A BEAUTIFUL BLUE CAPOTE
Updated: Apr 19
While the modern popular culture image of the Metis man is a jaunty voyageur in a candy-striped Hudson Bay blanket capote with a yarn toque, and a brightly-colored sash wrapped around the coat, reality was less like the European-created myth, but much more interesting.
In general, the standard capote of choice employed by the Metis during the first half of the 19th century was a classic cut, with broad lapels, dropping to about the knees. This coat was most often a beautiful cerulean blue color. The choice of blue served as a sort of camouflage whereby the Red River hunters would blend in to the sky while hunting. When possible, the capote would be fastened by brass buttons (if these were available), but could as easily be fastened by bone disks or other metal available through local traders.
Trousers were most often corduroy – brown, khaki, or black in color – and footwear was usually moccasins that could be beaded or left plain depending on the taste of the wearer. Decorations were limited, primarily the ever-popular sash that is associated with the Metis people, and leg garters that were either beaded leather bands or smaller woven sashes. The waist sash was used as a belt, and the cinching of it about the waist served as a way to secure one’s trousers and keep the capote closed. The leg garters were both decorative and useful – cutting off unwanted airflow into the pants while riding. Headwear was subjective, but often a fur cap (or turban) was worn – much in the fashion of the Ojibwe who used these sorts of hats – especially in cooler weather.
The manner of dress was commented upon in several historical accounts dealing with the Metis men of Red River:
The young [men] of the neighborhood array themselves in the bewildering apparel which obtains upon occasions of this nature: a blue cloth capote, with brass buttons; black or drab corduroy trousers, the aesthetic effect of which is destroyed by a variegated sash, with fringed ends, pendants about the knees; moccasins, and a fur cap with gaudy tassel.
Another instance, Hudson Bay Company factor Alexander Ross provides a vivid description of his own encounter with Metis dress:
“From Fort Garry I invited my friend to accompany me on a visit to the upper part of the [Red River] settlement, as he was anxious to know what kind of life the Canadians and half-breeds lead in this part of the world. We had not proceeded far before we met a stout, well-made, good-looking man, dressed in a common blue capote, red belt, and corduroy trousers…” Ross continued, “…the universal costume of both French Canadians and half-breeds, the belt [sash] being the simple badge of distinction; the former wearing it generally over, and the latter as generally under the capote. The stature of the half-breeds is of the middle size, and generally slender, countenances rather pleasing than otherwise. In manners mild, unassuming [not effeminate], and somewhat bashful. On the whole, however, they are a sedate and grave people, rather humble than haughty in their demeanor, and are seldom seen to laugh among strangers.”
A more vibrant description of the manner of dress is provided in an 1880 Smithsonian monograph about the Metis:
In their dress the Métis show no marked peculiarities, but betray, in a tempered way, the fondness of the Indian for finery and gaudy raiment. In Manitoba the men usually wear a blue overcoat or capot with conspicuous brass buttons, black or drab corduroy trousers, a belt or scarf around the waist, leggings, and moccasins, the whole variously adorned with colored fringes, scallops, and beads. The legging is an important article of the young [men's dress]; it is usually made of blue cloth, extends to the knee, below which it is tied with a gaudy garter of worsted work, and has a broad stripe of heavy bead work running down the Outer Seam.
As the century progressed, access to manufactured clothing became easier than sewing leather or blanket cloth. European shirts, trousers, hats, and suits were readily obtainable and much sought after as a symbol of wealth. Even then, the old accoutrements died hard. Sashes, garters, and fringe remained staples of Metis dress.
Havard, V., Norris, P. W., Brackett, A. G., & Burr, R. T. (1880). The French half-breeds of the Northwest. Washington, DC: Publisher not identified.
Robinson, H. M. (1879). The Great fur land: Or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's Bay Territory, with numerous illustrations from designs by Charles Gasche. New York, NY: Putnam.
Ross, A. (1856). The Red River Settlement. London: N.A.
“Wigwam” a Metis man (1858 photo; colorized). Humphrey Lloyd Hime, Library and Archives Canada, no. acc. 1936-273, c016447
Maxime Marion at Lake of the Woods (1872 photo; colorized). Library and Archives Canada / C-079643