A Brief History of Canada’s Brief Fashion History

I get it, most people have no interest in history whatsoever. I feel context is necessary, though, so as the world wakes up for fashion season once again, a dose of history is just what we need to understand where we fit in this global industry.

Everyone had their coffee? Yes? Excellent, let’s begin.

The Basics:

  1. French Settlers In The 17th Century
    • Depended largely on what they brought with them
    • Ready-made garments from imported cloth were very expensive
    • Local hat and shoe makers appeared by the late 17th century
    • Weavers were sparse until the 18th century
    • Settlers made garments from cloth spun in the home and woven locally
  2. And Then There Were The Rich
    • Affluent men and women wore elegant clothing similar to French styles
    • With the formation of Upper Canada in 1791, there was a new governing class and elite who maintained fashionable and expensive dress
    • Styles were more conservative than the modish Parisian fashions of that century but still borrowed heavily from them
    • The attire of wealthy Canadian women was indistinguishable from European fashions by the mid-19th century
  3. And the not so rich
    • Styles were quite conservative and modeled after rural French and later, English clothing
    • By the mid-19th century, ready-made clothing was more accessible, though working class attire was still made by hand in the home
    • Chemises (knee-length undergarments) functioned as blouses for the working class
  4. What they had in common
    • Late-17th to late-19th century (earlier except in Quebec) women wore separate tops and skirts
    • Women wore corset bodices, petticoats, aprons, and caps
    • By the mid-18th century, the traditional corset bodice had been replaced by what was called a short jacket – a sleeveless bodice that extended beyond the waist.  Stylistic variations are unknown today, though we know it was used to create a lean figure
  5. In the name of progress
    • Cargo ships only arrived from the continent yearly, causing an extreme lag in fashion
    • Overseas communication improved by mid-19th century, shortening the lag to as little as two months
    • T. Eaton launched first mail order catalogue in 1884 so even those in rural areas had access to the latest styles
    • First fashion plate (a drawing featured in papers) displaying the latest fashions appeared in the Montreal Monthly Magazine in 1831
    • The progression of the 20th century saw the switch from dressmaker to department store
The Birth of Fashion Design in Canada

While we credit Charles Frederick Worth as being the originator of the modern fashion designer, our industry started when local manufacturing facilities began to make use of their own designers. The contemporary idea of fashion design emerged in the mid-19th century with the acknowledgement of the industry regarding added commercial and cultural value. Individual authorship behind the creation of fashionable clothing is a surprisingly new concept until then dressmakers and tailors were regarded for their skills, but credit for taste was given to either the supplier of materials or the client.

British-born Worth labelled his garments as a guarantee of their source and quality, as he promoted himself as an artist and trend-maker. He founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, which allowed only a select group of Parisian designers to call their practice haute couture. This began a formalization of a hierarchy within the industry, with named designers at the top. Some believe this was a direct reaction to the industrialization occurring at this time.

Departments stores in Canada started incorporating men’s tailoring and women’s dressmaking departments to supplement their ready-to-wear collections with custom orders. Many of these tailors and dressmakers began to label their clothing, guaranteeing authorship, quality, and degree of exclusivity. Patronage from influential Canadians, such as Governor General Frederick Arthur Stanley, increased the dressmakers’ influence, but it rarely went beyond their immediate local area.

The term fashion designer didn’t take off until the early 20th century; clothing makers were referred to as dressmakers or couturiers. These designers had to worry about not only local competition but Parisienne Couture garments and other European fashions that were imported and sold in Canadian boutiques and department stores such as Simpson’s and Holt Renfrew. Of course, that competition died out completely during World War II as Paris couture was no longer exporting.

During the war, American designers could finally achieve renown in North America, and they were promoted widely by buyers and the media. A promotional film about Canadian fashion design was released in 1946 in an attempt to establish an export market to the United States immediately after the war before Paris could reestablish itself. This sadly failed, and widely-distributed designers from Canada with name recognition did not emerge during this period the way they did in America. French couture rebounded in 1947 to great media fanfare and became, once again, the gold standard of fashion design.

I’m leaving you here today, as I want to discuss the work of individual designers in terms of the cities they worked in. Montreal is in line for next week, stay tuned!

It’s important to know where we came from to make the best use of our current resources and opportunities. Because our industry is comparatively so young, we are more capable of significant innovation in terms of creativity and business practices than our European competition. Our time to shine will come.

Your mystery with a history,




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