Canadian Fashion Connection – Agnew-Surpass Shoes 1928-2000


Brown snakeskin shoes labelled ‘Fashion Plate – styled exclusively for Agnew-Surpass’ c. 1950

Founded in Brantford, Ontario by John Agnew in 1879, his shoe store grew to include three locations before merging in 1928 with Surpass stores. Agnew-Surpass Shoe Stores Ltd. soon grew to become Canada’s largest national footwear chain.

In 1962 the chain was acquired by American footwear retailing and manufacturing giant Genesco. In 1987 the chain was resold to Vancouver entrepeneur and former Bata Shoe executive Michael Graye for 89 million. It was discovered in 1996 that Graye had laundered money through the Cayman Islands during the deal, which lead to a 4 year jail sentence for Graye in 2003.

Shoe sales for Agnew-Surpass dwindled under competition from big-box discount shoe sellers that entered the Canadian market in the 1990s. In August 2000 Agnew-Surpass declared bankruptcy and closed its 223 stores across Canada.

Agnew Surpass Shoe Store, Fairview Mall, Toronto, 1972

Agnew Surpass Shoe Store, Fairview Mall, Toronto, 1972

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Same fabric, same year, different designer

aldrich 1966IMGP9923_2The c. 1966 dress and coat at right, from the FHM collection, is labelled by the Parisian designer Jacques Heim, but the dated 1966 fashion image to the left shows a model wearing a dress of the same material by American designer Larry Aldrich.

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Lauren Bacall’s shoes

Rene ManciniLauren Bacall’s passing today reminded me that although the FHM doesn’t have a lot of famous people’e clothing, one of the celebrity items we do have is a pair of shoes from the personal wardrobe of Lauren Bacall from about 1956. These navy blue kid leather shoes with almond shaped toes and slim, stiletto heels are about a size 9 but very narrow and look like they were worn a half dozen times at most. There is no sizing on them because they are custom made by Rene Mancini – the Parisian shoemaker who takes credit for designing the classic Chanel pump with black toe cap in 1957.

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Hitler’s hat


Marowitz holding his souvenir in 2003

An article caught my eye yesterday about the late Richard Marowitz who was with the reconnaissance unit of the 42nd Infantry Division during World War II. When his unit was in Munich cleaning out Hitler’s apartment he came across the former Führer’s top hat and “smashed the hell out of it” Marowitz told the Associated Press in 2001. It was April 30, the day Hitler died in his bunker in Berlin. “When he heard some skinny Jewish kid stomped all over his favourite hat, he committed suicide,” Marowitz joked in the 2001 interview. The story was featured in the 2003 documentary “Hitler’s Hat”. Marowitz died earlier this week in Albany, New York. His family will be donating the hat to a museum.

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Why is this piece of rusty junk so important to fashion history?

nikewaffleironjpg-e73d3769cd58db34In 1971 Bill Bowerman was tinkering with the idea of how to make track or football shoes without spikes that could be worn on blacktop or artificial turf but work equally as well on grass or gravel. His eureka moment came one Sunday morning at his home in Oregon when he sat down to a plate of waffles. After breakfast he made a cast of the waffle plates to create soles with protruding nubs that provided traction like a tread on a tire.

At the 1972 Olympic trials in Oregon, Bowerman and his business partner Phil Knight persuaded some of the marathon runners to wear samples of his waffle-soled shoes. Convinced they had a winning style, the two founded their company ‘Nike’ while they refined the waffle sole. In 1974 they launched their track shoes with the ‘swoosh’ trademark onto the market, and by 1979 Nike held a 50% share of the American sneaker market.

The original waffle iron and experimental versions of his shoes were thought to have been thrown away, but in 2010 a rubbish pit was unearthed on Bowerman’s property that contained the original Art Deco 1930s waffle iron, and some of the early shoe prototypes. The original waffle plates that Bowerman had used to cast his sole mold are still missing. However, the unearthed collection was conserved and now resides at Nike headquarters.


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The War That Changed the World

CanadianWW1 soldier

Canadian soldier heading overseas, c. 1916

This week (July 28 – August 4) marks the centenary of the start of World War 1. Many historians look at the War as the catalyst that ushered in the modern age. Although there were already changes underway in social conventions, the arts, popular culture and industrial mass production, everything was accelerated because of the War.

Soldiers in cloth caps went off to battle in 1914 on horseback. Within four years the tools of war had changed to helmets, machine guns, howitzers, tanks, flamethrowers, submarines, depth charges, mines, grenades, chemical weapons, warplanes, aircraft carriers, oil-fueled ships, and zeppelins. Some of these technologies were invented before 1914, but the War perfected their use.

The War also initiated advancements in triage, psychotherapy, prosthetics and plastic surgery; brought about the introduction of daylight savings time and prohibition; popularized canned food and vegetarianism; polished the art of propaganda with the invention of newsreels, and gave rise to fascism, communism, and anti-Semitism. New ‘war’ words were coined into everyday language: dud, ace, shell-shocked, camouflage, blooey, bomber, ammo.


English women, c. 1917

The War ended Monarchial rule in Europe, broke apart the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, gave birth to Middle Eastern conflict, created new countries  (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Turkey…) and invented the League of Nations to avoid future conflicts. It drained Britain’s resources and gave rise to its former colonies as independent nations. The U.S. became an economic superpower and its cities grew rapidly as more migrants flooded in from rural America looking for employment in the new factories; inner-city suburbs and apartment buildings materialized to house the swell of new urbanites.

typewriters, Washington DC, c. 1917

Type-writers, Washington D.C., 1917

While poetry best expressed the feelings of a lost generation, the rest of the arts diverged between the popular (jazz, movies, cartooning), and the esoteric (atonal music, Dadaism, expressionism.) In most Western countries, women were enfranchised during the War or shortly after armistice. The postwar surplus of young women caused by the wartime loss of young men left fewer marriage prospects, creating a world of maiden aunts in dead-end jobs, and good-time seeking ‘flappers’.

As for fashion, the War introduced the trench coat and wristwatch as staples into men’s wardrobes, and for women, the introduction of disposable sanitary products made life easier. Decorum subsided – the top hat and trained gown were all but gone for the most formal occasions. The War made women’s fashion practical, freeing limbs to move about unimpeded by floor sweeping skirts and long-line corsets. Dress became modern and its design and accessorizing became the new elitism – the age of the designer was born.

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Exhibition – Art of the Lacemaker

Needle lace panel of hunting scene, c. late 19th century

Needle lace panel of hunting scene, c. late 19th century

Guelph Civic Museum is hosting an exhibition of lace (July 11 – November 2) from the collection of the late Margaret Ruhland. Curated by conservator and friend of Margaret Ruhland, Joyce Dawson, the exhibition showcases examples of needle, bobbin and other laces from the early 17th century to the present day.

Kenn and I went yesterday, and also stayed for a lecture by local lace collector Nancy Pye. There is an overwhelming amount of lace to see – each more impressive than the last. It is impossible to pick a favourite. I am not a lace expert by any means and can identify only a few of the more obvious patterns, so this exhibition is excellent for anyone who wants to learn more, or just take in the beautiful hand-made patterns and not worry about trying to become an expert in one visit.

There is also a catalogue that was just printed last month For the Love of Lace: The Ruhland Collection, written by Margaret Ruhland and Joyce Taylor Dawson. It is beautifully illustrated with exceptional photographs. I couldn’t find it for sale online anywhere, but it is available from the Guelph Civic Museum, and you might be able to search for it via the ISBN 978-0-9918365-0-5 once it is in the hands of a distributor.

Read more in this article from the Guelph Mercury newspaper.

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Fashion in Song – Black Denim Trousers – 1955

“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” was originally a top-ten hit for The Cheers in the fall of 1955. Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the song tells the story of biker and begins by describing the clothes he wears “…black denim trousers and motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back”. In 1956, French chanteuse Edith Piaf recorded a French translation of the song entitled “L’ Homme à la Moto”. This version was recorded by the Canadian group The Diamonds, in the fall of 1955.

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Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Mme Merlot Larchevêque


The label that appears in the evening gown below

In histories about the founding of Parisian Haute Couture, Charles Worth’s name always comes up, but he didn’t invent the industry single-handed. One of the other prolific houses of couture at the time was founded by Mme Merlot Larchevêque in 1855, three years before Worth’s name ever appeared on any Parisian dressmaker’s establishment.

Evening gown I borrowed from the Alan Suddon collection in 1995 for The Gentle Step: The Ladies Realm of Fashion 1800-1900.

Green gauze and ivory satin evening gown by Mme Merlot Larcheveque that I borrowed from the Alan Suddon collection in 1995 for an exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum entitled “The Gentle Step: The Ladies Realm of Fashion 1800-1900.”

Soon after the end of the American Civil War, steamship travel across the Atlantic increased as more Americans, made wealthy from recent industrial growth, toured European points of historical and fashionable interest. Parisian couturiers, like Mme Larchevêque, recognized the profits to be made from this nouveau client and catered to their needs. In 1867 she advertised in the American fashion journal Godey’s Lady’s Book that English was spoken in her shop on the Boulevard des Capucines (conveniently located across the street from the Grand Hotel.) Godey’s described the atelier in their February 1867 issue: “We enter the inner sanctum of Mme. Merlot Larchevêque, and see tissues of the most exquisite hues, of the richest textures, and in an unprecedented variety, thrown round in the greatest profusion.” Her address was identified alternatively on various labels as 21, 23, or 25 Boulevard des Capucines. No references could be found for the firm after the mid 1880s.

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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 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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