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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada




March 1972

(Fortress of Louisbourg Report H-F16AE)

Translated By Christopher Moore



The characteristics which emerge from the study of men's costume enable us to establish the nature of clothing styles which can be related to the particular occupation or social position of the wearer. The descriptions available for these clothes are precise enough to make costume an interesting object of study for their own sake. But its significance is not limited to that, for the study of costume considered as a product of a particular civilization helps us to understand a little better the men who wore it, the milieu in which they lived, the time to which they bear witness. As well as describing types of costume, we try to some degree to integrate them into a wider context.

There are three types of costume for which reproduction will be possible: these of the "bourgeois", the "middle class" and the "fishermen".

The first, the bourgeois costume is characterized by the complete suit: justaucorps, vest and breeches, in muted colours, made to measure according to tailoring practice. The justaucorps, very full at the back, reached to the knees. It buttoned up the front and was trimmed with flaps on the pockets and cuffs on the sleeves. The vest, worn under the coat was slightly shorter and less full. It was modeled on the coat but had no cuffs. The breeches reached just below the knee. They were adjusted at the waist with a belt and at the legs with garters. More luxurious suits, velvet or silk embroidered with gold or silver trimming, belonged to the governor and to some rich ship's captains. They were rare in Louisbourg. With the suit, one wore linen shirts trimmed at the abot and the cuffs with lace or muslin. Stockings of wool or silk rose above the knee and were fitted under the breeches. Chaussons or half-hose worn under stockings gave the comfort which the elegant black or white silk stockings lacked. Wool stockings were usually chosen to match the colour of the suit. Black leather double-sole shoes had a fairly low wooden or leather heel and their uppers covered the front and top of the foot. They fastened with metal buckles, some of which, made of gold or silver, were very valuable. Pumps were slightly lighter than shoes but looked much the same. Sometimes the bourgeois wore a wig. There were several types but the perruque à bourse seems to have been the most popular. The small taffeta hairsack which held back the hair of the wig could also be worn with natural hair. The black felt hat with a crown and a wide brim completed the ensemble. Beaver felt was for the best hats, woollen felt for more common ones. Outdoor garments such as the redingotte or the overcoat could either replace the justaucorps or cover the complete suit.

At Louisbourg, this costume was worn by officers, administrators, the clerk and bailiff of the Superior Council, engineers, bourgeois merchants or merchant-brokers and sea captains. It was also the type of costume worn by the governor, though he added a few more splendid items.

In the language of the time, this style of dress was distinctively classified by the term ''veste bourgeoise". [374] Moreover it was related closely to the style worn by those known as "bourgeois" in France. These men dressed themselves "in bourgeois style, in gros drap or frieze (ratine) or barracan (bouracan, a type of camlet) according to the season, but almost always of matching sombre colours. They [wear] small. round or square wigs, without curls, powdery in appearance. They (weary large shoes with strong soles. They [wear] black, gray or mottled woollen stockings with a garter tied below the knee". [375] The clothes of the richest men were sometimes tailored from better cloth, but at Louisbourg the ensemble generally retained the austere aspect described above. In questions of social status, it is better to refer to personal wealth than to the title of the person in question. Men who carried a gold-headed cane or a silver-hilted sword were as likely to be merchant-brokers as captains or officers, and despite the great luxury of some wardrobes, one never finds an item which was characteristic of nobility in the way that black shoes with red heels typified the nobles of France. [376]

The costume of the middle class was modeled on that of the wealthier group, whose styles were imitated in poorer fabrics. It is not by chance that at Louisbourg the fabric of suits was called "drap" for in New France, "drap, for the people, was the luxury fabric resewed for special suits. L'étoffe was a less elegant fabric which was used widely".[377] Instead of ordering made-to-measure garments, people of modest circumstances bought new clothes from merchants, or in more or less good condition at auctions, where almost completely worn-out items were sometimes sold. Hence they rarely wore matched garments. Their shirts were untrimmed and made of ordinary toile. Their breeches of rough woollen cloth (étoffe) were basically the same style as the breeches of suits, without the refinement. In place of the vest and justaucorps, they wore a woollen waistcoat (gilet) or a cloth vest (veste d'étoffe) which often had no lining and no sleeves. Their stockings were woollen and they wore leather shoes with plain metal buckles. Slightly poorer people might wear galoches or sabots instead. Instead of hats, for all did not own hats, they were cotton, toile or woollen caps.

The costume of the "middle class" was closely related to the costume of the poor. In fact it is difficult to define the boundary between the two groups. The number of references to these styles is too large to leave any doubt about their widespread use. We have little precise information about the occupations of the wearers, likely minor artisans with unspecialized tasks, but they were very numerous because their garments were the type which sold most, and the type most frequently seen in contemporary scenes of daily life. If we are willing to imagine them with commonplace ready-made suits, protected by an apron while they worked, it should not be more difficult to see them in a once luxurious suit now used and patched, which they had bought at a public sale.

This seems to have been the group in which costume was most varied. First, they were not bound to fashions which in any case not all could follow except by waiting for richer men to abandon their worn out clothes for newer ones, or by compromising appearance for greater comfort. In effect the continual problem was to use the means that one had to protect oneself as well as possible against the cold. Second, they were not tied to a type of activity which required one kind of dress rather than another.

The fishermen are a different case. Their canvas shirts, (chemises de grosse toile) waistcoats (gilets) and woollen stockings resemble those worn by minor artisans. But the long breeches of sailcloth (toile à voile) or leather were theirs by definition: fisherman's breeches. At work they did not wear shoes but rather boots "for fishing" and instead of a canvas apron, they had a leather devantau. To protect themselves from the weather, they put on leather cloaks or ca pots, and mittens of rough cloth (grosse étoffe), wool or even leather.

The fishermen were part of the middle class; it was due to their work that they had different clothes, which were not found elsewhere except in the stores that sold them. Their superiors, captains of boats and schooners belonged to a wealthier class. Even with the wealthier class, the sea captains were central figures. Often the finest wardrobes in Louisbourg belonged to them. However they also owned semen's clothes like the fishermen's. The fishermen however would rarely have spare garments, perhaps because they could not afford them. Thus, while it is possible to envisage a characteristic costume for fishermen and seamen, this costume was related to the nature of their work rather than typifying a social class. In this light, it is not surprising that at Louisbourg where fishing and other sea-going occupations were important, sea captains were among the best dressed men, while the fishermen were the only group of the common people who could be recognized easily by their clothing.

Altogether, styles in men's costume at Louisbourg showed little originality and do not appear to have evolved between 1713 and 1758.

The styles current at Louisbourg were modeled on French originals, because the wealthy class which set a pattern for the others ordered its clothes directly from the metropolis. The others bought clothes imported or discarded by the wealthy. The clothing of the Indians had a modest influence in the lower strata of society. Admittedly an Iroquois belt was among a ship captain's possessions, but considering his other clothes, one is inclined to believe that it was an unusual souvenir. On the other hand, the "Indian shoes" which men wore in winter suggest the beginning of adaptation to the local environment. In all else, Louisbourg garments remained in the tradition of European clothing.

And there as at Louisbourg, fashions changed little and slowly. Variations in style did not affect basic patterns of clothes design. When this is compared to the rapid changes which occur today, one can see in that period a degree of conformity which left little room for personal tastes. On the subject of developments in style, we must consider colours of men's garments. On the whole, one can see a slightly greater popularity for blue and red vests and breeches after the English occupation ended in 1748. Could the civil population have been influenced in their clothing habits by the military uniforms? ...or would they have taken over the garments formerly belonging to the soldiers? The apparent trend may be caused simply by coincidence in the documents, but it is also quite likely that it was a result of the military presence resulting from the siege of 1745. Other than this exception, fashion was stable throughout the period.

Louisbourg differed very little from the metropolis since only a small portion of the population borrowed from local clothing habits. The imitations and exchanges between one social level and another suggest a closed society where all lived side by side. One searches in vain for innovations which might bear witness to the attitude of a group trying to put down roots.