Fashion is fickle. When personal taste applies to a prime minister, fashion makes leaders stand out as icons of an era like Pierre Eliot Trudeau. Or it can lead to infamy as demonstrated by Brian Mulroney’s extensive Gucci loafer collection or Stephen Harper’s too- tight green vest at a Mexico City ‘photo-op’.
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 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 Montréal were so dissatisfied with his appearance in an 1883 visit to Quebec City, that they raised money and bought him a more stylish coat ‘befitting his status as a first minister.” Walford says that anecdote is likely true.
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 states that 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 describes how 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 70 £. Award-winning writer Richard Gwyn in his first volume of Macdonald’s biography “John A.: The Man Who Made Us” describes how Macdonald was 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.”
Whether Sir John was a fashion icon or victim, imitating the 19th century style of dress from his day is a common and fun way to commemorate his legacy, and is often seen incorporated into the various January 11th Macdonald Birthday celebrations. At last year’s Macdonald Birthday celebration at Grano’s in Toronto hosted by The Macdonald Society, many guests were seen cavorting in 19th century apparel. This year’s invitation also strongly urges guests to come dressed up in the style of Sir John A. and his contemporaries. The annual Sir John A. Macdonald Birthday Dinner, hosted by the Kingston Historical Society, also sees guests attending in full Victorian-era fashion.