The colonization of eastern Canada began with the French in the 17th century. For some years, these settlers depended for clothing on what they brought with them. New garb was expensive and the only clothing available was ready-made garments made locally from imported cloth or, sometimes, from dressed skins. Weaving did not become widespread in the new settlement until early in the 18th century; some local manufacture of fashionable shoes and hats had begun by the late 17th century.
With the appearance of towns, affluent male and female inhabitants dressed in elegant clothing similar to that worn in France. However, there was a time lag of at least a year between the initiation of a style in Europe and its appearance in Canada, since ships from the continent came only annually.
In 17th-century Canada a fashionable male wore a wig, rich fabrics and elegant lace. Portraits of Jea Talon, the first intendant of New France, show him stylishly attired in a wig, brocade dressing gown, shirt lavishly trimmed with lace at the wrists, and lace cravat.
In 1703 Madame Riverin, wife of a member of Quebec City’s Conseil Souverain, was painted in a stylish dress called a mantua and an elegant head-dress known as a fontange. Her daughters were dressed similarly and her son was garbed in a miniature version of fashionable male clothing. Such imitation of adult clothing was customary in children’s attire.
When the province of Upper Canada was created in 1791, the newly formed governing class, as well as the other members of the elite, also attempted to maintain fashionable standards of dress. These standards, like those of English dress, were generally more conservative than the modish styles of 18th-century Paris.
The first Canadian fashion plate, a magazine illustration displaying the most recent fashions, which appeared in March 1831 in the Montreal Monthly Magazine, probably was inspired by one in an English or French publication. With the improvement in overseas communication that occurred in the mid-19th century, the time lag between new European fashions and their appearance in Canada was substantially reduced, becoming as short as two months.
All but the wealthiest settlers wore clothing made in the home, often of cloth spun in the home and woven domestically or by professional local weavers. Styles tended to be conservative and to reflect rural French or, later, English styles.
In the mid-19th century, as more ready-made clothing became available, fashion slowly became more accessible to the masses; however, most working-class attire continued to be made at home.
Relatively small quantities of this clothing have survived because, as it wore out, it was recycled into quilts and rugs. In 1884 the first mail-order catalogue, the T. Eaton Company pamphlet, appeared, making recent styles more accessible to everyone, even in remote rural areas. This important development decreased the difference between conservative rural and up-to-date fashionable dress.