Fashion Flashback: Given that fashion was instrumental in the creation of Canada, this blog series explores the development of what Canadians wore one era at a time.
Robe à l’anglaise (c. 1765) from the Costume Museum of Canada.
Great Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War in 1763 stripped France of the majority of their territorial North American possessions. They kept the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, but New France was added to Britain’s growing North American empire. Needless to stay, the restructuring of the continent was a massive geopolitical shift, so how was this reflected on the societal level for the formerly French citizens? Or more specifically (since this is a fashion post after all) how did this turn of events effect what people wore? This post looks at changes to women’s clothing; next week’s post will look at men’s fashion.
Habitants / Working Class
An example of French farmers: Early Acadia by Claude T. Picard.
Initially, not a lot changed for French Canadians because the British government decided to take the smartest course of action and allowed their newly conquered population to continue to practice Roman Catholicism and speak French. The last thing they wanted was a French Canadian rebellion on their hands, so maintaining the status quo was the way to go. As such, since there was no fundamental attack on French culture, there was no major overhaul in the fashion world either. But that doesn’t mean nothing happened.
By the time New France came to an end and during the decades that followed, 80% of the population fell into the working class or “habitants.” If you recall from my New France post, habitant clothes were homemade, on the conservative side, and the fabrics of choice were linen, hemp, and wool. Above all, their clothes were focused on practicality (aka weather-ready). Farmer fashion was lifestyle dependent and as such whether you were female or male, English farmers and French farmers dressed practically the same.
An example of British farmers: Colonial farmer plowing wheat or corn by Vance Locke.
Narrowing in on lower class women, their dresses did not really change following the war. They still did not have large hooped skirts made with expensive whalebone. (I doubt many would have wanted to, can you imagine farming in a dress like that?) Rather, their petticoat which the bodice and gown were worn over gave them that fuller skirt image. To finish off their look, they wore a white bonnet and apron (which actually served a purpose as opposed to being for decoration only) and if their cuffs were not elbow-length/lined with lace, they were turned back to create a cuffed, shorter sleeve look.
Woman Cleaning Turnips by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin.
So if we are looking at fashion changes from the perspective of population scale then no, not too much changed. However, if you look at it from the top-down, aka the fashion of the wealthy, that’s where things get interesting…
Upper Class British and French Women
Even before a certain doomed queen showed up on the scene, court fashion for French women was far more elaborate, vibrant, and decorative than their British counterparts. Across the English Channel, dresses were more practical and durable as they were meant to enable an outdoor lifestyle. The social lives of British elites centered less around the royal court, so formal court styles had less of an impact on the overall look of British women’s fashion. A good example of the distinction between French and English dresses comes from the robe à la française vs the robe à l’anglaise (sack-back French gown vs close-bodied English gown).
Robe à la Française (c. 1750 – 1760). [Source]
Robe à l’Anglaise (c. 1775). [Source]
Basically, which one has excess fabric and looks like more of a pain in the ass to wear? That’s usually the French one. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some crazy English dresses though….I mean yikes!
Despite their differences, both sides favoured an exaggerated silhouette featuring narrow, inverted cone-shaped torsos achieved through boned corsets and full hoop skirts known as panniers. Low, oval necklines, elbow-length lace-decorated sleeves, and high curved high heels were popular through the period. Fashion was under the influence of the rococo artistic movement at the time. It valued a playful approach to design and enjoyed using light colours (particularly pastels), curves, asymmetrical designs, and gold accents.
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) by François Boucher, c. 1756.
Portrait of a Lady by Joseph Highmore (1692-1780).
As for accessories, the biggest change during this period was the shift to extreme hairstyles and wigs (or poufs) for women. They did not really come into style for women until the 1770s. Before Marie Antoinette, only men made and wore them. Wigs were very expensive and as such the working class seldom wore them. For those who could afford it, horse (or other animal) hair or human hair (the most expensive) was used.
Upper Class Colonial Women
Given that communication and trade did not travel as fast as it does today, it’s not surprising that fashion in the colonies lagged behind that of Britain and France. After their initial introduction in Europe, it took new fashions up to a year or so to cross the Atlantic. Also, since there was no English court (or French court for that matter) in the colonies, dresses were never as elaborate as they were in Europe. Nevertheless, colonial women’s dresses exemplified their European influence through the use of lace, boned stays, pastels, and ruffles; all of which were popular in the North American colonies regardless of location.
At this time, there was more of an incorporation rather than a full on adoption of English styles in the areas that once made up New France. English women and later British loyalists who immigrated to the new colonies settled in the area that after 1791 would be called Upper Canada (Ontario). As such, French Canadian women did include English dresses in their wardrobes, however the English-influence was much more readily seen here than in the old French areas. Furthermore, the same old rule for distinguishing between English and French styles persisted: the more conservative/toned-down the dress, the more likely that England is its origin.
Jeanne Leroux neé Dubois, widow of a wealthy Quebec merchant.
Dress worn by Charlotte Catherine Caroline De Montizambert.
An example of English style (this dress is a robe à l’anglaise) influencing French Canadian fashion. (c. 1770). [Source]
Curved high heels worn by a French Canadian woman made of silk, linen, and leather (c. 1775-1780). [Source]
Stays worn by a French Canadian woman. (c. 1785-1790). [Source]
Fan used by a French Canadian woman (c. 1775) [Source]
Given that from the age of six children were expected to dress like adults, girl’s fashion followed that of overall women’s fashion. Towards the end of the 18th century, new and more relaxed attitudes surrounding children’s clothing emerged, but we’ll explore that change in a future blog post. During the 1760s-1780s though, little girls were expected to look like little ladies regardless of social class.
18th century English woodcut of two wealthy children.
The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (c. 1756) by Thomas Gainsborough
Portrait of a Young Peasant Girl (c. 1770-1780) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Model of cloak worn by an upper-class 18th century French-Canadian Girl.
Child’s stays (c. 1760-1790) [Source]
Yes, even little girls had to wear corsets or “stays” for posture and silhouette shaping purposes. The above example is actually for a toddler and as such it is structured with cardboard and not whalebone or metal.
Thank you for reading Part 1 of my look at fashion after the fall of New France. Next week I will take a look at men’s and boy’s fashion during the same time frame. If you have any questions, feel free to ask below!
Finkel, Alvin, Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. (2006).
Delapierre, Madeleine. Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century. Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1997.
McCord Museum Online Collection Database. Accessed from: http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/collections/