By 1700 blankets accounted for more than 60% of all goods exchanged in the fur trade. The quality and style of the multistripe HBC point blanket made it a favourite material for making garments such as the traditional capote, the famous handmade wrap coat, which dates back to the mid 17th c. But a second, tailored blanket coat style has a similarly long history.
Blanket coat advertisement, 1922
In 1811 British Captain Charles Roberts, commanding a fort on St. Joseph Island in the St. Mary’s River near Sault Ste. Marie, was unable to procure new winter outwear for his troops from his Quebec HQ. Taking matters into his own hands, Roberts requisitioned a supply of 3.5 point HBC blankets and had native women make coats for his 40 men. The following summer Roberts’ men occupied American Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan (pronounced “Michilimackinaw”) as the War of 1812 began. When Roberts ordered a further blanket supply for the coming winter, and began to fulfill orders for the coats, the short, double-breasted style became known as a Mackinaw.
More than 100 years would pass before the first commercial HBC blanket coats were introduced in 1922. These combined the warmth and wear of the traditional capote with the style and fit of a tailored garment. Double-breasted, mid-thigh length with full skirt, patch pockets and buttons, the coats were ideal for winter activities. They came in solid colours only: grey, dark green, khaki, navy blue, red or white, and featured the blanket points under the left armpit as well as the Seal of Quality blanket label.
By 1929 the blanket coat’s success led HBC to launch a full line of blanket outerwear for men, women and children. Fabric was woven in England and shipped to Canada on the bolt. A succession of manufacturers based in Winnipeg made blanket coats right up until the year 2000. Styles proliferated over time, peaking in the mid-1970s. The range included coats made of lighter weight wool duffle, as well as two-part coats featuring a wool liner topped by a removable weatherproof outer shell. Single and double-breasted styles in varying lengths predominated, supplemented by parkas and bomber jackets.
Alaskan Parka, 1979
Club Jacket, 1979
Traditional Olympic coat, 1965
Despite a multitude of available colours, the traditional multistripe remained the most popular, becoming universally identified as the “Hudson’s Bay” coat. By extension, the HBC coats became internationally recognized as a symbol of Canada, a fact that explains their selection as official parade wear for the Canadian National Olympic Winter Games Teams throughout the 1960s.
Today HBC point blanket coats remain popular: you can spot them on the street right across the country. Consequently they enjoy a robust resale market at second hand shops, vintage clothing stores and online sites such as eBay. Colourful, warm, and practical HBC Point blanket coats have stood the test of time and deserve their reputation as Canadian winter classics. But given these characteristics – and its identification with Canada – it was perhaps inevitable that such an iconic product would attract the attention of world-class fashion designers.
French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac took inspiration from the HBC blanket back in the late 1970s, creating a coat that garnered a lot of attention. Perhaps motivated by this, in 1981 HBC commissioned five Canadian designers to create coats from the blanket: Alfred Sung, Pat McDonagh, Leo Chevalier, John Warden and Jean-Claude Poitras. The designs were sufficiently popular that it was decided to put them into limited production that fall. Only 19 of each design were manufactured and sold at prices between $600 - $800. The Royal Ontario Museum requested one for its designer clothing collection. Alfred Sung’s straight, collarless wrap coat with curved shoulders and seams and edges outlined in gold leather was donated to the ROM.
The timing was perfect - 1981 saw Canadian fashion style hit Europe in a big way:
The Autumn ’81 forecasts out of Paris, London and Rome bristle with phrases like“Hudson Bay look”, “Trapper Look”, “Trading Post ethos”, Tough Lumberjack image” and so forth. “New inspiration has been found in the Canadian North,” says influential Fashion Folio International. Another … theme is the “Hudson Bay look” and/or the “Canadian Trapper look”: point blanket coats and adaptations thereof, parkas, anoraks, plus leather, sheepskin and fringing.
Audrey Gostlin, Toronto Calendar Magazine, April 3, 1981.
De Castlebajac continued to experiment with the HBC blanket, this time in jacket form, as did American Geoffrey Beene, whose stunning scarlet evening coat trimmed in silver was a knockout in 1984.
Nearly 30 years later Hudson's Bay once again saw the potential of the marriage of the Point blankets and Canadian designers. In December 2009, Hudson's Bay introduced its new Hudson’s Bay Company collection – an aspirational Canadian lifestyle brand featuring fashion apparel, accessories, home decor and specialty seasonal items. To celebrate the launch of the collection, ten Canadian fashion designers were invited to create one-of-a-kind coats from a Hudson’s Bay Company Point Blanket. Blanket Statement: 10 Point Blankets x 10 Canadian Designers was exhibited at Hudson's Bay Queen Street in Toronto in December 2009, and at the downtown Vancouver store during the recent 2010 Winter Olympics. "We were looking for a collaboration so we could do something special around the Olympics to get the brand out there and also promote Canadian fashion design to the world," says Hudson's Bay fashion director Suzanne Timmins.
Hooded swing coat by Smythe, 2009
Comrags, Erdem Moralioglu, Harricana par Mariouche, Jeremy Laing, Klaxon Howl, Krane, Lida Baday, Pink Tartan, Smythe and Todd Lynn participated. Each was given a Point Blanket in the colour of their choice to create a contemporary coat. There were no limitations on the imagination and creativity the designers brought to the table. The resulting gallery-worthy showcase pieces included a vast range of styles, including: bomber jacket, three-quarter length men’s and women’s car coats, capelet, hooded swing coat, and a full-length fur-trimmed coat – including one silhouette with a bustle!
A special order of 100 units of the Smythe design was recently made for sale at the 2010 Winter Olympic Superstore in Vancouver, where it retailed for $695. Whether modern or vintage, the HBC blanket coat remains a winter classic.