While the modern popular culture image of the Métis 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 that European-created myth, but much more interesting.
In general, the standard capote of choice employed by the Métis 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. 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 Métis 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 Métis 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 (Robinson 1879).
In another instance, Hudson Bay Company factor Alexander Ross provides a vivid description of his own encounter with Métis 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 (Ross 1856).
A more vibrant description of the manner of dress is provided in an 1880 Smithsonian monograph about the Métis:
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 (Harvard, Norris, et al 1880).
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 Métis dress.
Another style adopted by Métis men was quite similar to that of the ‘Western Cowboy’, as popularized in North American folklore. This often included dungarees, a fine shirt, ‘cowboy’ hat, kerchief, and an overcoat made of black or dark blue, or a leather jacket with fringes and fur. One of the most famous photographs showing this style of dress is an 1885 photo of Métis general, Gabriel Dumont, dressed in his finest plains outfit, holding his trusty rifle.
Women’s clothing was much more varied and ranged from highly practical to quite fashionable.
During the earlier part of the 19th century, when life consisted of accompanying the men on their annual hunting expeditions onto the plains, women would dress quite often in clothing that mirrored their Indian mothers – with broadcloth dresses, shawls, and always wearing comfortable moccasins that were usually beaded in beautiful floral designs.
When not on the annual hunt, bright colored calicoes, bead-worked shirts, and even store purchased black or dark blue dresses were the norm.
A report on the Metis population provides a very brief description of the standard dress of women in the Red River region during the middle of the 19th century:
The women generally dress in a black gown with a black shawl thrown over the head, in a manner at once comfortable and becoming. The girls often wear a colored shawl about their shoulders and a showy handkerchief upon the head; they like scarlet petticoats and prize gaudy ribbons and jewelry (USACE 1854).
As time went on and the wealth generated by the buffalo hunt started to disappear, store bought clothing was often not an option for some Metis women. In other cases, life on the edge of society, or on reservation, saw innovative measures taken to sew clothing from available materials.