Les Montréalaises: What's so different?

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!

The intangibles

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.


Montreal has a much more European vibe than we do here in sleepy Victoria. Imy aunt and cousins lived there most of their lives and when they came to visit they were far more fashionable than we expected.
I notice the women on the streets of Vancouver dress with more flair than we usually see here. I have observed that statement jewelry and bright colours seem to be getting much more play with the over 50 crowd that I mix with...
Would love to see more street shots of Montreal fashionistas.
LauraH said…
I'm curious about the tall boots. Are they worn strictly with skinny jeans or do you see other looks? I'ld like to incorporate them into my wardrobe and could use a few hints from your stylish Montreal sisters!
Madame Là-bas said…
The style of the Montréal women is so individual. I enjoy watching women of the 50 plus age group who feel comfortable expressing their creativity through dress. It seems that so many women in British Columbia wear a sort of uniform.
materfamilias said…
What a fabulous post -- I love every one of your Montreal style posts. Those scarves (the gradient one and your friend's grey and mustard) are stunning -- a serious challenge to my Budget Commitments of the New Year! To see that kind of design and colour subtlety in fine merino and at fairly reasonable price points (okay, that's a stretch, but reasonable for their quality) -- thank you! Really hoping to share a glass of wine in Montreal and style-watch with you. . . one of these days!
LPC said…
I love the idea that there's a Montreal style. Continued elaboration, and photos, more than welcome!
Murphy said…
I love this post! When we were in Montreal a few years ago, I was struck by how good all the women looked - and how confident they all seemed in their individual shapes and styles. Lots to learn here...
Anonymous said…
How I love Montreal! I live in Ottawa (2 hours west of Montreal) and make little day trips to Montreal several times a year to go shopping and just wander around. Here’s my take on Montreal: it is sexy, more bohemian than let’s say Toronto (or any other large urban centre). Torontonians often deride Montrealers (sp?) for wearing their “wealth on their backs”. People in Montreal seem to live more in the moment and enjoy everyday pleasures. They sure know how to dress well in a cold climate and always have stylish coats and great boots. When I worked in a large national high tech firm, we often had consultants come in from Montreal and we could always spot them immediately before they even spoke. Regardless of whether they were French or English, there was an attention to detail to their eyewear and shoes – always current. They often dressed with a touch of whimsy and more colour. My girlfriend and I were always thrilled when the people from Montreal thought we were one of them – high praise indeed coming from Ottawa where most people dress like they’re ready to go hiking, to yoga class or skiing (which they probably are). Whenever I go shopping in Montreal I always find something that is special - perhaps this is because my style is more arty/bohemian
Anonymous said…
Love all of your posts as they seem to resonate w/ me. Your Montreal "street fashion" posts are particularly enjoyable! I love Montreal but don't get there often these days.

Please tell us where to source your friends jewelry creations -- the piece she is wearing looks bold and beautiful!

Very best,

Duchesse said…
hostess: It's a very different look than Victoria, for sure.

LauraH: Obviously with skinny jeans- but also with straight-leg jeans with the cuff rolled slightly and with skirts or dresses (and tights).

Mme: The main difference I notice is that women here (unless early teen maybe) do not wear fleece as indoor wear. (If they do I have not seen them.)

materfamilias: Oh, that would be such a pleasure!

LPC: My camera comes out again once we move into temps where my fingers don't get frostbite taking photos.

Murphy: I agree, confidence has a lot to do with it.

Anon@12:33: After living in Toronto for 30 years (and then moved to Mtl), I would agree with your generalization about the difference b/t the two cities' modus vivendi, and the style markers of the creative class of Montréalers.

Montréal also has the elder ladies in the little mink hats and perms, and the super-ourdoorsy looking women who seem to have just wandered in from a triathalon. But that sexy Montréal look, you don't see that in Toronto very often! Or Ottawa.

When I moved there, I was struck by the number of eyewear boutiques.

Dee: Susan is selling now only via irregular shows at her friend's homes or her place in the Eastern Townships. Maybe I can nudge her to get on to Etsy, she makes beautiful necklaces.
une femme said…
What a fascinating study, Duchesse! I do love this aesthetic, and that shawl you've shown too. I think it's sometimes a fine line to walk between funky/original and "look-I-took-a-crafts-class!" style, but your examples here seem to be navigating it beautifully. I hope you'll continue to share Montréal style with us!
Beth said…
Great post. If I had to boil down Montreal style to one phrase, I'd say that women aren't afraid to wear clothes that fit their bodies. Going back to New England, home of what a friend always called "L.L. Bean dumpywear" I realize why I had to revamp almost my entire wardrobe when I moved here -- and why I had always disliked baggy, shapeless clothes made of boiled wool and fleece!
Anonymous said…
Oh, I love this! I really like how you appreciate differing types of style on people. Conformity is boring ;)
Duchesse said…
une femme: I call that look Walking Craft Show and I have blogged abut boutiques that cater to the "wearable art" look. The clothes are nearly always too big.

Beth: Yes! And what's more, a woman with a tummy or hips or whatever will not think she dare not wear fitted clothes.

Anon@10:48: There is conformity here, too: you rarely see flared pants or even boot-cut, (except worn ironically on the young) and •everyone• wears a scarf, but then it's so cold it is needed.
Eleanorjane said…
Yay scarves and boots! Montreal looks like my kind of city. I'd love to come for a visit some day and generally to see a bit more of Canada (I've only been to Winnipeg, which I'm sure isn't representative!)
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much, Duchesse, for sharing with us your eye and your appreciation of fashion for real people! You really do have your own voice and I love to read your blog! Would love to come to Montreal also in the summer, and think it would be much like Paris.

Duchesse said…
Francie: While Montréal inevitably reminds American visitors of Paris, it reminds the French of the US. That is the paradox, and there is, very significantly to us, a whole heritage in Québec that is unique to this place.
Yes, several European friends (French and Italian) said Montréal reminded them of Boston - logical, with similar vintage and weather, and being the metropolis of New England as opposed to New France, but recently some find similarities to the more boho parts of Brooklyn. But after a stay in anglophone North America, we are very "French" or rather francophone.

Echoing Charlebois, if only Jacques Cartier had found a warmer spot!
Tiffany said…
Duchesse, a comment that actually relates to an earlier post - I was so inspired by the pearls, that I contacted Sarah at Kojima and asked for a strand like the one you showed on the blog. It's on its way to me now :)
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Yes, I see it too. Remember the proposal to make the Turks and Caicos part of Canada?

Tiffany: Which kind of pearl have you chosen? (I have featured many of her pearls, various types.) Would I love to see them! Hope you are delighted.
Tiffany said…
Duchesse, I chose the Chinese freshwater ovals mixed with big baroque South Seas and natural colour punch-pink tourmaline beads that you showed a pic of recently ... I'm very excited! I've pinned the photo Sarah sent me on my Pinterest 'Wear' board.
Duchesse said…
Tiffany: That is one gorgeous design, so lush, feminine yet versatile. Ohhhh, lucky woman!

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