HOME HEARTSTRING 27: THE NEED TO LOOK GOOD

If we can’t be who we really want to be, then looking the part is the next best thing. We often meet the need of exposing our inner selves to others by wearing garments that we feel tell our story. In a sense, our clothes are like a second skin, even a window into our soul. Heartstring 27 is the dolled-up version of Heartstring 7.

“In this French colony off the Saint Lawrence River,” writes Quebec writer, ethnologist and historian Robert-Lionel Séguin in L’apport européen à la civilisation traditionnelle du Québec (Europe’s Contribution to Traditional Quebec Civilization), “peasants and artisans spend a small fortune on their wardrobe, wearing garments like pantaloons with frilly embellishments and hair bags, which are reserved for the middle class and noblemen in Europe. Most of their fabrics are imported from France. Wearing foreign clothes is as common in New France as it is in Old France.” I guess Quebecers weren’t fond of buying locally back then either.

Swedish-Finnish explorer Peter Kalm criticized young women in Montreal for thinking way too highly of themselves. “What we disapprove of most is their vanity, their love of fancy clothes and their desire to please,” he writes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, another foreign observer wrote that Canadian women are vain. French soldier, explorer and writer Baron de La Hontan even went so far as to say these women have a strong penchant for luxury. “Things are even worse in Quebec City,” writes French army officer Louis Franquet. “The women there are always in full dress and made up as if they were on their way to attend a reception at court. They adorn and powder their hair every day and put it in rollers every night.”

When the musical Hair was all the rage, the beautiful girls of the Saguenay kingdom wore the shortest miniskirts in all of North America. This habit of making the shortest things even shorter inspired a pastoral letter (one of the last ones ever written), but nothing really came of the missive because the Church’s stranglehold over such things had already been considerably loosened by then.

Quebec men hold the Canadian record for wearing and using all kinds of tribal ornaments like wigs and toupees, elevator shoes, fur and leather coats, hair dyes, imported colognes, cosmetics, ready-to-wear apparel, jewelry (except for wristwatches), exotic everyday clothing and pantyhose (which were invented in Quebec, as everyone knows).

The Quebec market is a disaster for the shaving cream industry with the men here sporting three times as many beards, chin straps and imperial-style mustaches than in the rest of Canada. Within the province, twice as many Quebec City men wear “that symbol of an obsolete machismo,” to use sociologist Pauline Rickman’s expression, than their Montreal confrères.

Quebec City held the top spot for three years running (according to retail sales data) in the classic men’s suits department, both for the number of suits purchased per individual per year and the quality and price of the garments chosen.

Talk about wanting to look the part! A study claims that 90% of our pipe smokers only do so pour donner de l’allure à son homme (to give themselves a certain look), as the slogan goes.

The intimate apparel market presents a classic case of the dichotomy in Canadian marketing. Anglo-Saxon women make comfort their No. 1 priority while trying their best to hide their assets, whereas Quebec women prefer to squeeze themselves into the tightest fit possible to put their goods on display for all to see. In 1966, the market for conventional bras plummeted 67% in Quebec as opposed to only 28% in Toronto. It seems that Quebec women were liberated three times faster than their Ontario sisters.

Sales of jeans – the garment that was supposed to put an end to fashion – have been steadily rising in Quebec since 1968, setting several Canadian records along the way. Quebec women buy the most expensive denim in Canada, and they like to wear it skintight. It appears these ladies prefer to strut their stuff in their jeans rather than just lounge around in them.

The Montreal fashion industry was already booming in 1973 thanks to the growing popularity of the city’s central role in the North American ready-to-wear industry. Montreal generated enough fashion to fill two specialty magazines every month, making “the lab” a test bed for the entire continent at the time. And you know those tacky fashion shows commented on by celebrities dressed to the nines? They’re as Quebecer as maple syrup. In 1974, Quebec women spent 21% more on clothes and make-up than Toronto women.

Joe Tremblay lets Fernande take the cue on this one:


“I like men who grow mustaches when they’re young, and then wear beards when they’re over fifty. I don’t know why they stopped holding Lise Payette’s “Most Handsome Man in Canada” contest. It was really popular…and we got to see all those attractive men. Which politicians do I think look good? Réal Caouette is always well dressed. And Robert Bourassa always seems to be wearing a new suit. It’s easy to see that René Lévesque isn’t a vain man. Pierre Trudeau is a sporty type. He’s not bad. You think he’s trying to dress as young as his wife? Joe here does tend to follow trends, but that’s only because I’m the one who takes him shopping.”


Our grandmothers spoke fondly of Laurier’s beautiful curly mane and Papineau’s pompadour.

In Quebec, clothing is our second skin, the clothes do make the man, beauty is priceless and consumers are walking advertisements. Whether it’s on Via Veneto in Rome or Rue Saint-Jean in Quebec City, we Latins like to show off our attire, draw attention to our threads, look good, people watch and get noticed.

“They [Quebecers] like to look good, especially in prominent company,” writes Louis Franquet. French explorer Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix says, “They hold themselves in high esteem,” while French Commander Montcalm thinks that, “They believe they’re the first nation in the world on all levels.”

Historian Georges Vattier writes that, “It was necessary to predetermine the order people would walk in during processions and where they would sit in church. Many trials had to take place to resolve conflicts of this nature.”

“We speed up when another car wants to pass us on the road,” writes Quebec politician Guy Joron. It’s a well-known fact we’ll take up any racing challenge (which means those who drive smaller cars have bigger inferiority complexes). Here’s what Louis Franquet wrote about our need to look good in Voyages et mémoires sur le Canada (Travels in and Memories of Canada):


“This pride of theirs even extends to horses. In fact, Canadians have always loved these animals and make it a point of honour to establish which of them are the fastest and prettiest. When two carts going in the same direction meet on the road, their owners race each other without even thinking about the accidents they might cause in the process.”


“They can’t stand to lose at any kind of game,” he adds. And he’s right. We have a reputation for being sore losers. We all gladly band together to support a winning hockey team, but we tend to lose our enthusiasm if they lose two or three games. We don’t easily suffer the agony of defeat and can’t handle how it hurts our pride very well.

“We’re not sissies,” says Joe Tremblay. “Our pride is often misplaced, but at least we have some!”

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.