Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | February 2, 2020
Reality Check: Canada’s Love of Plaid
by Joanna Munholland
As a Canadian living in the UK, I get asked a lot of different questions; ‘How cold does it get where you live?’ ‘Do you put maple syrup on everything?’ ‘Do you say “eh”?’ But while there are a lot of stereotypes about Canadians known around the world, some might not be as common. One of those would be Canada’s supposed love of plaid. ‘What is plaid?’ you might be thinking. If you don’t recognise that word, you might know it as the pattern check. Lexico, an online dictionary by Oxford University Press and Dictionary.com, defines plaid as ‘[c]hequered or tartan twilled cloth, typically made of wool’ (1). Growing up in Canada, I saw a lot of check around me.
Perhaps the Canadian affection with plaid has something to do with its association with the Lumberjack which is part of the country’s mythology (2). A quick Google image search of ‘Canadian Lumberjack’ brings up a selection of (largely bearded white) men in check shirts and coats, along with a selection of check shirts and coats to purchase, should you be in the market. But when did the Lumberjack become associated with check? That’s a hard question to answer and I couldn’t find an obvious answer. The definition of a lumber jacket is ‘[a] warm, thick jacket, typically in a bright colour with a check pattern, of the kind worn by lumberjacks’ (3). But again, it’s hard to know what came first, the coat or the profession.
One famous Canadian Lumberjack was Jos Montferrand, who was born and lived in Quebec. ‘During the early to mid-1800s, tales were told, and captured in print, of the legendary [lumberjack] capable of unfathomable feats of strength. It is believed he was the inspiration for the American mythic figure, Paul Bunyan, whose legend arose during the mid-1800s’ (4). I found a drawing of Monterrand by W.M. Macdonnel from an article written by Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1868, four years after Montferrand’s death. In the picture, Montferrand might be wearing a plaid or check shirt (5). This is possibly the first example of Lumberjacks, plaid, and Canada coming together.
Beside plaid’s strong association with Lumberjacks, another reason plaid is popular in Canada may be our strong ties to Scotland. As the Canadian Encyclopaedia writes, ‘‘[t]he Scots are among the first Europeans to establish themselves in Canada and are the third largest ethnic group in the country. In the 2016 Census of Canada, a total of 4,799,005 Canadians, or 14 per cent of the population, listed themselves as being of Scottish origin (single and multiple responses)’ (6). Not only does Canada have its own tartan (the ‘Maple Leaf’; its colours reflects leaves changing from summer to autumn with red, green, gold, and brown), but each of the ten provinces and two of the three territories each have their own too. Each year Canadians with Scottish decent are invited to participate in National Tartan Day, held on the 6th April, coincidently the day the Declaration of Arbroath, or the Scottish declaration of independence, was created in 1320 (7). A fitting day to celebrate!
To me as a Canadian, using the term tartan seems formal; it would be used in official Scottish regalia, or in shops where you can search for your families’ ‘official tartan’. While I can claim some Scottish ancestry, unfortunately none of my family names have an official tartan. And very rarely would I ever hear the word check. But in Canada plaid is everywhere, on Lumberjacks or, more likely today, on the ‘lumbersexuals’ walking downtown in cities.
But yes, we Canadians really are that polite!
- Plaid Lumberjack, ‘Generic Lumberjack wearing plaid. Photo by Abby Savage on Upsplash’
- Jos Montferrand, ‘Illustration of Jos Montferrand by W. M. Macdonnel, from an article by Wildred Laurier in 1868’
- Jigger Johnson, ‘Albert ‘Jigger’ Johnson, photo by Robert S. Monahan, approximately 1922, Public Domain. An American logger ’