On her illuminating blog, The Vivienne Files, Janice Riggs recently featured book excerpts (which she translated) from Montréal stylist Louise Labreque.
Labreque represents the upscale-mall, InStyle look common in most North American cities. While I do see that here, "street" Montréal style is different— an elixir of individuality impossible to buy in one card-intensive spree. I've seen such fascinating women elsewhere, too, from Memphis to Malaga, but here, in my adopted home, they greet me at nearly every turning.
Visitors notice how striking the women look. As one man told me, "I cross the St. Lawrence and my blood starts to boil."
Try to nail it down? Bof! But I shall try, if only to chase a cultural chimera. Since this is a blog for readers 50+, I'll focus on grown women.
Here, a mature woman would wear this mustard Tavan & Mitto top, with a pencil skirt, with black jeans, with a jacket over it or not... and she would wear it.
While few rules exist, here are some generalizations:
1. An avoidance of wearing conservative classics head to-toe, or seriously
Talbot's went out of business here for a reason! You will see women in classic items (the trench coat, equestrienne jackets, a Burberry scarf), but worn with, say, a huge tortoise-link necklace or teal tights.
When a woman wears a classic, she adds an unconventional accessory; jewelry is bolder than what women elsewhere may venture by day.
Two friends illustrate the point beautifully. Susan, at left, is a retired finance professional turned jewelery designer; that's her own necklace. (I'm already saving for her spring show.) Jenn, right, owns an antique shop; here, she sparks a classic oatmeal cashmere v-neck with a lively fine-wool scarf.
2. Arresting colour combos
In this big, wintry city we venerate black, but today I saw a woman in a white puffer worn with a shocking-pink cashmere scarf and a brown, taupe and black animal-print beanie.
Black tweaks navy; blues play with browns, gloves and bag don't match and white might appear at any time of year.
3. A boot fetish
Young women pick their way over two inches of solid ice in four-inch stiletto boots. I have actually paused to wait and proffer first aid, but they stay upright, somehow.
Their mothers trade those teetery heights for tall, low-heeled, close-fitting models, worn from the moment the temperatures drop below sleeveless weather till sandals are necessary. (Shown, La Canadienne's Pensée boot, with wingtip detail, vintage lace-up front, and side zipper, about $535.)
They do wear other footwear—Red Wings, Blundstones, wellies—but with a wink of interesting sock, legwarmers or red laces. (Shown, American Apparel extra-long legwarmers, $18.)
4. Scarves, toujours
In a city where men wear more scarves than the average women in other places, scarves reign. "But won't they go out of style?", my Ontario-WASP girlfriend Susan C. wondered.
String Theory's Gradient Shawl in grey merino, $240, is très Montréalaise.
The company is a collaboration between two Canadian textile designers, Lysanne Latulippe in Montréal and Meghan Price in Toronto. Their line fuses sensibility and sensuousness and, dearest Susan, will not date readily.
5. Unapologetic skins, on backs, heads and arms
Recycled, upcycled or glossily new, women wear fur, sheepskin and leather at whatever level they can afford.
Montréal is still a nexus for the fur trade; master craftsmen offer dazzling work.
Fur is often used for very casual pieces, as in Myco Anna's Chapka Toque, made with recycled wool and fur, and a snuggly microfiber lining; price, $75.
Recycled fur, like that sold by Haricana, is a way to have your mink and feel relatively responsible about it.
I would love their recycled brown mink computer bag!
Le style Montréalaise: Is it this? Is it that?
To deconstruct the concoction is harder than ever; when I worked here for about a week per month in the 1980s, I could usually guess just by a glance whether a woman was French or English-speaking. The one in the navy suit spoke English (as her first language), the one in the tomato-red fitted sheath spoke French.
The one in the Hermès scarf was a tougher read, but if she wore it as a belt, probably French. The one in the plush velvet jacket with interesting buttons was francophone, the one in a black blazer with brass buttons, anglo.
But times have rendered my radar inaccurate. The velvet jacket below is worn by my friend Diane, whose home language is English, but whose fluent French is precious to her identity, and whose eye for design, impeccable. She is an example of une femme franglaise.
What le heck happened?
First, dress is now a less-identifiable marker of those founding cultures because an increase in bilingualism (among speakers of both official languages) has, I believe, also lead to an intermingling of styles.
Second, the city's visual jumble has been enriched by Latin, African and Asian women, who add their own enchanting effects, especially with colour and pattern.
This young woman, performing at the market last summer, sang bossa nova on a torrid afternoon, dancing 'til her earrings spun.
She will eventually enter the Passage, bringing her verve and colour sense. And what an elder she will be!
I only hope to be around to admire her.