The following story was printed in the Globe & Mail using mostly Canadiana Connection reader’s quotes. You can read their original comments on our Canuck Quotes page
True North Strong and Plaid
By GAYLE MACDONALD
Saturday, April 13, 2002 Page R15
Look closely at the shirt. The myriad lines. The medley of colours. Forget the Mountie uniform: Plaid flannel, clearly, is the uniform of the Canadian Everyman.
Around for years — and worn with pride by a long, illustrious line of Canadian iconoclasts from Bob and Doug McKenzie, and the Quinlan Quints, to the inimitable senior statesman of flannel, Neil Young — the plaid shirt has become the unofficial symbol of the land of the true North, strong and free.
And with that other proud plaid proponent, Red Green, releasing his feature Duct Tape Forever this weekend, it’s a good time to reflect on the sartorial symbolism of the ubiquitous garment.
What’s the appeal of it? Well, any self-respecting Canadian knows it’s an integral part of our national heritage. It’s literally — as Deborah Knight from Newmarket, Ont., puts it — the fabric that binds us together.
“From the tunderin’ coast of Newfoundland to the groovy waves of B.C., it’s the Canadian fashion statement,” insists Knight, a high-tech executive. “Flannel screams: ‘It’s cold. It’s f-ing cold. And I’m not gonna die!’ ”
Sometimes called the Kenora dinner jacket (think of the beer-chugging hosers Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas comfortably ensconced in their plaid lumberjack shirts on the SCTV skits in the early 1980s), the flannel shirt embodies, without even trying, all that is good and dependable about the folk who inhabit this country.
It’s perfectly, noncommittally Canadian. It isn’t blue. It isn’t red. It isn’t black. It isn’t white. It’s red and blue and black and white. “It’s the most politically correct fabric money can buy,” Knight asserts. “And the stripes don’t simply go up and down or side to side. They go every which way imaginable . . . just because they can,” she adds. “That unbridled wanderlust is Canadian!”
And worn with blue jeans? Well, nobody knows if you’re from Toronto’s hoity Forest Hill, a Portuguese construction site, Cape Dorset on Baffin Island, or Mabou on Cape Breton Island. Plaid flannel, if you want the truth, is the great North American equalizer. Is it Eddie Bauer or Roots? Or is it Bi-Way or army surplus? Who knows? As comedian Ron James puts it, we’re all the same in our flannel.
James, the veteran standup comic (who always sports a plaid shirt on stage) and the star of the quirky TV series Blackfly, says he remembers years ago when someone told him to, ” ‘Get your look and stay with it.’ That phrase always stuck with me. “The plaid in my shirts represents, and I don’t want to sound too lofty, the regional diversity of the country,” James says, very seriously. “It doesn’t reek of urban pretension. I don’t think the content of my shows reflects a sophisticated urbanity. And the shirt puts me on the same page as those 700 folks who just came to hear me at a hall in Cranbrook, B.C., or the crowd that might assemble at the neon-lit Mirvish theatre in Toronto,” James adds. “It is an equalizer. If my content is a tapestry of Canadiana, then that’s what my shirt reflects.”
Who knew that this humble piece of Canadian apparel — which (surely) inspired Monty Python’s Michael Palin and Terry Jones to pen the unforgettable Lumberjack Song (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay, I sleep all night and I work all day”) — would become the unlikely uniform for the classless society? A nation of people who say to hell with the Yves St. Laurent silk-chiffon evening gown. Damn that Hugo Boss tuxedo: Canadians wear flannel to the opera. They wear flannel to church. They even wear flannel on their wedding night.
As the flannel-wearing Toronto native Katrina Somers puts it: “There’s something so smugly satisfying about encasing yourself in fuzzy cottonness and defying the cold. And I think that defiance may be part of the flannel appeal. Canadians don’t like winter; rather, we like feeling proof against it, and flannel is to us in winter what chain mail was to a medieval warrior.”
According to history buffs, flannel has been around since the mid-1800s. Ruth Mills, a period costume designer in Ottawa, tracked down one of the first references to flannel in a book published in 1860 by Catharine Parr Traill, the author-wife of a British officer posted to Canada. Parr Traill wrote of “logging shirts,” describing them as “an overshirt of homespun flannel, coarse brown linen or canvas.”
The fashion resource centre of Toronto’s Seneca College traced the lumberjack shirt — originally called buffalo check or jac-cloth — to a mid-19th century trading post between lakes Huron and Michigan. “We certainly claim them as Canadian,” says Dale Peers, professor and costume co-ordinator at the Seneca Fashion Resource Centre, who adds that the plaid was likely inspired by Scottish tartans, because there were Scotsmen working in the logging and fur trades. Peers, who also lectures on the psychology of fashion, says the lumberjack shirt — with “its big, honking check as opposed to the more subtle tartan” — suggests an organized group effort.
“When you look at it originating from this familial clan effort of the Scots coming to Canada, struggling to surive, then it only makes sense that the plaid flannel shirt has come to symbolize nice Canadians, who all work together, who work hard. It suggests down-home, homespun and very approachable.
“It makes people want to initiate conversations with you. It implies we’re just part of one big happy family.”
No wonder, then, that so many Canadians — famous or not — have put plaid flannel on their backs. Neil Young not only wears flannel and mukluks, but he sings about “corduroy pants and an old plaid shirt” in Daddy Went Walkin.
Don Harron has made many people laugh with his alter ego, plaid-clad Charlie Farquharson. This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ Quinlan Quints — never mind that there’s only four of them — are unquestionably the dopiest group of flannel-wearing siblings on television.
There was Bob and Doug, whose careers were launched because of their hilarious depiction of nerdy brothers in flannel shirts and wool caps. Even Marvel Comics’ mutant superhero Wolverine, from the X-Men team, wears flannel (and, oh yes, he’s Canadian, too).
It seems everywhere you turn — from Joe Canadian of Molson’s I Am Canadian television ad, to Relic (remember him? Bruno Gerussi’s sidekick from the long-ago Beachcombers) — wore plaid. And they wore it well.
The plaid pundits even take credit for the grunge movement in Seattle — that heavy, plodding and sometimes dark music delivered in dark clubs by sweaty guys like Kurt Cobain in plaid lumberjack shirts.
Glen Foster, the Montreal-born comedian who plays That Canadian Guy on The Comedy Network, does not wear a plaid shirt when he performs, but he “gets” the reason that so many of his Canadian compatriots on the stage do.
“Canadians are thought of as being somewhat indecisive, so it plays into that, in that you don’t really have to decide,” says Foster, who lives in Cambridge, Ont. “Also, it’s easy to hide spills,” says the 41-year-old comic. “And it’s just a practical thing, because as Canadians we know, no matter what time of year, no matter what the weather, it could snow. And we must always be prepared.”
Knight, whose hometown of Newmarket spawned flannel-wearers such as Glass Tiger, agrees. “Flannel keeps us warm. Flannel keeps us equal. Flannel keeps us constantly aware that we aren’t basking in the warmth of a southern ocean breeze. That’s why flannel is the enduring Canadian fabric.”
“Well . . . that’s what I think, eh?”