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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





Report H F 16 E

Fortress of Louisbourg



The impression left at the end of this study on costume done "piece by piece" is the one you have after leafing through a catalogue or looking at a picture with a magnifying glass without knowing what was the whole picture. Was there a definite style in Louisbourg? If so, what was it? Who followed it? How did the differences in wealth and social status reflect themselves in the clothing habits? By regrouping the most important elements to form a whole, typical portraits could be drawn that would enable us to answer these questions and to conclude our research paper.

Nothing indicates that a fashion peculiar to Louisbourg developed during the 18th century: if it had, it might have been the result of innovations among the well-off or of borrowings from the indigenous People by the more modest classes in order to adapt to the local conditions.

A few facts reveal that the richer persons depended very much on the metropolis: in 1754, an ear ring was sent to France to be repaired. Twenty years earlier, Madame Péré had ordered fabric in France to follow the latest style; the same was done in the case of a wedding dress. However, in spite of her personal contacts which helped her obtain what she needed, the reply from her correspondent shows that she was ten years late with respect to the latest creations of the 'European manufacturers. So, even the privileged ones who were not limited by financial considerations or lack of social contacts, were far removed from the metropolis, both in time and in space.

A study of Louisbourg society would give us the ideal frame into which could be fitted what is so abstractly called the "upper class", but lacking such a tool, we are forced to limit ourselves to the individual level: the wardrobes of the high officials' and officers' wives are well furbished, so was the one of the widow Chevalier, whose husband was a merchant, [243] and who later became a seamstress. Whatever their social rank, the wardrobe of these ladies can still be described as "elaborate", i.e. it comprised the fine linen chemise, either trimmed with muslin or lace at neck and wrists; the bodice, not stiffened most of the time, sometimes completed with a stomacker; the robe à la francoise which [front] opened onto a matching petticoat done either in silk or cotton; the coloured stockings made of silk but most often of fine wool; the leather or embroidered fabric shoes with covered wooden high heels; the coiffe of muslin or fine linen trimmed with lace or sometimes embroidered ribbons worn over natural or curled hair: the neckerchief of the same fine fabric tied around the neck; and over everything to go outside, the long hooded cape in brown wool or the short mantelet in wool or the lined cape made of lighter fabric.

As for the women of more modest condition, wives of fishermen, craftsmen or others, they remained in the shadow, since nothing is said about them in the documents. This is not surprising at all, because no inventory or auction sale was necessary for people who owned very little. It is on the merchant's lists of stock that we are more likely to find out about the clothes they wore. Who but these people, cut off from the French markets, would have bought the goods in the shops? There they could get among other things, much simpler garments and undoubtedly more practical ones, as well as aunes of fabric to make their own clothes with.

Their apparel consisted of the plain chemise in coarse linen with sleeves rolled up to their elbow, which was worn under an unstiffened bodice of wool or cotton; the skirt, of wool or cotton also, but, not matching the bodice; the plain coiffe and neckerchief, as well as the apron in coarse linen; the stockings of dyed coarse wool worn inside leather galoches or wooden clogs; and finally, the short cape with a hood covering the head. We did not find a single reference to Indian shoes, for example, which might have been indicative of Indian influence on the Louisbourg people.

Concluding that there were two types of costume, the "simple" one and the "elaborate" one, and associating them with two social groups, the "well-off" and the "modest" one, is a pitfall to be avoided, because reality is not so simple. On one hand, the personal tastes obviously involved in clothing prevented complete uniformity; on the other hand, the facts themselves do not support such an over-simplification in the case of Louisbourg. In this respect, the situation existing in Europe gives us some food for thought. In the rural areas, the costume of the common folk did not change for ones century or two; it was kept at the level of the bare essential and was not influenced by changes which took place in the costume of the richer classes. However, "In Paris or in any big urban centre, there were no such sharp contrasts and anomalies between the costume of the common folk and that of the bourgeoisie. The poor wore the cast-off clothing of the rich. As a result, all the social classes were bound sooner or later, to wear the same clothes, either new or old, still glitteringly new or in a more or less advanced state of deterioration or dilapidation". [244 ]This tendency towards homogeneity was accentuated in Louisbourg where isolation made it more of a closed city, a fact which is supported by the auction sales: the clothes were transmitted or re-transmitted "half worn" and "three quarters worn" until they are not usable at all.

Such a short-lived colony, which started with an artificial implantation, was brutally interrupted, then revived to face an abrupt ending, could not, have created a typical style which is the reflect of a culture. The evolution of a style requires a very long time, which lacked in Louisbourg. Those who could afford it, administrators, traders, followed from afar what was going on in the metropolis; the others of more modest condition relied on the first leaders whom they imitated sooner or later. Looking at them in that way, one slowly begins to think that their costume is the expression of the surroundings in which lived the "Louisbourgeoises" of the 18th century...