What’s in a uniform?
An exploration of what it means
to dress like an Edmontonian
By Bailey Stefan
I AM A fashion girl. As a child and teenager, I poured over fashion magazines like Seventeen and Flare, coveting the clothes within. I had it in my head that one day I would be a fashion journalist, coming up with the “what to wear” guides and jetting around the world to different fashion weeks to review the many designer collections.
Growing up in a small town, I didn’t get the opportunity to express myself through my style as much as I would have liked. I went to a Catholic school with a strict dress code and spent my evenings working at the local Boston Pizza in my uniform. Parties were in the bush or at someone’s shop, so there was scarcely an opportunity to bust out much more than a pair of skinny jeans and a warm jacket.
Something I eagerly anticipated was going to West Edmonton Mall once a season and being able to break out my flat brim hat. You don’t wear a hat just to wear a hat in rural Alberta; headwear must serve a function; toques and baseball caps only please.
Just like a lot of other rural kids, I assumed everything would get better in the big city.
So, I moved to Edmonton.
Some cities have a certain look to them. You can Google “French girl style” or “NYC style” and see thousands of hits on Pinterest and hundreds of articles written about how to look as though you’re from Paris or New York City.
The French girl look is characterized by clean lines, quality high-waisted denim, fitted through the hips and thighs but loose through the calves and hitting above the ankle, with a slightly oversized jacket. Colours are neutral – white, beige, and black. Shoes are simple and comfy, a pair of loafers or sleek black boots.
A Paris uniform is feminine and classic.
The New York look is a little wilder than the French, with bolder colours, such as yellow and red, taking centre stage, and patterns both on their own and clashing.
A New York uniform plays with menswear and dressing up just to dress back down; think big plaid pants, tiny neon pink top, and a baseball cap to dress it down.
In those cities, the streets are your runway.
Is there a similar esthetic to our chilly city?
I asked my Instagram followers what they think. Responses ranged from “cowboy” and “hockey” to “dirty low-top Vans” and “rolled-up beanies.”
Marielle Elizabeth, an Edmonton photographer and writer whose credits include Vogue, is a renowned champion for ethically made, sustainable plus-sized fashion. She says she believes Edmonton definitely has a “look.”
“Edmonton has an esthetic that is fairly similar to a lot of West Coast Canadian fashion. In my mind, it’s jeans, Blundstones and a plaid of some sort. It’s reflective of the stores we have access to – and dressing for the weather we have here.”
I couldn’t agree more: Climate, availability, and the overall feel of the city can definitely influence what people wear.
Edmonton is cold and everyone knows it. Don’t believe me? Go to Vancouver or Toronto and say, Hey I’m from Edmonton, and the response will usually be, Oh great city, but way too cold!
This winter, the city plunged to temperatures around -30 C. While we don’t get that chilly every year, we’re still covered in ice and snow for nearly half the year. Heck, it’s mid-March and the snow has just begun to melt.
Fashion is “pretty weather dependent,” says Nicole Boychuk, an Edmontonian and marketing and communications co-ordinator (as well as a good friend of mine). “Like, New York and L.A. both roll in the same money, but the looks and brand popularity are different.”
So, one effect of the climate is that boots reign supreme
“Everything’s covered in ice; we need shoes to support that,” Elizabeth says. “Imagine someone ‘baby-deering’ it, in really nice heels. You’d fall! You’d break your butt!”
Many of the fashion hubs of the world, like Paris or Milan, don’t experience this intense cold and so there is more freedom to dress how you like without worrying about whether you’re going to be warm enough, or if you’re going to slip on ice.
“I think our climate absolutely impacts the esthetic of the fashion here, as well as the way we spend our free time,” Elizabeth says.
Since moving to Edmonton, I have constantly heard that Edmonton is a big small town. That is reflected in the culture and the city’s fashion esthetic.
Edmonton fancies itself to be working class. However, in Canadian dollars, our median income in 2019 was $97,800 – higher than those of Paris ($50,575.29) and New York ($91,540).
Though we make more money, we don’t have the diversity or size of those cities, which inhibits our ability to foster the creativity necessary for a fashion scene to prosper. Our population is just 1.1 million, big for Canada but nothing compared to Paris, with 2.2 million in the city and more than 10 million in the suburbs, and New York, with more than 8.8 million as of April 2020.
The cultures of these cities are far more diverse than that of our little city on the Prairies – just because of sheer numbers.
Boychuk emphasizes culture and, in tandem, availability, as major factors on what a city wears.
“Edmonton fashion is very mall-core, with a touch of tech-wear and it’s obviously influenced by the whole blue collar-ness of it all.”
Indeed, the fashion hub of Edmonton is West Edmonton Mall, with a few boutiques scattered through the city, leaving most residents to rely on what they can find at WEM when choosing what to wear.
From what I can see (and Elizabeth and Boychuk corroborated), the Edmonton uniform is:
1. Denim (or LuluLemon if you have errands to run – we like athleisure here
2. Sturdy boots (typically Blundstones, but also Dr. Martens and Sorels)
3. Plaid (flannel in spring and fall; a shacket for the cold) or a hoodie (likely University branded)
In the winter, this look is topped off with a toque. In the summer, flat-brim fedoras reign supreme. Blundstones are worn year-round, but if it gets too hot (like last June) you can switch them out for Birkenstocks.
This casual-cool look can take you from the office to Earls, to an Oilers game (though you’ll likely switch out your plaid for the orange-and-blue on this occasion), and to the bar.
It’s a uniform, yes, but it’s hardly the fashionista’s playground. There are a hundred different ways to achieve the French or New York look, but it is a very specific outfit combination to fit into the specific look Edmonton has cultivated.
But is it fashion?
Fashion goes beyond simple esthetics and having a uniform. In fact, feeling as though a city must have a uniform can stifle creativity.
“To be a centre for fashion, there has to be a demand and an economy to support diversity,” Elizabeth says. “When I think about major fashion cities like New York or L.A., so much of the fashion is so diverse.
“When you think about really blue-collar spaces. Like, Fort McMurray absolutely has an esthetic, but I don’t think anyone is arguing that they are a fashion capital of Canada.”
Similarly, almost my entire extended family is from Saskatoon. They (and everyone else from the city that I’ve met) seem to own unlimited Huskies merchandise, giving the city an esthetic and a look. But that doesn’t make it a fashion-hub.
This doesn’t mean that Edmonton doesn’t have the potential to foster the creativity for fashion to thrive.
Edmonton is home to a thriving arts and culture scene, with several art galleries and a couple dozen music venues. We aren’t called Canada’s Festival City for nothing, with folk fest, the jazz festival, Heritage Days, the Fringe, and Flying Canöe Volant.
There is no reason to believe that the fashion scene can’t catch up.
I once again turned to my Instagram followers to ask if they let the place they live dictate what they wear, and the answer was an overwhelming, No!
The intersections of location and fashion are many – you have to dress for the weather – but there’s no reason to let your city’s look play too great a role in your personal style.
“The less reliance there is on a very specific look tied to a city,” Elizabeth says, “the more opportunity there is for people to really find their own sense of style.”