes it fairly wind-resistant. As an outer layer (and for us, layering is high fashion) it’s useful in most weather conditions. And, like a good tweed sport coat, it provides a tolerably wide range of dress up or down depending on what one combines it with.

Growing up in Southeast Alaska, I assumed that the halibut jacket was common throughout the state. That changed one winter when I visited Anchorage. While making a purchase at a store, the clerk admired my coat, and asked me about it. Surprised that he didn’t recognize it, I told him it was a halibut jacket. He said he’d never seen one before, but it looked like it would be very useful. When I asked how long he’d lived in Alaska, thinking he must be new to the state, he said, “All my life!”

Far more common than the ubiquitous halibut jacket is the XTRATUF boot. This two-tone red-brown rubber boot is a symbol—perhaps the symbol of Southeast Alaska. So much so that their common nickname is “______________ tennis shoes,” with the name of your favorite Southeast Alaska community filling in the blank.

Apparently the manufacturer, Norcross Safety Products, makes them almost exclusively for Alaska. They say they sell some in Washington, Oregon, and a few places in California, but Alaskans buy at least a third of their yearly output. We seem to be this particular product’s niche market.

And we don’t just use them, we love and revere them! They are accepted in virtually any social setting. People have worn them with evening gowns and tuxedos. The company made a special high-heeled pair for a Miss USA contestant from Alaska! People paint them, wear them plain, with pant cuffs tucked in or pulled over in any and every situation. A lot of people wear them in their wedding ceremony, especially the ones held outside. It’s a bit of a mania.

I myself don’t wear Xtratufs anymore, which for many Alaskans calls my true loyalties into question. I wore them when I was young, and found the soles too thin and flat, without a heel, to be comfortable when walking. The boot’s upper is also too thin, so that it doesn’t take long to wear holes in stress points.

Further, the form-fitting upper is potentially dangerous. In the maritime communities of Alaska we are trained as children that if we fall in deep water, we should immediately kick off our boots so they don’t fill with water and drag us under. Many boots designed for fishing and deck work have a rigid upper that bows away from the calf, partly so that they can be kicked off quickly. Water pressure can press the form-fitting Xtratuf upper against your calf, so that, even filled with water, you may have to fight heavy suction to free your foot from the boot. (Further thought on this subject has recently led to a change in the recommended procedure.)

Finally, Xtratufs are expensive. The formerly-high price of $65 a pair is considered a bargain these days. Instead, I favor the Northerner, a less expensive, in my opinion better designed rubber boot.

I concede I’m in the minority here, and that the paragraph above is likely to be considered heresy in my part of the country. I also concede that, when it came time to tell you the name of the boot I prefer, I had to go over and look to see what it was. I never would have had to do that if they were Xtratufs!

A friend related his experience at the grand opening of a new store in Juneau, Alaska. For the opening, the store offered excellent sale prices on limited quantities of items, first come, first served. My friend had two items in mind, both of which would be 50% off. He arrived at the store 30 minutes before it opened, with, he admits, lust in his heart for the two tools. He thought he’d gone plenty early, but the line outside the door was already halfway across the parking lot when he arrived! He resigned himself to the possibility of being too late for his planned purchases, but he entered the line and filed in with the other customers when the store opened.

Eventually he got both the tools he wanted. He was happy to get what he came for, but was very puzzled—what had everyone else come to the sale for? Then he noticed a large crowd gathered to his right. People had clustered around a vast stack of shoe boxes, topped by a sign reading: “Xtratufs 50% off.” In the circle of people closest to the stack, people were down on their hands and knees. He heard a lot of shouting, and caught phrases like, “No, no—eight and a half, eight and a half!” He said it resembled a rugby scrum, “only (somewhat) more polite.”

My friend told me, “From this I learned that if you want to start a riot in Juneau, put up a sign: “XTRATUFS ONE HALF OFF” and get out of the way. Better have a lot of boots.”

16 Responses to “How To Dress Like a Southeast Alaskan”

  1. rulewriter says:

    I bought my halibut jacket back in 1991 when I was working in Ketchikan at the pulp mill. It’s blue like Michelle’s and any time I get the occasion to wear it, which isn’t often in Southern California, I always get “Cool jacket, where did you get it?” I bought mine at the Tongass Trading Company. I’d love to get a couple more but it’s a bit of a road trip from here :)

  2. Mark says:

    Rulewriter,

    They’re actually pretty sharp looking coats, if you keep them clean, aren’t they? I had to laugh–we used to live in California at different times. The last place was Fresno. If the temperature dipped below 60 degrees, we’d pull out our favorite sweaters and other warm clothes. We still sweltered, but it was nice to wear the old favorites once in a while.

    Maybe I ought to start a Web store, and sell jackets and boots? The link in the post goes to Amazon.com, but I’m sure that’s a bit more than you paid in Ketchikan. Alaska’s calling you back–don’t resist!

    Thanks for your comment.

    Mark

  3. cedriclauzon says:

    Thank you for the feed back…..it surely will change from living in the tropics!!!!!!!
    Message for Michelle and Mark; How are Dave and Anke doing? is there a way to get in touch with them?…..Tell them we most certainly drop the hook in your waters next spring…Mahalo and Aloha!!!!

  4. Mark says:

    Cedric,

    Drop us an email through the link on our main page (not the blog–look for the message in the bottle at the bottom of any page) and we can give you news on Dave and Anke.

  5. Shane says:

    Mark,

    Like you I share a passion for Alaska and all the great things it offers. For me two of the best are my wife (raised in Gustavus Alaska) and Xtratuf boots!

    My passion for Xtratuf boots, drove me nearly to insanity when I could not find them locally or really on the internet all that easily. So I have spent the last several months finding a vendor, and now I am putting up a website so others do not have the same issues finding them as I did.

    Long story short, now I am looking to feature fans of Xtratuf, and I came across the picture and story above, and was hoping to add it to my website.

    I then spent 30 minutes trying to find your email address so I could send you a private message, but to no avail. You keep that very well hidden!

    Anyway, please let me know if I have permission to use the photo above, and if you had any comments you wanted to add those would be welcome as well.

    Thanks, and enjoy the summer!

  6. Mark Zeiger says:

    Ladies and gentlemen, meet Shane, a true Xtratuf zealot!

  7. Erik says:

    Not just in the southeast! I’m from Fairbanks and the xtratufs are ubiquitous, though with the colder winters I would say bunny boots are somehow even -more- common! Carhartts complete the wardrobe for the lower body. On the upper body, a nice flannel shirt during the winter or a regular cotton shirt during the summer. The “halibut” coats are definitely around, especially if you spend time near the Chena or Tanana rivers, but I’ve never before heard them called halibut coats (which makes sense, considering how far we are from the halibut). As for Anchorage…well they’re hopeless. My parents always joked when I was younger that Anchorage is “just one hour outside Alaska!”

  8. Mark Zeiger says:

    Erik, I’m glad to hear that Alaskans in Fairbanks (where I was born) know how to dress! Do they have a local name for halibut jackets on the rivers?

    I like that joke about Anchorage too, and use it every chance I get.

    Thanks for visiting the blog!

    Mark

  9. Reading about this makes me feel the need to get back out on the water. I have not been out in five days and I really need to just get out there… Mucho… Browsing for stuff on it just won’t cut it

  10. Mark Zeiger says:

    I know how you feel!

  11. pat says:

    i’ve been trying to find the old halibut jacket , but i have come up blank. do you know where i can buy one.

  12. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Pat, I see my link to the jacket on Amazon is no longer valid. Looking at Woolrich’s site, it looks as if their Stag shirt is a different animal now (as it were). All I can suggest is checking outdoor stores and ship chandlers within Alaska, specifically Southeast. I’m not even sure that would work, as it’s been years since I’ve shopped for one. Mine is still in prime condition, and it sounds as if I’d be wise to keep it in good shape, no?

  13. Thomas Ball says:

    Great article!

    Went to a bar in Juneau and everyone had on Xtratufs. The girls rolled down the tops to form a cuff and add a little inside fashion.

    It seems lie the 16″ height us the standard.

    I am left with one question….

    Insulated or uninsulated?

    Tom

  14. Mark Zeiger says:

    Tom, if I had to, I’d say insulated. A lot of people roll their cuffs. I avoided it (when I owned Xtratufs) because it makes them wear out even faster.

    Now we’re hearing that the company outsourced to a foreign manufacturer. Everyone’s complaining that the quality has suffered (which means they’re seeing the same things I’ve always found wanting in the boots). Pre-outsource boots are becoming a hot selling item here.

  15. Fungifu says:

    I myself am an Alaskan and in the picture above, the cliffs in the background might be a place Called Horn Cliffs. I also believe the lady is sitting near the petroglyphs at Sandy Beach, located in Petersburg. It also might be in Juneau Alaska.

    Waiting to hear about the location

    -(==>
    _/ \_

  16. Mark Zeiger says:

    Sorry, no. She’s south of Haines, and the mountains in the view have no official name.

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