Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia




[This article was published in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

Costume. Costume in Canada has followed in general the changes in European fashion. The influence of climate, environment, occupation, and contact with the aborigines have modified its character, and introduced some special features. The present article deals mainly with these local variations and the styles of clothing developed by Canadian conditions.


Indian dress itself was determined by the materials and tools at hand, and its fitness for the life and surroundings of the wearer, to which was added the usual modicum of display and decoration common to human vanity in all stages of civilization. Fetish worship, magic, and secret ritual were expressed by the wearing of amulets, medicine bags, and other symbolical objects. Some of the tribes had learned the art of weaving and plaiting. On the Pacific coast, cedar fibres and the hair and wool of Rocky mountain goat and sheep were used to make clothing; in the south and east, cotton, corn-husks, and the tissues of other plants were threaded into a rough wearable fabric. But throughout Canada the principal materials for clothing were the skins of animals, with or without the fur, prepared by scraping off all fragments of flesh with stone or bone implements, and rendered pliable by rubbing animal fat and brains into the texture of the hide. Finish and colour were given by smoking over a smouldering fire.


Some conspicuous differences may be noted between the dress of the Indians of the open western plains and those of the woodlands. On the prairie, shirts were of the poncho type, with a neckhole and shoulder-pieces, instead of a collar and true sleeves, though sometimes for winter wear the arms were covered by removable sleeves attached to the shirt. Among the Indians of the north and east, shirts were cut into a form more nearly approaching that of a coat fitted with sleeves sewn to the shoulders. The moccasins of prairie Indians generally had the seams bordering the sole of the foot, in close contact with the ground; in the wooded country, where snow was deep and muskegs, lakes, and dew-laden underbrush were encountered, the sole leather was brought up over the heel and toes, and the seam was on the upper. The elaborate feather bonnet, with long streamer beset with eagle plumes trailing behind, was not suitable for use in the forest, and was found only on the open plains; the woods Indians used only a few feathers stuck in the hair or the headband. Snowshoes varied in shape according to the nature of the country and the character of the snow-fall, ranging from the long ski-like Loucheux of the Alaskan border to the almost circular shoe of the Montagnais and Naskapi of Quebec and Labrador. Some tribes shaved the greater portion of the head, leaving only a crest of hair, or a scalp-lock; some, as the Ottawas , coiled their hair into an elaborate coiffure; other wore it long, or twisted it into plaited tails hanging down on either side of the face.


In winter, fur caps were worn, often made from the heads of animals, with the ears or horns left on. The garments were sewn with sinews, and decorated with dyed porcupine quills, wampum, shells, the teeth, claws, and tufts of hair from animals, or with the scalps of their defeated foes. With the coming of the white man, European fabrics, introduced as articles of Indian trade, gradually displaced aboriginal materials and brought on the decline of native handicraft, which survives to-day only in the making of moccasins and beadwork for tourist consumption, or for use in the few remaining Indian ceremonies.


But, while European influences affected native production, the incoming white man adopted some features of the Indian costume. Explorers and traders at once saw the necessity for moccasins, rather than heavy boots and shoes, for use in the canoe; the fringed legging was an ideal covering in the forest underbrush; the buck-skin suit was soon borrowed by the coureur de bois, the frontiersman and the settler. A characteristic head-covering in the early days was the 'coon-skin cap, with a leather peak in front, and the barred and bushy tail curled over the top and hanging down behind to protect the neck of the wearer. Fur coats, muffs, and mittens were worn in cold weather, and the snow-shoe made winter travel possible.


Throughout the French régime, the officials, the well-to-do classes, and the military dressed in the fashions of the period; in the case of the more needy seigniors and lesser noblesse these were somewhat out of date. From numerous notarial inventories of deceased persons it may be seen that the garments worn were those of the France of the time, with the addition of fur-robes, caps, or muffs, and perhaps a somewhat larger proportion of heavier clothing. About the middle of the eighteenth century, women wore a sort of collapsible bonnet with a stiff rim, which could be brought forward to protect the cheeks and ears, or thrown back to leave the head uncovered. This head-dress resembled the hood of a chaise or calèche, and from this derived its name of calash.


Rank and vocation were indicated by differences in dress. The upper classes wore silk, gold braid, velvet, lace, feathers, and embroidery, the sword and the cane, and, in the late seventeenth century, red-heeled shoes, marked the gentleman; the servant wore livery in the armorial colours of his master; the bourgeois dressed in clothes of more sober cut, material, and colour; the peasant and the farmer in linen, homespun, and leather. Costume perhaps reached its widest range in Canada during the closing years of the French régime, when the extravagance of Bigot and his profiteering associates flaunted itself alongside the poverty of many of the habitants.


It was among this latter class that a distinctively Canadian costume gradually developed. Made by themselves; from materials grown on their own farms, and woven by their own firesides, the gray )homespun of the habitant attained the importance of a national costume, and in the 1837 period became the symbol of French-Canadian opposition to British bureaucracy and economic domination. It was admirably suited to the conditions of habitant life: a double-breasted coat of blanket cloth reaching to the knees, with a hood which could be drawn over the head in cold or stormy weather, thick cloth breeches tucked into high boots with moccasin-shaped feet, made pliable by soaking in oil, - the famous bottes-sauvages, or "beef boots", - a tuque or woollen cap of bright colour, and a sash made of stout linen threads of yellow, red, blue and white closely woven in an acute zigzag or arrow pattern, wrapped in wide folds around the waist and hanging down at one side where the ends terminated in a long fringe. This ceinture flèchée, or "assumption sash", as it was sometimes called from the town of L'Assomption, which was a centre of its manufacture, was perhaps the most characteristic and original article of Canadian costume. It was woven in the home by the young women, and was worn by the habitant, the voyageur, and the student of the seminary. Like all the products of folk-culture, this costume was the growth of time; but as early as 1666 there is mention of the rough blue coats and tuques of the militia in Courcelles's expedition against the Iroquois, and an engraving in La Potherie (1722) shows a figure of a Canadian on snow-shoes, wearing a long-skirted coat which may well be the forerunner of the later capote.


The British conquest introduced a few special features into Canadian costume. Fraser's Highlanders, some of whom settle in the country, and later Scottish immigrants brought the plaid, the kilt and the bonnet, and these were worn is such widely separated localities as Cape Breton, the Red River Colony and parts of Upper Canada; but the rigours of the Canadian winter caused them to be discarded before long. Tams-o'-Shanter caps and plaid shawls, however, remained in common use, and are seen in photographs as late as the 'eighties of the nineteenth century. The clothing of the Loyalists was that of the revolting colonies, itself an American adaptation of the English costume of the period, together with many of the somewhat war-tarnished uniforms of the colonial regiments. The immigrants of the 1830-40 period and later brought with them some of the garments they had been accustomed to wearing in the old land, such as leather or corduroy breeches, and the smock frock of coarse linen.


With British rule, military uniforms became a conspicuous feature in the Canadian scene. The colours changed from the blue and white of the French to the red coats and white, gray, or black breeches of the British infantry, the dark blue of the artillery, and the blue and gold of the cavalry. The troops of the British army which were stationed in Canada gave a dash of colour to the everyday aspect of town life, and the garrisons formed no inconsiderable portion of the population. In the sea-ports such as Halifax and Quebec, naval uniforms were numerous. Militia men in the early days, with the exception of some of the officers, wore no uniforms. Later, they were clothed in the same way as the corresponding branches of the service in the regular army. In the early days of the North West, the scarlet and gold of the mounted police were a characteristic feature in the sparsely settled landscape, which in the floodtide times of immigration was further enlivened by the picturesque costumes of Galicians, Ruthenians and Ukrainians and other peoples from northern and central Europe.


Among the typical historic figures was that of the missionary. In the 17th century were to be seen the Récollet in the cowled gray-brown habit of the Franciscan friar, girt with the triple-knotted cord of his order, the black-robed Jesuit with cassock buttoned in front to its ankle length and wrapped about the waist with broad soutane, and the Sulpician, similarly clad in black. On service in the wilderness, beards and moustaches were permitted, and moccasins and snowshoes substituted for sandals and buckled shoes. In the towns and villages were. nuns habited in white coifs and black or gray gowns. After the conquest appeared the canonicals of the Church of England clergy, the Geneva band and black gown of the Presbyterian minister, and the less markedly clerical garb of the Methodist itinerant, who gave to North America in the settlement period the characteristic figure of the circuit rider. In all these classes, as in every other, the official dress was modified to meet the exigencies of climate and travel in wild country, and in this respect adopted the transformations of costume imposed by the conditions of Canadian life.

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 135-138.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College