A unique Montreal exhibit threads the relationship of clothing to Aboriginal identity

Montreal’s historic McCord Museum, which has long been devoted to the preservation of Native Peoples’ history, opened a new permanent collection May 2 that explores the relationship between Native dress and identity.

Wearing Our Identities: The First Peoples Collection presents items from 40 different First Nations across Canada and the northern United States dating from the 19th century to present day.

With this endeavour, the McCord further solidifies an ongoing relationship with Canada’s First Peoples.

Delving beyond the notion of clothing as protection, the exhibit explores four themes – social, political, cultural and spiritual. Each is carefully designed to explain how something as simple as clothing can teach us not only where a person is from, but can also share information about their civil status, their achievements and their relationship to nature.

Whether you are a fan of history, textiles, fashion, politics or art there is sure to be something to please you. Presented with various forms of multi-media, the exhibition incorporates traditional items, such as a Dene hunter’s outfit, a Kwakwaka’wakw button blanket and a silk Haudenosaunee dress, alongside video projections, photographs and contemporary art. This juxtaposition of contemporary media and traditional artifacts creates a truly unique and exciting viewer experience.

Highlighting the intricate methods of construction in Native dress, the exhibit also pays homage to the skill and creativity required to produce the pieces. The overall presentation, as well as the lighting, accentuates the fine detail of beadwork, stitching and symbolism of each item.

Maria Hupfiels’ Jingle Dress, one of the two contemporary pieces on display, is no exception. Made entirely of paper, this work is decorated with hundreds of identical paper cones, or “bells”.  Each of the hand-rolled bells contains the name of a Native author and was designed to represent the voices of First Nations people of Canada.

As one might imagine, a dress made of paper is extremely delicate, as are the other artifacts on display. As a result only some of the 100 artifacts collected can be displayed at a time. In order to properly preserve each garment, close to 85% of the contents will be renewed annually. Similarly, the collection will feature two different contemporary artists each year as well, making the show something worth visiting more than once.

A truly beautiful and educational experience, this exhibit is complemented by a series of films and lectures. One film explores the deeply personal experiences of (now-adult) Inuit children forced to attended residential schools, while another investigates the origins of Inuit tattoos and their spiritual significance (June1). Finally, Guislaine Lemay, curator of Ethnology and Archeology at the McCord Museum, lectures on the rich traditions of Native dress and how style and technique varies from Nation to Nation.

This not-to-be-missed exhibition is open to the public daily (closed Mondays) at the McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal.