Message in a sweater

I ran across this fascinating story from a local history blog and couldn’t wait until November 11 to post it… Jim Alexander was a resident of Hespeler, Ontario and a Corporal with the Li­ncoln and Wel­land Re­gi­ment in WWII. In March 1945 he was in Veen, Ger­many when he was or­dered back to En­gland to be decorated by the King for bravery.

330 Image41Al­though great­coats were supplied to sol­di­ers when needed, Alexander’s re­gi­ment was await­ing sup­pl­ies, in­clud­ing great­coats, and so he gave his coat to a fellow soldier before leaving for England. Upon ar­riv­ing in rainy, cold Al­dershot, Alexander went to a Red Cross Centre where he picked out a khaki, hand-knit wool sweat­er. After re­ceiv­ing his medal for brave­ry, Alexander re­joined his re­gi­ment and was given a new great­coat. The sweat­er was pac­ked away in his kit.

When Alexander returned to home to Hespeler in Janua­ry, 1946, his mother found the sweater as she sorted through his clot­hes for laundry. She recognized it as one she had knitted herself and proved it by snipping the seam between the double collar to reveal a two dollar bill with a hand written note in her hand requesting the recipient to write her to let her know how he was doing. Apparently it was common for women who had knitted socks, scarves, and sweaters for overseas to include money and notes in the hems and seams of their garments. It was pure coincidence that Alexander had picked the sweater his own mother had knitted and yet never looked inside the collar.

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The Canadian Home Journal 1905 – 1958

Canadian Home Journal fashions May 1912

Canadian Home Journal fashions September 1912

First published as The Home Journal in 1905, ‘Canadian’ was added to the title in 1910, and for the next 48 years the Canadian Home Journal was Canada’s best selling women’s magazine. This was Canada’s version of the popular U.S. women’s publications: Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, and Woman’s Home Companion, all of which were also available in Canada. Like its American counterparts, Canadian Home Journal offered fiction, recipes, and articles on child rearing, beauty care, homemaking, and decorating, as well as a monthly fashion spread illustrated with the latest pattern styles.

In 1928 another Canadian women’s magazine was founded – Chatelaine, which was aimed at the exact same audience as the Canadian Home Journal. However, Chatelaine never managed to surpass Canadian Home Journal’s subscription rate. Millionaire investor Jack Kent Cooke bought Canadian Home Journal’s publisher, Consolidated Press, in 1952. However, Cooke’s interests soon veered towards sports teams and in 1958, The Canadian Home Journal was sold off to its competition – Chatelaine’s owners MacLean Publishing.

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Mayfair – Canada’s elite style magazine 1927-1959

The Delineator, an American magazine with a Toronto printing, carried Canadian advertising, 1899

This issue of The Delineator carried Canadian advertising but was really just a Canadian printing of an American magazine, March 1899

Before the name Mayfair became associated with an English girlie magazine in 1965 it had a far more conservative, sophisticated reputation as Canada’s magazine of “culture, fashion, and social distinctions”. Intended for Canada’s fashionable elites (debutantes, brides, wives of important men…), Mayfair was launched in Toronto in May 1927 for 35 cents per issue.

The second issue hailed the success of Mayfair as proof Canada was now mature enough to have its own cosmopolitan publication. Until Mayfair, all Canadian fashion magazines were, at best, a Canadian printing of an English or American magazine with the same articles but  Canadian advertisements. Alongside fashion reportage travel articles were popular, especially about London and Paris and luxury holidays like cruises to Bermuda.

Mayfair, Canada's elite fashion and lifestyle magazine, 1931

Mayfair, Canada’s elite fashion and lifestyle magazine, April 1930

Despite its highbrow readership, the price of the magazine was dropped in the heart of the Depression to twenty-five cents in 1934, and although its Toronto-centric advertisements catered to the FOOF (Fine Old Ontario Family) factor, the publishing was transfered to Montreal in 1937.

Circulation dropped off during the 1950s as the upper crust content became less relevant in a world where ocean liners were being displaced by jets, and an exploding teen population had little interest in old-fashioned social hierarchies. The magazine’s last issue was printed in December 1959.

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Truth with Consequences – some interesting fashion charts



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As Seen In – Presentation gown worn by wife of Ontario Premier

From the collection of the Fashion History Museum, this dress was originally owned and worn by Ann Ferguson, wife of the Premier of Ontario Howard Ferguson on the occasion of her presentation at Buckingham Palace. I have tried to find the year of her presentation with no luck but judging from the dress style it is probably 1925:

IMGP5370_2 Ferguson 20s dress

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Everything you ever wanted to know about Beaver but were afraid to ask…

il_fullxfull.359425227_m018Beneath the guard hairs of a beaver’s coat is an incredibly thick, soft fur. This undercoat became highly desirable by felt makers during the Renaissance because it produced the finest quality felt, known for a beautiful sheen and hard resilience. By 1580 the fashion for beaver felt hats was exploding but the European beaver had been trapped to near extinction in its Eastern European/Western Russian habitat.

Fortunately Canada teemed with Castor Canadensis, the North American cousin of the European beaver. The Vintage clothing trade was born in Canada when Natives traded in last year’s beaver pelt winter robes for iron pots and wool blankets. After a year or so of wear the guard hairs fell out of beaver pelts leaving the soft undercoat of fur – exactly what was wanted by European felt makers. Unfortunately, the supply of used beaver robes was not enough to keep up with demand. British, French, and Dutch colonies began enlisting Native trappers to supply beaver pelts. Claims to beaver territories set in motion the Beaver Wars (1610-1614), pitting Native groups against each other as coastal sources dwindled and trappers ventured further inland for their pelts.

il_fullxfull.359425145_qce8By 1660, the Neutrals, a Native people living in what is present-day southwestern Ontario had been driven from their homeland, or assimilated by the Iroquois who had expanded their territory looking for beaver habitats. By 1667 the English had taken the Dutch colonies (New Amsterdam had been renamed New York), and the English soon skirted around French territory to set up the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) in 1670. All lands where rivers drained into Hudson Bay came under the HBC charter.

With England effectively controlling the beaver trade, London soon became known for its high quality felt hats, but that recognition came at a price. Unlike the used robes that had lost their guard hairs, raw pelts retained their guard hairs. A process had been developed in Russia called ‘carroting’ (because the fur turned orange in colour during the process), that treated the pelts with mercury nitrate to remove the guard hairs. Unfortunately, a side effect of this treatment also turned hatters mad from breathing  the mercury vapour.

Throughout the late 17th and 18th centuries, beaver was used to make up every type of fashionable round hat, bicorn and tricorn, but by the 1790s, beaver supplies were beginning to noticeably dwindle. The Northwest Company, created west of the HBC in 1779, merged with the HBC in 1821. That same year George Simpson, the governor of the newly merged company, enacted conservation measures to preserve the beaver population. A quota was established that limited the number of pelts each trapper could take, and a moratorium was put on the purchase of cub and summer pelts.

Trappers turned to otter, which also bore a superior fur undercoat. Otter populations teemed along the west coast but their numbers soon dwindled as top hats became high fashion by the 1820s. Fortunately a new hat material was about to solve the problem of a depleted felt source – silk plush. Hats of felt had a deep, lustrous finish and a short pile, while silk plush featured a high, glossy finish. To imitate the stiffness of a beaver or otter felt hat, silk plush hats were made on hard forms of baked layers of shellac-soaked cheesecloth, linen, and flannel before being covered with the soft, black silk plush.



There is an apocryphal story about the first silk plush hat appearing on the streets of London on January 15 or 16, 1797, worn by its creator J Hetherington. A crowd gathered to gawk at the shiny stovepipe on his head. According to one account the attention his hat brought got so out of hand that a child broke his arm among all the jostling, and Hetherington was arrested for disturbing public order. The Times reported the following day “Hetherington’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear…” It was a slow eventuality, but by 1850 silk plush had effectively displaced fur felt in the production of top hats.

Not only was the adoption of the silk plush top hat what ultimately saved the beaver and otter, although it took over a century for recovery of their populations, with the drop in demand for pelts for the fur felt trade, Russia no longer had use for a piece of real estate called Alaska. Russia was in debt and not being friendly with Britain because of the recently fought Crimean War, offered Alaska to the United States in 1859. The American Civil War tabled the deal until 1867 when the U.S. finally snatched up Alaska for 2 cents per acre.

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Fashion Myths “Everyone was so tiny back then…”

These images from the 1870s should dispel that myth…

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Singapore fashion in the 1950s/60s

Fashion show at Raffles Hotel, 1958

Fashion show at Raffles Hotel, Singapore, 1958

I ran across this interesting blog from Singapore with many images showing local fashions during the 1950s and 1960s. I love seeing how fashion reacts, adapts and goes native, integrating local styles and materials, wherever it goes. The blogger has watermarked all his images and obviously doesn’t want people to appropriate them, so I am only reposting one here (I will beg forgiveness rather than ask permission) — Check out his blog for further interesting images.

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Fifty Shades of Black – and one shade of grey…


View of some of the black dresses on display from the Oakville Museum

I am often surprised by what treasures local history museums contain and Oakville Museum provided more surprises than expected in their current exhibition Fifty Shades of Black. The display of fifty dresses, dating from the 1860s to the 2000s, is especially rich with examples of evening gowns from the 1930s. There are a variety of designers represented in the show including: Toronto labels like Northways and Pink Tartan, quality bespoke dressmakers from New York and Montreal, and superb examples of Parisian haute couture. My favourite dress in the show is a grey suit by Jeanne Lanvin, from her summer 1934 collection that accompanies a quote by Diana Vreeland “Black is the hardest colour in the world to get right – except for grey.”

Silk chiffon dress by Chanel , c. 1928

Silk chiffon dress by Chanel , c. 1928

The exhibition is divided into islands of themes, including: velvet, lace, mourning, embellished, modesty, basic, couture… In a place of honour, under glass, is a c. 1928 ‘little black dress’ by Chanel – the designer who is often erroneously attributed with inventing the ‘LBD’. Although Chanel did not invent the style, she certainly promoted its use as a wardrobe basic for the modern woman.

Dior cocktail dress, c. 1956

Dior cocktail dress, c. 1956

It’s hard to pick a favourite but fun to think about it. High on my list, after the 1934 Lanvin and 1928 Chanel is a cocktail dress with a swag of taffeta drawn up to the bosom from Christian Dior’s autumn 1956 collection. This is one of the many dresses with an Oakville provenance, having been purchased by a local resident from Eaton’s Ensemble Shop in Toronto.

If I had to find fault, it would be that there is a lot to take in and the show might have benefitted from a few more suits and coats to give a visual break from the unrelenting parade of glamorous evening clothes.

Fifty Shades of Black is in the main gallery of the Community and Cultural Centre in Queen Elizabeth Park, 2302 Bridge Road, Oakville. Admission is free and is open Noon - 7 p.m. Monday-Friday, and Noon – 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The show closes September 14. The facility is not easy to find – it’s in the middle of a suburb not far off the QEW highway, so make sure you print off a google map or have GPS guidance.

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A Hairy idea for an ad…

Great advert by Gillette for their history of men’s hair ad!

and check out how it was done:

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