Laura Peers, Cynthia Cooper & Beverly Lemire
One of the fascinating objects we are exploring for ‘Object Lives’ is a long coat, made of moose hide or caribou hide, at the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is cut in a pattern related to European garments, but also influenced by Aboriginal ones. It shows a mixture of Indigenous decoration and European dress sense.
Laura: The coat is known at PRM as 1906.83.1. It was acquired from a dealer in Oxford and we know nothing about its North American origins. Comparing it to other coats from North America, we think it is from somewhere north or northwest of Lake Superior. We know that there were English tailors at some of the HBC posts on Hudson’s Bay in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also that Aboriginal women married Europeans at the posts and worked with them. The coat’s painted decorations outline the spine, which is seen on other Aboriginal hide coats from the region, and refers to relationships between hunter and hunted. The cut of the coat is an intriguing mystery.
Beverly: It is thrilling to see the mixture of elements in this amazing garment: cut, decoration and materials – along with copious signs of use. Look at the interior. The bits of worn lining are in shreds. Bits of lining are left at the arms and hanging along the outer seams. It’s intriguing to speculate where and how this garment was worn and the meanings attached to wearing it in fur trade society.
Laura: Of course, Aboriginal women also made coats like this, copying tailoring from garments obtained from European traders—and adding their own elements to European garments. This is not cut like one of the very straight-sided, T-shaped coats we sometimes see from Hudson’s Bay. It’s also not cut like a Metis frock coat with a nipped waist. It does have a very tailored back, sleeves, and collar.
Beverly: The term dressing gown and banyan has been used to describe this coat. In the catalogue entry Laura notes that European tailors at fur trade posts sewed long coats like this – a garment described by the explorer and trader David Thompson in the 1780s.
Beverly: Banyans carry a cross-cultural history, particularly as an in-door male garment. Decorative in-door robes were introduced to Europe in the mid 1600s, when Japanese officials periodically gave kimonos as gifts to European traders. These garments acquired a huge cachet associated with world travel, commercial ventures and the gathering of encyclopedic knowledge. A global industry developed making banyans (in-door dressing gowns) for elite and ambitious European men. Thousands of portraits were painted of men wearing these types of robes. The garment marked men involved in these ventures. It is intriguing to see the use of long (in-door) coats for perhaps similar purposes, with different aesthetic additions from the indigenous cultures of Northern North America.
Cynthia: Certainly my first reaction to the cut of this coat was that it reminded me of dressing gowns or banyans I have seen from the early 19th century. While these garments may initially be created as banyans, sometimes they were recycled from another garment or textile, often in keeping with their connotations of the exotic or other. For instance, I am familiar with one made from a women’s 18th century dress fabric!
Beverly: The stitches tell a tale. We see different threads used including cotton, as well sinew. These suggest different skill sets, as well as access to a range of resources. We also see different skill levels in the stitching. The life of the coat shows in several ways. It had a wool lining added, something we don’t usually see in such hide coats. At some later date, it has also had a rather spectacular brocade facing added to collar and front of the coat in red and gold. Perhaps the addition of the patterned wool trim, along the front facing of the coat, is a latter effort to give new life to this object?
Is the predominant red colour of this wool trim important?
Cynthia: This textile appears to be wool damask and has been used as a binding along the front edges and cuffs; it also covers the outer side of the standing collar. I had hoped there was enough of it that we could cut and paste photographs to show us a full pattern repeat and get some sense of its date that way. From the perspective of Western fashionable dress, its vivid colour and pattern would certainly be in line with an indoor use for this garment. It of course influences my perceptions of the garment as a possible dressing gown or banyan—but it doesn’t mean it started out as one.
Great care was taken in the making of this garment. The woven quill work, for example, is quite fine. And the blue and red markings along the back seam demonstrate the important indigenous aesthetic and spiritual facets of the culture that produced this hybrid coat.
Beverly: The coat actively connects the maker, user(s) and viewers of this garment; and we are a part of this long process.