Throughout time, what we as human beings have put on our bodies tells each other something about ourselves. Through our clothing, we may, whether knowingly or not, communicate such things as our sex, age, class, occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, sexual desires and current mood.
The clothing of Canada’s Indigenous People is knowingly designed to speak. Through their choice of material, and the form they give it, the decoration they chose to put on it and when and where they wear the garment, they are saying something very specific about themselves and their community.
Recently I was at the McCord Museum(Montreal). Their collection, some 16,000 artifacts, represents the material culture of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities, from the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains region, the Northwest Coast, and the Subarctic and Arctic regions and their permanent show, “Wearing Our Identity,The First Peoples Collection” brings the voice of our First People’s clothing to specific light.
A few of the pieces and their story*…
Spruce root and bark, paint
“Among Northwest Coast First Nations, clothing signifies wealth, power and affiliation. Crest symbols painted on hats or woven into textiles refer to stories owned by the wearer and their family that tell of mythical encounters with various creatures. In evoking the stories , the crest proclaim membership in a clan. The decoration on this hat depicts a legend involving a killer whale.”
Tanned and smoked hide, cotton cloth, velvet, glass beads, cotton tape, wool tape, cardboard, paper, metal sequins, cotton thread
“The floral design on these moccasins is an evocation of the Haudenosaunee worldview-a visual reminder that berries, flowers and medicinal plants are gifts from the Creator.”
Hide, glass beads, brass bells, porcupine quills, wool cloth, sinew, ochre
“The two-hide dress, a favourite pattern in the mid-19th century, was made by joining two deer hides together, positioning the tail area just below the neck opening. Women preferred the hides of female animals, as they thus acquired certain desirable properties from the animal. The making and the wearing of a dress is an expression of ancestral knowledge. Beyond the garment’s utilitarian component, the artistry that goes into its creation links the human and the spiritual realms.”
Stroud, cotton cloth, glass beads, tanned and smoked hide, silk ribbon wool braid, sinew, cotton thread
Eeyou leggings were cut differently according to gender. The caribou, it was thought, had to be able to recognize the male hunter in order to give itself up to him. Men’s leggings therefore featured a pointed tab resembling the shape of the caribou’s dewclaw, while women’s leggings were rounded and shorter in length.
*all images James B. Fowler / items information and quotation from the show “Wearing Our Identity,The First Peoples Collection”