Greeted with much enthusiasm and quickly dubbed Mr. Magnificent, the Metis Coat 1951.2.19 sparked a great deal of discussion and debate during the workshop. Likely made between 1820 and 1860, it first entered the Pitt Rivers collection in 1951 after it was acquired by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1925 from auctioneers Knight Frank Rutley. This astonishing coat has a ‘twin’ in the British Museum which must have been made by the same women and was presumably acquired through the same sources. Sadly, we know nothing about who might have made it. Much of our time was spent brainstorming these questions about provenance – about who might have made it and where? Who was it made for? And what we can learn by considering its twin housed in the British Museum.
The coat is special because of its bold, exuberant painted design and elaborate ‘epaulets’ and back decoration worked in porcupine quills. It is also special because the colours haven’t faded and it is in pristine condition: it has a sense of just having been handed to us by the maker.
Given what we know about fur trade society in the early nineteenth century, consensus is that an indigenous woman closely associated with a fur trade post likely made this amazing garment.
Judy: I think there would have been a number of women involved in making this coat, and that they would have seen this style of coat and understood quite well how to make them.
Laura: Agreed. There were English tailors at the posts by the late 1700s that would have worked with a diverse group of indigenous women to produce clothing. With officers in uniform at the post, women would have experience in their construction, mending and repair.
Beverly: We also need to consider the transmission of fashion as a type of exchange as well. We need to remember how long and how widely these coats circulated.
Katie: I can’t help but think of Red River and how important it was in northern North America. Sitting at a major crossroads, it doesn’t seem all that surprising that this would have been influenced by any number of indigenous cultures, including at least Dene, Cree, Ojibwe, Metis, Mandan, and Dakota.
Judy: Definitely multiple influences. Crow and Cheyenne use this same style with beadwork.
Laura: And the painted boxes are reminiscent of box and border robes from the Missouri River area.
Given its cut and adornment, who do we think the coat might have been made for?
Cynthia: The cut of the coat is fairly classic men’s tailoring with a military influence. You can see that in the epaulets of quillwork. With the sleeve set so far back, it suggests an 18th century cut rather than 19th century. Maybe even 1790s.
Sarah C: This would have been presented to someone senior. It’s very possible there would have been some sort of presentation made during the exchange.
Katie: Maybe we can find a reference in fur trade journals? Something like this would have stood out and been noted by contemporaries.
Because so little is known about artist or owner, discussion soon turned to other ways we could tease out these answers.
Laura: Sketches and watercolours of the period are quite accurate, but I’ve not seen anything quite like this coat.
Beverly: Except in the British Museum. And, of course, Sherry Farrell Racette notes that another Cree-made painted moose-hide coat is also in a UK collection, now at the Tyne and Wear Museum. The history of the making of this coat and the name of Sehwahtahow, the young Cree woman who likely made this garment, came down through the family history of a former Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) surgeon in the late 1700s. The PRM coat is missing this specific history, as is the coat at the British Museum. But the history of this Tyne and Wear Museum coat is suggestive.
Laura: The PRM coat is almost a twin of the one at the British Museum and differs in only minor details from the British Museum coat. Might they be made by the same woman or women closely connected? We need to look at the coats at the British Museum and Tyne and Wear Museum for more information.
Sarah C: Why were these coats made – as gifts, for sale? And how did they both make it into collections in Britain?
Katie: Did someone at Red River commission these coats? Or were these made only around trading posts like York Factory?
Sarah C: We’re going to have to look at the coats in other UK museums and do some additional archival research to see if we can piece together who might have owned this coat.
Beverly: And we also need to consider more fully the intent of the coat makers and the meanings held by the coat when worn in this region – and when carried back to Britain.