22 November 2018


Sew What | Rachel Dice

Guislaine Lemay and Jordan Fee standing at the entrance to
Wearing Our Identity, photo courtesy of Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif.

A view of the exhibition, including a man's caribou coat
made, unusually, with winter fur. Photo courtesy of
Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif.
At the beginning of November, MUSSA organized a student trip to Montreal, which was written about by Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif this past Friday in her post ALLONS À MONTRÉAL: MUSEUM STUDIES FIELD TRIP. On this trip we were able to visit an alarming number of museums in pretty much three days (five museum visits for most of us, and six for a determined few). A specific exhibition stood out among the rest and has become a source of inspiration for my own work with textiles. 

The exhibit, titled Wearing Our Identity—The First Peoples Collection, is currently on display at the McCord Museum in Montreal. It is a permanent exhibition with a little twist—the objects on display switch out every two years in a pre-planned pattern. The main focus of the exhibition is to encourage the public to “explore the complex heritage of the First Peoples of Canada and learn more about how their dress has helped define their rich cultures and identities” (source). In a nutshell, Wearing Our Identity aims to show how Indigenous culture is  intrinsically linked with clothing and aesthetic representation.
Guislaine Lemay leads a group through her exhibit, including
Dr. Cara Krmpotich, Director of the Museum Studies program.
Photo courtesy of Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif.

The exhibition was co-curated by Guislaine Lemay, McCord’s resident curator for the Indigenous Cultures collection, and a dedicated team of Indigenous peoples who worked closely with Lemay to ensure accuracy in content as well as design. It was Guislaine Lemay herself who took our group on a guided tour of the exhibition.

Going into this exhibition, I was fascinated by the layout and the different styles of garments on display. One of my favourite pieces was a little girl’s parka, made of caribou fur and sinew from the early twentieth century. We were told that the parka showed it belonged to a little girl who had not yet reached the age of puberty. We were also told that the furs were sewn in a special way so that every layer did not have stitching holes inside, therefore making it warmer and more waterproof. The style of the parka and the stitching technique were specific to the Inuit Inuinnaq, and all of this contributed to the parka’s role in the identity of the wearer.

Clothing itself plays an extremely important role in our lives. The way we dress and choose to represent ourselves is a deliberate action we take, from buying the clothes, making them, or just grabbing them out of the closet. Some people even come to be known for their taste in clothes, whether they usually dress in blue polo shirts or vintage aesthetics with a modern twist. These clothing choices become part of their identity, influencing the way they see themselves and the way we see each other.

A display of moccasins made with different
styles depending on the cultural and regional
group. Photo courtesy of Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif.
Now, imagine that you couldn’t wear your favourite sweater. Imagine that those earrings your grandmother gave you were banned, even though you tried to wear them as often as possible. Imagine being forced to wear clothes that were selected for you by strangers, clothes that were strange, outlandish, and even just dreadfully boring. You would hardly feel like yourself, and perhaps if it went on long enough, you’d forget who you were to begin with. This is another important part of Wearing Our Identity. The exhibition addresses the cultural importance of clothing for Indigenous peoples, while also looking at points in Canadian history where their clothing was banned, appropriated, and even turned into marketing gimmicks.

So the next time you reach into your closet for that outfit that boosts your confidence or makes you feel invincible, remember that our country hasn’t always let others have that same choice. No identity deserves to be repressed through clothing. Remember, it’s more than just clothes.

For the curious ones, here's some further reading:

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