Canadian Fashion Connection: Hudson’s Bay Company Mirror Room

Perhaps one of the most defining historical differences between Canada and the United States is that there was never a Canadian ‘Wild West’ frontier. From 1670 to 1870 the Hudson’s Bay Company had jurisdiction over much of present-day western and northern Canada. The HBC didn’t own the land but they managed its exploitation. The company operated a series of trading posts where blankets, iron pots, cloth and basic food stuffs were traded with Native and licensed European fur trappers for pelts and hides (primarily beaver, otter and fox.) When the HBC’s sovereignty was transferred to the new country of Canada in 1870, the Northwest Territories and the provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia were created. When settlement lands were opened up, the early pioneers shopped with cash not animal pelts and the trading posts became general stores.

The first Hudson’s Bay Company department store opened in Winnipeg in 1881 but in 1912 it was replaced with a modern building with a neoclassical façade. That same year five similar looking stores opened in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Saskatoon. Without Holt Renfrew or any of the other high-end fashion stores from back east, the Hudson’s Bay Company soon became the supplier of high-end fashions for Western Canada. In the 1930s the ‘Mirror Room’ became a specialty shop within the HBC store that offered designer clothes from Montreal, New York, London, and Paris.

Irving Samuel trapeze coat of Ottoman silk, c. 1958 - 1959, front view (Irving Samuel was founded in 1946 by Samuel Workman and closed in 1995)

In the late 1950s my father, who just passed away this week, was a buyer for the Mirror Room of the Hudson’s Bay Company store in Vancouver, and in Calgary in 1959/60. He began in millinery, worked his way up to include wedding dresses and finally got coats and suits. As a buyer he traveled twice a year to Montreal’s Chabanel Street and New York’s 7th Avenue where he would be shown the collections at various firms. When there were two or more competing stores vieing for the same collections, priority was given to the buyer who had spent more money with the company the previous season, but this was rarely a problem with Canadian buyers. My father’s favourite makers of suits and coats in Montreal were Aukie Sanft and Irving Samuel, and in New York, Peck and Peck and Davidow. Some years my father would receive a thank-you gift from one or more of the manufacturers such as a Mohair tweed suit or camelhair coat that just happened to be in my mother’s size. In 1958 or 1959 he received the pictured black silk ottoman trapeze-style coat from Irving Samuel in Montreal that my mother wore until at least February 1961 because it worked well as a maternity coat for me.

Irving Samuel coat, back view, c. 1958 - 1959

The Mirror Room was an exclusive salon that not only carried the best clothes but also kept track of who owned what. Society ladies’ purchases would be unofficially registered with the Mirror Room sales clerks. If a society lady wanted a dress that had already been purchased by another lady in the same social circle, she would be informed that the dress was ‘unavailable.’

The Hudson’s Bay Company remained a Western Canadian department store until 1960 when it acquired Morgan’s, a Montreal based department store chain that also had some stores in Ontario. The Ontario Stores, as well as the Western Canadian stores, were rebranded as ‘The Bay’ in 1964, although the Quebec stores retained their original Morgan’s name until 1972 when they were renamed ‘La Baie.’ The Bay continued to expand with the takeover of Freiman’s in 1972, Zellers, Fields, and Simpsons in 1978, Robinson’s in 1979, Towers/Bonimart in 1990, Woodwards in 1993, and K-Mart in 1998. The old Simpsons main store in Toronto, which had been the high-end department store in Toronto throughout most of the 20th century, had been bought out by the Bay in 1978 but was only merged and renamed in 1991. In 2008, the Hudson’s Bay Company was sold to American Richard C. Baker and an investment group who had purchased Lord & Taylor in New York in 2006.

One of the elements of the Hudson’s Bay Company that had been lost over the years was the Mirror Room. Borrowing from that idea (as well as the St. Regis Room, which had been Simpson’s couture room in the main store that was now the Bay’s flagship store), ‘The Room’ was reopened at The Bay in Toronto in 2010.

Canadian Fashion Connection – The HBC coat; A Blanket Statement

(Originally blogged September 17, 2010)

Painting by Cornelius Kreighoff, c. 1860, depicting Native hunter in a capote made from a blanket

Founded in 1670 by an English royal charter, the Hudson’s Bay Company received its name after the inland sea that gave access to the northern and central lands of North America. Initially, the company consisted of a few trading posts that bartered wool blankets, iron kettles and glass beads for fur pelts. Blankets were the most popular trade item and were often fashioned into winter clothing by the Natives and early European fur trappers and settlers. An early style of hooded wrap-around coat, called a capote, was closed with a long sash called a Ceinture fléchée (arrow sash), due to its woven arrow-like pattern.

In 1779 the size and weight of blankets began to be identified by a series of lines woven into the edge called points. A full line, or point, measured about 5 inches in length, and a half point, about 2½ inches. A one-point blanket measured approximately 2½ feet by 8 feet and weighed about 3 pounds (these narrow sizes were typically made into Capotes.) The largest point blankets today are a Queen size blanket at 6 points and King size blanket at 8 points, although these sizes were not available until the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. A common misconception is that the number of points represented the blanket’s value in the number of beaver pelts required for trade – it’s a great story but its not true. The earliest blankets were solid colours but in 1798 an order for a white blanket with stripes of red, blue, green, and yellow were placed with the English manufacturer, resulting in the identifiable Hudson’s Bay Company classic pattern blanket.

1965 version of the Mackinaw

A more tailored style of coat was created out of necessity when British Captain Charles Roberts was unable to procure winter coats for his troops stationed near Sault Ste Marie in 1811. He commissioned Native women to sew short, double-breasted coats from 3½ point HBC blankets for his 40 men. The coats became known as Mackinaws after the Michigan fort Robert’s men occupied the following year, during the War of 1812.

1922 advertisement

In 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with its rival, the North West Company, expanding the company’s domain over a land that stretched from Alaska to Nunavut in the north and from Oregon to the Great Lakes in the south. Over the next century, the Hudson’s Bay Company transformed itself from a series of frontier trading posts into an urban department store chain. By 1922 commercially made HBC blanket coats were being made. The solid colour mid-thigh length coats were ideal for winter activities such as skiing and snowshoeing. Manufacturing shifted to Winnipeg from England by the 1930s and by the 1950s the multi-stripe had become the most popular Hudson’s Bay coat style as well as an internationally identifiable symbol of Canada.

Early 1920s Hudson's Bay blanket coat, from the collection of the Fashion History Museum

Label from early 1920s green wool blanket coat (see right)

Following the height of its popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, sales for HBC coats began to decline. In 1981 HBC commissioned five Canadian designers to create updated versions of blanket coats. Alfred Sung, Pat McDonagh, Leo Chevalier, John Warden and Jean-Claude Poitras each came up with a design; only 19 copies were manufactured and sold of each style. The manufacture of HBC classic coat designs ceased in 2000 but in 2009 ‘The Bay’ (as it is now known) introduced a new product line based on the traditional multi-stripe blanket pattern. To promote the collection, ten Canadian fashion designers were invited to create one-of-a-kind coats from Hudson’s Bay Company Point Blankets. The ten designs from Comrags, Erdem Moralioglu, Harricana par Mariouche, Jeremy Laing, Klaxon Howl, Krane, Lida Baday, Pink Tartan, Smythe and Todd Lynn were displayed in Toronto and Vancouver and a special order of 100 jackets of the Smythe design were sold during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for $695. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be enough interest to bring back any of the classic coat designs and this symbol of Canada may soon fade away.

Click HERE if you want to know more about HBC blankets or coats.