Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Two hundred years ago, at the height of the fur trade, it wasn't easy being a voyageur. In order to put maple syrup on the table, you had to paddle and portage an immense amount of goods through the vast woods and waters that separated Lower Canada from the Red River Valley. And chances are, you did all this in clothes you made yourself.
In 1815, voyageurs who signed up to work for the North West Company would receive six ells of fabric. Many voyageurs would then proceed to sew their garments.
At Festival du Voyageur, which begins on Friday, the men and women in period garb at Fort Gibraltar take the heritage aspect of their costumes seriously. And that includes the familiar voyageur outfit deconstructed here.
In 1815, voyageurs really did wear felt toques. But the red toque, Festival du Voyageur's symbol, was an arbitrary colour selection in 1970, when the festival was founded as a Manitoba centennial project. During the fur trade, different brigades of voyageurs wore different colour toques. The Red River brigade likely wore blue hats, not red.
Sorry, hipsters - the image of the bearded voyageur is not historically accurate. Voyageurs were clean-shaven when they weren't on the move. "When voyageurs arrived at a fort, they would pull their canoes over to the side of the river and make sure they looked presentable," says Colin Mackie, Festival du Voyageur's heritage-program manager.
The red cotton cravat was a fashionable scarf in 1815. Voyageurs also wore bead necklaces, as beads were traded widely across North America. A voyageur capable of carrying enormous loads or performing other arduous task may have sported a necklace bearing a Spanish silver coin, which would have been a gift from an appreciative bourgeois, or boss.
Voyageurs would have worn two cotton shirts in winter time: a cotton V-neck button shirt, which functioned as an undergarment, and a waistcoat over top. Plain white fabric would have been worn on the trail; the paisley patterns shown here would have been worn on special occasions. For pants, Voyageurs favoured melton narrow fall trousers, which did not have a fly. The green coat, known as a capote, was also melton.
The leather handbag is essentially a 19th-Century European version of a man-purse. This one's made of cow leather, but in 1815 it would have been moose, deer or elk. The abalone buttons would have been traded up from the Gulf of Mexico.
The decorative brooch on the strap of the haversack signified the voyageur had a sweetheart somewhere. This did not necessarily prevent him from doing his part to boost the Métis population in the Red River Valley.
The dagger in the sheath has an antler handle and a metal blade fashioned from an old or worn-out file. It was more of a utility knife than a weapon. The fringes on the leather sheath are adorned with beads known as blue padres. The hands that grasped the tool would have been clad in leather gauntlets.
Contrary to popular belief, the red wool sash is not ornamental. It was wrapped tightly around a voyageur's waist to prevent hernias while carrying heavy loads, functioning much like a modern weightlifter's belt. The end of the sash, however, would have been tucked in. Otherwise, it would have gotten caught on a branch at the first portage.
Voyageurs wore felt mitasses over their boots to shed snow and keep their feet warm. They functioned a lot like gaiters. The moccasins depicted here are not historically accurate; most voyageurs would have worn leather boots.
Model voyageur: Dan Pohl. Heritage interpretation: Colin Mackie and Monique Olivier.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 J16