Written by Celina Bussière
A few months ago, I started to realize how distracting the word traditional could be when talking about clothing. More specifically, I was thinking about traditional Canadian clothing, asking myself if there could ever be such a thing, and the word kept leading me towards national cliché — the kind of mimicry kept in a costume box along with other words like folk and ceremonial, held far away from any elements of wilderness or survival that typically first inspired it.
Whatever inspired me to first think of this word, began to focus when the profile of another Canadian, Justine Woods, made its way to me in London on the program for a showcase of emerging international designers. More specifically, Justine Woods is a Métis designer, using the handmade craft of Native beadwork and a French style of bespoke tailoring to create her menswear line. Since an incredible amount of independent time went into each piece, it feels wrong to even introduce her collection as a composition of handed-down design, especially when all of her work had been self-taught and created in the past year.
For the longest time, traditional has been synonymous with being an art of a time that is past, though its first definition is more importantly the art of a land or the art of a people. In clothing especially, a creativity that could express the human experience of an environment and weave personal textures created by hand. But ironically, using it to describe the French and Native techniques that Justine drafted seemed to take the finished product out of the hands of both designer and wearer, and place them in a pattern of replication, nostalgia, or occasion. Yet, her work said so much more than that. In her hands, Canadian tradition was still an art of experiences today.
A creativity that could express the human experience of an environment and weave personal textures created by hand.
Maybe right now, it’s the fact that traditional clothing is a fashion of history that sounds too concrete and established to fit a country that ordinarily doesn’t do too well sticking to one definition of itself. How does anyone explain what the sprawling moss of feeling Canadian is, except for the knowing what we have yet grown into? Our country is physically and ideologically a wide open surface and home of a people whose place has always been in the seams of the landscape that surrounds them, still an exploration and unfinished. And like weather, the way we look is a changing phenomenon of always a becoming and never a being.
Being Métis, she is a descendant of the indigenous group of half Native and half French origin that resides in Canada, also known metonymically as the “Flower Beadwork People” in the very the same way you might call a businessman a “suit”. Since the 18th century onward, many of the French men arriving in Canada for the North American fur trade, trailing after the beginnings of industry and commerce in Canada, married Native women. Whatever hybrid culture formed from these ties wasn’t just a melange but a rare reproduction of the two.
As the women embroidered, the tradition belonged to whoever’s hands it fell in.
At its most abstract, the Métis culture intertwined religions, economies, and even developed their own mixed language called Michif. In the most literal sense, it was their beadwork that reinvented the look of two cultures, together reaching a new sense of domain.
As the French men in Canada became more involved in the Fur Trade, so did French women with the Métis, teaching them the style of beaded embroidery brought with them from France. At the time, the style of beadwork among most Native Canadian groups was geometric, and as the Métis’ beading became more floral it began to stand out, even drawing comparisons to the look of the French wallpaper that was beginning to cover new Canadian homes. But importantly, the process of hand-making these patterns preserved a degree of agency and autonomy for Métis artists, so the new arrangements could never absolutely be identical to the lifeless mathematics of wallpaper. The true form of this art is not meant to be be mechanised because, as Justine told me, the sewer’s hands need to get to know the person they’re sewing for. As the women embroidered, the tradition belonged to whoever’s hands it fell in.
In Justine’s hands, the colours and arrangements that she chose to bead with are determinately a slow growth of biography, designed specifically for each of her clients in the same way the Métis’ beadwork has always been. As a group whose territory doesn’t land between perfect borders, their travels and status were important to carry on themselves. None identical to another, their beadwork was the work of a beautifully unpredictable environment.
When we characterize clothing as traditional, we’re looking for something to hold onto in a changing landscape.
What I didn’t predict when I first reached out to get to know Justine and her collection, was how time- consuming the crafts of tailoring and beadwork each were. There was a confidence in choosing two methods that were bespoke. Bespoke, in fact, being a derivative of a word that means ‘to speak of something’. Her work was, after all, a conversation between beautiful contrasts: the masculinity of a suit underneath the femininity of beadwork. The speed of industry that the suit represents, versus the arguably slow method of sewing by hand. The uniformity of a suit tattooed with the eclecticism of beads. It would be easy to conclude that her cleverness existed only in the product of these pairs, rather than in the choice to take her time roaming between different foreigns of identity.
Near the end of my conversation with Justine, we talked about the next place she was roaming to. At the time, she was moving from Toronto to begin a Masters level degree in fashion in San Francisco. In a city with a large indigenous community, her first collection would certainly come with her and find ways to continue growing.
When we characterize clothing as traditional, we’re looking for something to hold onto in a changing landscape. To find any sense of Canadian in my clothes, using the word might just always feel foreign. With that, determining one fashion of ourselves, may remain an idea that is too bordered, ancestral, and short of what it actually feels like to live in an unbound environment.
Here in Canada, we combine, we adapt, and we take our time coming to a conclusion of what we look like. The individual grasp and translating crafts that are in Justine’s work are exactly the kind of patterns we hand down. More process than object, tradition in Canada is always in the experience of first-hand and making-of. It means assembling thousands of different pieces, feeling immersed in one moving sea of identity, and rootlessly clinging to new definitions of a country waiting for interpretation.
To see more of Justine Woods work visit www.justinewoods.com
Illustrations inspired by Justine Woods designs by Anna Gruber.
1 Harmon, M (2014). Folk Art. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/ folk-art (Accessed on: 29/07/2018)
2 The Métis. Available at: http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com/fp_metis/fp_metis5.html (Accessed on 29/07/2018)
3 Zhao, J. Native Designs in Modern Fashion. Available at: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1730/native-design-in-modern-fashion-the-transformations-of-native-american-flower-beadwork (Accessed on 29/07/2018)