Dress in the Dominion: Historical Canadian Etiquette

Posted on July 24, 2014

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1907 formal dinner at King Edward Hotel, Toronto.  (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, f1568_it0478)

1907 formal dinner at King Edward Hotel, Toronto. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, f1568_it0478)

The historical paucity of genuine Canadian etiquette guides originally led me to wonder how much my ancestors’ sense of propriety was effected by our culture’s most predominant influences: our British founders and our American neighbours.

If the content of the Toronto Reference Library’s collections is any indication, U.S. publications were clearly the preferred choice whether as direct imports or as Canadian editions (the latter differing only in their advertising content).  However, the preface to a rare bona fide native publication, 1932’s Etiquette in Canada, suggests otherwise:

The books [on etiquette] which have been available are not entirely suitable because they are by American writers.  While American etiquette is of course founded on certain basic rules of good-breeding, it differs in many instances from social usage in Canada – this country leans more to English ways.  As Basil King remarked: Canada is conservative and follows the British traditions, while the United States initiates and creates its own precedents.  But, it may be asked, if American authorities do not entirely meet our need, why not use English works on etiquette?  To this the answer is that they are much too general in treatment.  They entirely ignore many of the small details that are often more puzzling than the large, important ones, because they presume that such knowledge is already possessed by the reader.

A later chapter points out one very notable exception to the preference for English tradition:  “There is a rather striking difference between a wedding that takes place in England and one celebrated in Canada, for to a large extent the custom prevailing in the United States has been adopted here.”

Interestingly, the preface also explains that movies (presumably American) were another negative influence on correct behaviour: “The rules that people of good breeding observe in their social contacts go by the board in the motion pictures, under the exigencies of the camera.  Yet undoubtedly many of the six million Canadians who each week witness such pictures must have their ideas of society rather distorted by them.”

1937 Fireman’s Ball at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C.  (The Empress Hotel: In the Grand Style)

1937 Fireman’s Ball at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C. (The Empress Hotel: In the Grand Style)

As for evening dress protocol in particular, it appears that Canadian guides generally mirrored the sartorial prescriptions of their British and American counterparts but were dramatically more conservative in their guidelines for usage.  At a time when most authorities were acknowledging that the tuxedo was becoming defacto evening wear for all but the most formal of occasions, Etiquette in Canada maintained the Edwardian view that it was appropriate only for informal affairs.  This stance wouldn’t be particularly remarkable if it wasn’t for the fact that it remained unaltered when the book was revised in 1949 and was then carried forward by another Canadian guide published in 1953 as Mind Your Manners and reissued in 1967 as Canadian Etiquette.  It beggars belief to think that at the height of the counterculture revolution a publication was still advising that only tailcoats were acceptable at “all formal evening occasions where ladies are present”.

Formalwear rental ad from 1937 Toronto phone book.

Formalwear rental ad from 1937 Toronto phone book.

On a related note, the terminology employed by Canadians of the past seems to reflect American usage in that menswear retailers preferred “tuxedo” while etiquette authorities leaned towards “dinner jacket”.

Posted in: Etiquette, History