Sir John A. Macdonald’s appearance has been much caricatured – in editorial cartoons of his own era, and in images published subsequently in the popular press. From his hair style to his walking shoes, likely there has been fun poked at his fashion sense.
But looking back at his times, do Macdonald’s fashion choices cut the mustard? There is disagreement.
According to Jonathan Walford, curator at Canada’s Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario, Macdonald, for a number of reasons, is likely the least fashionable prime minister this country has ever had.
“His Presbyterian background would have scorned ostentation,” says Walford. “His impoverished upbringing would have made fashion an unaffordable frivolity. He likely would have been too distracted by his professional and personal problems to give too much attention to his wardrobe and appearance.”
Walford says most images of him prior to 1867 “show him swamped in ill-fitting suits, coupled with a receding hairline and long, wiry, unkempt coiffure.”
Canada’s first prime minister shared a fashion flaw with the United States’ president Abraham Lincoln.
“Like Lincoln, Macdonald had a slight frame which was not the best model for the mid-nineteenth century tailored suits,” says Walford.
According to an anecdote cited in Holt Renfrew’s department store history, Macdonald’s cronies in Montreal were so dissatisfied with his appearance in an 1883 visit to Quebec City, they raised money and bought him a more stylish coat more ‘befitting his status as a first minister.”
Walford says that anecdote is likely true.
“Although not quite like that much ballyhooed image remake of American vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Macdonald’s friends probably realized his appearance was not going to get him elected and so banded together to refit their leader,” he says. “Macdonald’s appearance improves with age, but this is likely upon the advice of his stylish and extroverted wife and friends who understood the importance of a respectable and sober appearance.”
Macdonald adopted more somber, mature and well-fitted suits later in his later life, including the tailored long ‘Prince Albert’ coats. His body, Walford says, filled out with his age, which"helped him project a more authoritative appearance."
But there is disagreement.
In her book Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald, Patricia Phenix describes how Canada’s first prime minister enjoyed buying clothes, comparing colours, fabrics and cuts.
For his first wedding on September 1st, 1843 to Isabella Clark, Phenix relates, he wore complete Highland dress and accessories.
She also details a visit to Scotland where “he visited well-known tailor T. Buckmaster of Edinburgh and purchased a black silk velvet Highland jacket and soft Macdonald tartan kilt for himself, a fine Glengarry bonnet with plume feather for his mother and fine wool tartan hose for his sisters.”
And the cost? More than 70L.
Award-winning writer Richard Gwyn in his first volume of Macdonald’s biography John A.: The Man Who Made Us describes how Macdonald looked strikingly different from other Members of Parliament.
"He was clean-shaven at a time when the legislature and the courts were a thicket of muttonchop whiskers, hedge-sized moustaches and full, patriarchal beards," writes Gwyn. “He wore his ties loose in a carefree Byronic manner – his clothes, colourful, almost foppish, shouted out the message 'Notice Me.'"
Fashion History Museum, founded in Cambridge, Ontario in 2004. The collection consists of more than 8,000 garments and accessories dating from the 1660s to the present. http://fashionhistorymuseum.com
Gwyn, Richard. John A.: The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald. Volume One, 1815-1867. Toronto: Random House, 2007
Phenix, Patricia. Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007