Collections and Research
A Century of Red River Coats
Navy wool hooded coats with red piping, worn with red sashes, toques, and mittens, were once practically the winter uniform of Montreal children. Known as Red River coats or sometimes Capuchin coats, they evoke potent memories of mix-ups in the school cloakroom and the smell of wet wool. In fact, we know far more about them through such memories than through surviving coats.
The McCord Museum is fortunate to have five in its collection, which is relatively few considering how these coats were worn in Canada for over a century prior to falling out of favour some fifty years ago. Perhaps even more surprising is that the children’s coat style emerged from an earlier adult prototype, the capot.
The coat’s name recalls the Red River settlement in present-day Manitoba, a key location in the development of the Canadian fur trade. In that area, in the nineteenth century, a blue capote or hooded coat became an unofficial quasi-uniform of Métis men in the trade, whose identity became politicized in the Red River uprising of 1869.
While the coat’s subsequent adoption as a child’s garment was an act of remembering Canada’s fur trade culture, it was simultaneously an act of erasing its Indigenous past. The Red River coat style had always carried nebulous historical associations in the public imagination, but over time these became part of a particularly Canadian colonial identity.
Prompted by department store advertising, consumers eventually perceived purchasing and wearing a Red River coat as a tradition of Canadian childhood. This child’s garment illustrates how everyday material objects and retail, advertising and consumption practices have legitimized memory and meaning as Canada has replaced the historically inconvenient with symbols that celebrate core myths of its past and its distinct identity.
To learn more about the history of the Red River coat, watch the lecture given by Cynthia Cooper, curator of the Dress, Fashion and Textiles collection.