Canada is a country in the northern part of North America. Its ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 9.98 million square kilometres (3.85 million square miles), making it the world’s second-largest country by total area. Its southern and western border with the United States, stretching 8,891 kilometres (5,525 mi), is the world’s longest bi-national land border. Canada’s capital is Ottawa, and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Canada contains a mixture of diverse national and cultural groups. At the time of Canada’s first census, in 1871, about half the population was British and nearly one-third was French. Since that time the proportion of Canadians of British and French ancestry has dropped to about one-fourth each, as fewer people have immigrated from the United Kingdom and France and considerably more have arrived from other countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Because immigrant groups have tended to settle in particular locales, they generally have retained their cultural identity. For example, Ukrainians largely migrated to the Prairie Provinces, where the land and climate were similar to their homeland, and many Dutch settled on the flat, fertile farmland of southwestern Ontario, where they practiced fruit and vegetable growing as they had done in the Netherlands. Many Chinese, Portuguese, Greeks, and Italians have settled in specific sections of large cities, particularly Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Sculpture and handicrafts have existed since Canada’s earliest history, though it was only in the 20th century that museums and scholars began to take note of important works of art such as the stone carvings of the Inuit and the totem-pole carvings of the Northwest Coast Indians. Since then, new kinds of Inuit sculpture and graphic work have flourished, as artists have built on their own history and also borrowed elements from Western tradition.

Micmac bark box embroidered with porcupine quills, northeastern Canada; in the Denver Art Museum, Colorado, U.S.

Painting has been the focus of most Canadian artists since the arrival of the Europeans. Canadian painters were greatly influenced by the styles of their European roots, but their subject matter increasingly came to be Canadian locales and landscapes.

Sculpture in Canada was for many years much less avidly pursued than painting. The works that were produced consisted largely of carved figures made of wood, stone, or bronze. However, beginning in the 1960s, sculptors challenged the traditional notions of form, content, and technique and took up international sculptural genres and styles such as earth art and Minimalism. Artists such as Les Levine and Michael Snow also worked as painters, but their three-dimensional work established their reputations.

Textiles

Canada’s illustrious history in textile manufacturing started in 1671 when pioneer settlers began weaving wools for clothing and furnishings. In 1872, the first mill was built, and soon enough mills were found all over Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Canada had the abundant natural resources like water and energy necessary for the industry to thrive.

Historically, Canada has always been seen as a country of textile innovators. From open-eyed yarn spinning innovations to shuttleless weaving techniques, it has been at the forefront of textile manufacturing evolution.

Weaving

Canada has a rich history of weaving stretching back to the precontact Indigenous peoples and enriched by each succeeding wave of immigrants. The Indigenous peoples produced beautiful weaving without benefit of a shed-making device. Therefore, although their weaving was skilful and of high quality, it was very time consuming. Skins were used for utilitarian purposes; woven textiles were reserved for prestige items such as the magnificent ceremonial blankets used on the West Coast, bands and exquisite ornaments woven with porcupine quills. The weave used was a special technique (weft-twined weave), which developed from the making of baskets.

In weft twining, 2 weft threads enclose each warp or group of warps in turn and then twist around each other before moving on to the next warp. From early times, this technique was used in many parts of the country with wide variations of texture, material and design. As trade goods became available, they supplanted the Indigenous weaving, but for some purposes the skills were maintained and are still practised.

Chilkat Blanket

Collected from the Haida (wool and cedar bark trimmed with other fur; yellow, black, blue, white), pre-1870

The Chilkat blanket, associated with the Chilkat (a northern band of Tlingit), was traded along the Northwest Coast. The blanket was made of mountain goat wool spun over a core of cedar-bark string. The men hunted the goat, constructed the frame on which the weaving was done and painted the design board from which the women, who did the weaving, took the design. The design often represents an animal (such as a bear), but is reordered and modified through complex principles. Representing the high point of weaving in Northwest Coast Indigenous Art, these blankets are almost always black, white, yellow and blue.

National Costume

The history of Canadian traditional costume (actually, many people think that there is no traditional garment in Canada, but still some pieces of clothing can be considered as their national dress) begins during the era of Native Indians. In 17th century the traditional dress begins to change fluently into more European one.

One of the most important things for the Native Indians in Canada was to keep the tradition in everything. Every tribe had its traditional garment, jewelry and style of face painting. Tribes lived far from each other and didn’t contact often. So, every tribe managed to keep its own dress untouched and unchanged for centuries.

But after colonizers came to Canada Native Indian tribes lost some of their territories. They were forced to live closer to each other. So, they began to borrow each other’s tribal dress. In that period the most popular clothing among Indians were feather headdresses, fringed buckskin clothing, and woven blankets.

In 19th century Native Indians were wearing beaded jackets and shirts, woolen sweaters, Seminole patchwork skirts, ribbon shirts, satin shawls, jingle dresses, broad ribbon applique, and the Cherokee tear dress.

New settlers from Europe brought new fashion to Canadian lands. And this fact changed the whole clothing tradition in this country forever.

Men’s clothing from ancient times till today

Dress of Native Indians

Mostly the Natives wore (and they still do) trousers with a kind of skirt onto them. It was the most popular clothing of Native Indians: the breech clout or breech cloths – rectangular piece of cloth or leather which was belted and worn with leather leggings (or without it). Some tribes wore kilts and fur trousers.

Canadian Native Indians mostly didn’t wear shirts in summer. They used leather shirts for cold season. Their clothes were very natural (made of natural materials and painted in natural colors) and beautiful, with quillwork, beadwork, feather elements and decorations made of wood and bone. Also clothing of Native Indians was often painted in different colors, just like their skin.

Three Blackfoot Chiefs wearing traditional clothing, including typical eagle feather war bonnet and two straight-up headdresses. On the picture are: Wolf Plume (left), Curly Bear (center), and Bird Rattler (right).

But the most unusual and distinctive piece of clothing of Native Indians was the headdress. Usually it was made of feathers and was very large and bright. And almost every tribe had its own traditional type of headgear and formal clothing.

Shoes of Native Canadians were made of leather as well as clothes. They wore moccasins, which were comfortable, soft and silent when walking – necessary features for a hunter. There also were mukluks (heavier boots).

Garments of colonial period

In general, garments of first Canadian settlers were made by pattern of French and then English fashion.

When first colonizers came to Canada in 17th century, they wore clothes which they brought from Europe. Only some parts of clothing were made locally from leather and fur. Garments for new settlers were brought to Canada from France and other countries by ships. So, people were wearing European style garments, but because of a time lag of at least a year between the initiation of a style in Europe and its appearance in Canada, settlers got old-fashioned clothes. That’s why Canadian fashions in 17th and 18th century were: men’s wigs, rich fabrics and elegant lace. Men wore breeches (slightly below the knee trousers). The settlers were very conservative, they tried to keep traditions of the Old World. So, they were pretty conservative in clothing unlike people in France, from where dressing was brought.

But only wealthy settlers could order and buy garments from Europe. The clothing of simple workers was much simpler and cheaper. Mostly it was made at home by workers themselves, sometimes people bought some pieces of clothing from local weavers and other craftsmen.

Garments of Canadian new settlers, 18th century

In 19th century men in Canada wore ordinary trousers (instead of breeches), waist-length jackets, hooded capotes and other clothes made of English cloth, which was delivered by ships.

During centuries of living in Canada new settlers adopted a lot of features and tips in dressing from Native Indians. They began to use leather and fur, especially in everyday garments. Also people began to wear moccasins, leggings, blanket capotes (which transformed into a greatcoat) etc.

Present-day clothing

Actually, Canadians don’t have general national costume, because the population of this country was formed by a mix of nations: Native Indians, Frenchmen, Englishmen and others. But there are some pieces of clothing that are typical for present-day Canadians. Fashion in Canada today still depends much on the weather and climate conditions. That’s why people wear parkas, long john’s (an undergarment, basically long underwear), ear muffs, scarves, gloves, mittens, tuques (woolen caps), various jackets made of linen and leather, leggings, ojibwa shirts, trousers, and moccasins. These are unisex clothes, good for both men and women.

Costume of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is recognized in the world as a typical Canadian dress

Women’s clothing from ancient times till today

Dress of Native Indians

The Native Canadian women mostly wore shirts, skirts and leggings, but the design, material and decorations were different from tribe to tribe. In some tribes shirts were optional and were used only as a coat. Other women always wore shirts, tunics or mantles in public. There were also American Indian dresses, which replaced shirts, skirts and leggings in some Indian tribes in Canada.

Native Indian Pow Wow

Native Indian women wore same shoes as man: moccasins or mukluks.

Garments of colonial period

In 17th-19th century women in Canada wore separate tops and skirts. Also they wore corset bodices (they were waist-long and sleeveless), chemises (knee-length undergarments which could function for the working classes as blouses), petticoats (skirts), aprons and caps. Similar clothing was warn in Europe in the same period, especially in France, England and Spain.

New settlers in Canada, 17th century

But garments in Canada depended much on the weather conditions and the way of life in this part of the world. For example, women couldn’t wear shoes made for English roads in Canada. They preferred flexible leather moccasins, which were much more comfortable, warm and appropriate. Still new Canadian settlers tried hard to follow the European fashion. They ordered clothes and fashion magazines, shared every new information about fashion and style etc.

The most loved among Canadian women were long wide skirts, corsets and waist-long jackets.

Present-day clothing

Actually, Canadians don’t have general national costume, because the population of this country was formed by a mix of nations: Native Indians, Frenchmen, Englishmen and others. But there are some pieces of clothing that are typical for present-day Canadians. Fashion in Canada today still depends much on the weather and climate conditions. That’s why people wear parkas, long john’s (an undergarment, basically long underwear), ear muffs, scarves, gloves, mittens, tuques (woolen caps), various jackets made of linen and leather, leggings, ojibwa shirts, trousers, and moccasins. These are unisex clothes, good for both men and women.

Clothing collection for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but ordinary people in Canada wear just the same clothes every day

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada
  2. https://www.britannica.com/place/Canada
  3. http://nationalclothing.org/america/17-canada/11-traditional-dress-of-canada-history-and-examples.html
  4. https://whatsanswer.com/what-is-the-national-dress-of-canada/
  5. https://textilewastediversion.com/history-of-textiles-in-canada-and-a-look-to-the-future/
  6. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/woven-textiles

Article written by: Arwa Aamir Kalawadwala

M.Sc. in Textile and Fashion Technology

College of Home Science, Nirmala Niketan.

Textile Value Chain Intern.