Best Medieval shoe…ever

1300-1350 HaarlemHaarlem-bird-shoe-sideIt’s not often that such a great example of medieval clothing shows up. Most bits and pieces of shoes and clothing are retrieved from old latrines or burial sites and are not pretty to look at. This shoe, found in Haarlem, Netherlands, dates from the early 14th century, and exhibits some real whimsy and style. The side laced ‘bird’ shoe with decorative perforations was probably worn over brightly coloured hose, so it would have been quite eye catching.

Posted in Shoes | Tagged | 2 Comments

Back to the Eighties Fashion Film Festival

Every Friday night at 7 p.m. from August 14 – November 20, the Fashion History Museum (74 Queen Street East) is screening a free fashion film essential from the 1980s to accompany our feature exhibition ‘Back to the Eighties’. The series is made possible by a grant from the Cambridge & North Dumfries Community Foundation. We have already screened Can’t Stop the Music (1980), and Pretty in Pink (1985) – coming up are:

August 28 – Mannequin (1987)

UnknownKim Cattrall plays a blond-haired ancient Egyptian princess who is cursed to live out her life as a mannequin until true love comes along. Fast Forward to Wannamaker’s department store in 1987 Philadelphia, and the curse may be lifted forever.

Comedy (mild expletives, suggestive scenes)



September 4 – True Stories (1986)

Unknown-1Various quirky characters are visited in this mockumentary of a Texas town’s sesquicentennial celebrations. One of the most bizarre mall fashion shows ever! David Byrne of Talking Heads is the narrator.

Musical comedy



September 11 – Flashdance (1983)

Unknown-2Jennifer Beals plays a Pittsburgh welder by day and exotic dancer by night, who finds love, and auditions for a ballet company. The dancing sequences save this film, and the fad for cutting out the necklines of sweatshirts started here.

Romance (expletives, suggestive scenes)



September 18 – Earth Girls are Easy (1989)

Unknown-3Jeff Goldblum and Gina Davis star in this story of three hirsute aliens who splash down in an L.A. swimming pool, get a make over, fall in love and have an adventure. Fun musical sequences include ‘Cause I’m a Blonde’, and ‘Brand New You’.

Musical comedy (expletives, comedic suggestive scenes)



September 25 – Valley Girl (1983)

Unknown-4Two worlds totally collide when a grody Hollywood punk rocker (played by Nicholas Cage) falls for a bitchin’ mall rat from the valley.

Romance (expletives, nudity, suggestive scenes)




October 2 – Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985)

Unknown-5Classic teen flick that is better than most, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt star in a tale of two girls who share a passion for dancing and want to win a contest to become regular dancers on a television dance show.

Romance/Musical comedy



October 9 – Starstruck (1982)

Unknown-6Australian film by Gillian Armstrong about a New Wave wannabe singing star who tries to make it big in time to save her family’s business.

Musical Comedy (expletives)


October 16 – Slaves of New York (1989)

Unknown-7Amusing tale of Manhattan gallery openings, fashion shows, and trendy bars filled with wannabe artists and one hat designer, played by Bernadette Peters, who is looking for her big break. A Stephen Sprouse fashion show is featured.

Comedy (expletives)



October 23 – Where the Heart Is (1989)

Unknown-8Dabney Coleman plays a conservative father who forces his artistic adult children to make it on their own. The tables turn in the volatile economy of the 1980s and the children end up taking in their parents. The film ends with a fashion show finale!

Comedy (expletives, nudity)



October 30 – Xanadu (1980)

imagesFantasy musical filmed during the winter of 1979/80 about a struggling graphic artist who opens a roller derby with the help of a Greek muse, played by Olivia Newton John, and Gene Kelly. It’s so bad its good. Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies) for bad films.

Musical fantasy comedy (two mild expletives)


November 6 – Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Unknown-9A bored housewife is mistaken for a punker wanted by the mob. This is probably Madonna’s best role.

Comedy (expletives)




November 13 – Troop Beverly Hills (1989)

Unknown-10Shelly Long plays a Beverly Hills housewife in the middle of a divorce when she finds focus in her life by becoming the den mother of her daughter’s Wilderness Girl troop and gives the organization a makeover in the process.




November 20 – Ruthless People (1986)

Unknown-11Bette Midler is held captive as the wife of a manufacturer who steals the idea for lycra miniskirts from a young designer.

Comedy (many expletives, brief nudity, suggestive scenes)



Posted in Fashion History Museum, film costuming | Tagged | Leave a comment

Back to the Eighties and yes, we ARE open!

Everyone keeps asking when the Fashion History Museum will have its grand opening… We actually are open but it was very quiet – no fanfare, we just unlocked the front door. The main reason we chose to not tell anybody that we are now open is because the road in front of the museum is being ripped up and redone this summer, from sewer pipes to lamp standards and accessing the museum isn’t the easiest. However, despite our best efforts to keep the museum a secret we have already welcomed over 1,500 visitors from as far away as Romania and Australia since moving into the former old post office building.


View of Back to the Eighties – Romance and Innovation

There are plans for a more formal launch and marketing campaign once the roadwork is complete this fall, but in the meantime we are open Wednesday – Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

We have three galleries: the first currently features treasures from the collection. Next year we have plans for three exhibitions in this space: ‘To Meet the Queen’ – what to wear when meeting royalty, ‘Ken’ – the fashions of Barbie’s boyfriend 1961-1968, and ‘Wild and Rare’ – endangered species and fashion. Gallery two is currently featuring ‘Back to the Eighties’ – a retrospective of the decade’s fashions. Next year we will be starting with a retrospective of the Toronto fashion designer Pat McDonagh, followed by ‘Tying the Knot’ – 150 years of wedding fashions. Gallery three is for two dimensional exhibitions including contemporary artist and photography shows with a fashion theme. The exhibition schedule for this space is less formal and changes frequently. Currently we have a photographic exhibition ‘Punks and Posers’ – portraits from London and New York in the 1980s.

We have also launched a Fashion in Film series to accompany the 1980s theme. Every Friday night at 7 p.m. we screen a fashion film essential from the decade. See the next post for coming films.

Posted in Fashion History Museum, Museum Exhibitions | Tagged | Leave a comment

Canadian Fashion Connection – Gordon MacKay Co., Ltd.

Women's Swimwear from the 1922 Gordon MacKay Co. Ltd. Wholesale catalogue, Toronto

Women’s ‘Sunnyside’ brand swimwear from the 1922 Gordon MacKay Co. Ltd. Wholesale catalogue, Toronto

John Gordon immigrated to Canada from Scotland at the age of 13 with his family in 1841. After his father died in 1851 John and his family moved to the city of Hamilton, Canada West, where they would be nearer his uncle Donald Mackay. In 1855 John and Donald formed’ Gordon and Mackay’, a wholesale dry goods business. In 1859 the company moved to Toronto, first locating at Wellington Street East and later at the corner of Bay and Front Streets.

Due to the increased expense of procuring cotton goods after the start of the American Civil War in 1860, they bought out a small cotton mill in Merriton (now a part of St. Catharines) and expanded the plant, renaming it Lybster Mills. The mill and the company grew slowly but steadily, weathering the economic depressions of the 1870s and 1890s.

Smith's of Windsor, one of Gordon MacKay's retail stores, c. 1928

Smith’s of Windsor, one of Gordon MacKay’s retail stores, c. 1928

In 1899, the Company was incorporated as Gordon Mackay Company Limited, but five years later, the great fire of 1904 in Toronto destroyed the Gordon Mackay warehouse. After rebuilding, the company expanded into retailing, acquiring their first store in 1911. At that time, the Puritan brand of women’s garments and underwear was Gordon MacKay’s leading product line. By 1922 ‘Gordon’ was the standard name used for most of their product lines, from gloves to men’s ties and shirts; men’s work-wear dungarees and boiler suits were sold under the brand name ‘Mackay’s Mechanic’; women’s and girl’s dresses were sold under the brand name ’Ruth Gordon’ (no relation to the actress); knitted mitts were sold under the trademark of ‘Snow-King’; yarns under the trademark of ‘Granny’s Own’, Knitted bathing suits were sold under the name ‘Sunnyside’, after a famous beach in Toronto, and their hosiery was sold under a variety of brand names including: ‘Puritan Maid’, ‘Big Chief’, ‘Black Beauty’, ‘Rough & Tumble’, ‘Bonnie-Tot’, ‘Little Nell’, and ‘Schoolville’.

Over the next 50 years the company shifted from wholesale to retail, acquiring independent department stores and clothiers, such as the Walker department store in Galt, and Smith’s of Windsor. By the early 1960s Gordon Mackay was only manufacturing for their own stores, all of which gradually closed over the next two decades.

Online catalogues from Gordon MacKay Co., Ltd.: 1922c. 1909c. 1907

Posted in Canadian dress | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Glossary – Brand Generics

220px-Windbreaker-ad-1940Fashion often borrows brand names for generic use:

A ‘Onesie’ is an infant bodysuit made by Gerber; ‘Chucks’ are basketball sneakers first made by Converse in 1932; A ‘Windbreaker’ is a summer-weight jacket made by the Rissman company of Chicago; A ‘Zipper’ (now considered a generic name through common usage) is a slide fastener originally named by B.F. Goodrich in 1923; and a ‘Stetson’ is a cowboy hat that was developed by the Stetson hat company in the late 19th century.

Materials used in fashion are also sometimes brand names used generically such as: ‘Lycra’, ‘Velcro’, and ‘Plexiglass’. And if you take your clothes to the ‘Laundromat’ or ‘Launderette’ you are cleaning your clothes in a brand name self-service laundry.

Posted in Glossary | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Arnold Scaasi (1930-2015)

Coat by Arnold Scaasi, c. 1964

Evening coat by Arnold Scaasi, c. 1964

Arnold Isaacs was born May 8, 1930 in Montreal. Although he was the son of a furrier, he attributed his interest in becoming a fashion designer to his Chanel and Schiaparelli wearing aunt Ida. Arnold studied fashion at the Cotnoir-Capponi School of Design in Montreal, spending his last year at the Chambre Syndicale in Paris before apprenticing at Paquin. He then went to the U.S. where he worked for Charles James and took designing jobs on the side.

Working on his own by 1956, he reversed the letters in his last name from the Jewish garment district sounding last name of Isaacs into the chic Italian-sounding last name of Scaasi. Two years later, he received a Coty Award for achievement in creative design.

Matching evening dress in reverse colours, c. 1964

Matching evening dress in reverse colours, c. 1964

In July 1962 Scaasi met his life partner Parker Ladd in Central Park, although Scaasi often altered the story by saying they met at a party. They were often a part of the social circuit in New York, as well as Palm Beach and Capri where Scaasi met and nurtured his client list. Over the years Scaasi dressed six first ladies: Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Hilary Clinton and Barbara and Laura Bush. He also made clothes for Barbra Striesand, Joan Rivers, Barbara Walters, Mitzi Gaynor, as well as a long list of New York and Washington socialites. Although Scaasi counted many of his clients as friends, he also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way due to his pushy, pompous, and temperamental personality.

In 1964, when most couturiers were focusing on ready-to-wear to make ends meet, Scaasi ceased his off-the-rack line to focus on custom work, although he restarted a ready-to-wear line in the 1980s. In 2009 Scaasi sold off his archives, offering several sample garments from his 1980s ready to wear line to museums across the U.S. and Canada.

Scaasi died in New York of cardiac arrest August 5.

Posted in Canadian dress, Designers/Couturiers | Tagged | Leave a comment

Big hair is racist?

Boston-MFA-racismI missed this story when it was in the news a month ago… The Boston Museum of Fine Arts had an interactive display where you could try on a reproduction of the kimono that appears in Monet’s 1875 picture ‘La Japonaise’, until some overly-sensitive politically correct watchdogs decided to protest in the galleries because they thought the activity was racist… HUH? It certainly can’t be the act of wearing a kimono, since around the time this painting was done by Monet, Japanese women were beginning to appropriate Western dress – and I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that was a form of Occidental racism.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts cancelled the interactive display and APOLOGIZED to anyone who was offended. However, nobody should have, or needed to, apologize for Monet’s painting.

E7714CR-d1The match that ignited this brouhaha was an incorrectly worded interpretation by the curator who identified the model as Camille, Monet’s wife, and suggested she is wearing a blonde wig to “emphasize her Western identity”. Suddenly the painting became a statement about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and put the image into a category of racist art alongside minstrel shows. This is bullshit. Camille is likely wearing her own hair, not a wig, in a manner that could be considered Japanese, but that was a la mode in the early 1870s. Even if it wasn’t in fashion, putting her hair up in a Japanese manner is not the same as smearing burnt cork onto your face for a blackface routine.


Big Hairstyles in 1875


Japanese women in Western dress, c. 1887 – an act of Occidental racism?

Most hairstyles of the early-mid 1870s were influenced by Japanese and 18th century French styles of hair dressing – BIG hair was in. In fact everything Japanese was in fashion at the time – the entire late 19th century (and much of the early 20th century) was heavily influenced by Japanese styling, decorative motifs and colour palettes. Despite what any overly-sensitive protestor wants to whinge about, fashion is not about racism, it is about inspiration and appropriation. Fashion has historically looked to ethnographic dress: kimonos, saris, turbans, moccasins, sarongs, dirndls, clogs, parkas, and even tattoos for style inspiration in the past and it will continue to do so in the future.

Posted in Beauty & Cosmetics, Clothing customs, Fashion myths, Museum Exhibitions | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Georgette Orski

This milliner really is obscure because I have never heard of her and everyone I have asked has never heard of her either. The information I found about her was from a newspaper article in the Globe and Mail dated March 27, 1969 that was on the back of a section that had been saved for another reason. Assuming the newspaper got the facts right, here is an outline of Orski’s career:

English actress Margaret Leighton, possibly wearing an Orski hat!

English actress Margaret Leighton, possibly wearing an Orski hat

Born in Belgium in 1915, Goergette Orski married and moved to London and in 1938 began making hats from her Georgian era home in Knightsbridge. Her husband’s connections brought her a number of society women as clients. Her most famous including Mary, Duchess of Devonshire, English actress Margaret Leighton, and French actress Francoise Rozay.

Orski was kept especially busy at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1953. Alongside her increased orders for original hats, she was also kept busy making dozens of velvet and ermine caps worn by the peerage under their coronets for the event. Many of the women attending the coronation left their jewellery with her for safekeeping until they arrived the morning of the extravaganza to dress for the event. Orski, tried to sleep with the jewellery under her mattress for safekeeping, but her fear of being burglarized robbed her of any sleep that night.

French actress Francoise Rozay, possibly wearing an Orski hat

French actress Francoise Rozay, possibly wearing an Orski hat

In 1967 her daughter married and moved to Toronto, and Georgette closed her business and followed along with her nineteen year old son Jean-Michel. She quickly found work making custom (mostly fur) hats for Holt Renfrew and Creeds, and when this article appeared in March 1969, she was mounting a show for the Save the Children Fund. Hat fashion shows at these types of events brought Orski private clients.

As hats fell from fashion in the 1970s, Orski retired from the millinery business. Georgette Orski passed away in 1981.

Posted in millinery, Obscurier Couturiers | Tagged | Leave a comment

Designer Pets: Lucile and Mahmud

I just read this great story on Randy Bryan Bigham’s facebook page and am reposting it in his words:


Here’s LDG with her heroic pup in 1916 soon after their reunion. He looks a little tired!

A DOG HERO STORY: The early 1900s designer Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) had a Chow named Mahmud who was a WWI veteran. She left him with her chauffeur in 1914 when she gave over her Paris dress salon to the Red Cross. The chauffeur became an ambulance driver and Mahmud a depot mascot, sitting beside him and other drivers on their missions to the war zone to bring back wounded soldiers. On one trip the following year, the ambulance was fired on by the Germans and the driver was injured but Mahmud, also injured, limped all the way back, over many miles, to Paris to get help. He later rejoined his mistress in New York and accompanied her on a vaudeville fashion show tour, raising funds for the Secours Franco-American Pour la France Devastee which aided refugees.


Mahmud before the war, hanging out with one of Lucile’s beautiful models for a fashion spread in Les Modes magazine

Mahmud so missed his buddy, the chauffeur, who was disabled from the accident, (that) when Lucile came back to Paris after the war, she hired the man as a dog walker, and they all were together until he passed away in her shop… at the ripe old age of 12 in 1922, the news rated a front page obituary in the London Daily Telegraph!

Thanks Randy for the great story!

Posted in Designers/Couturiers | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Fred Slatten (1922 – 2015)

fullThere was a wave of innovative shoe designers who all opened their businesses in about 1970. In London it was Terry de Havilland, in Vancouver it was Peter Fox and John Fluevog, in Toronto it was Master John, and in Los Angeles it was Fred Slatten. Born 10 October 1922 in Kansas City Missouri, Slatten began selling shoes while he was still attending college. In the late 1940s he moved to California and began working as a shoe buyer for Bullocks department stores. Eventually he ended up in the wholesale shoe business, and in 1970 Fred opened his Los Angeles shop on Santa Monica Boulevard near San Vicente.

6073fe3ff2e59bd4961531572a63431aWhen platforms became popular in the early 1970s, Slatten became famous for his towering, eccentric styles. Celebrities came to buy: Liberace, Cher, Elton John, and Sally Struthers who wore her Slatten platforms on All in the Family. Slatten’s boots, shoes and sandals were embellished by artists who hand-painted, decoupaged, gold leafed, airbrushed, and bedazzled the platform soles for their clients, often in styles inspired by ‘Old Hollywood’. Slatten also took credit for creating the apocryphal live goldfish swimming in a see-through platform.

His shop window was known for the outrageous shoes revolving on mirrored turntables, illuminated by disco balls. When platforms fell from fashion Slatten then became known for his high heel styles instead. Slatten closed his shop in 1992, when he turned 70, and died on July 1 at the age of 92.

Posted in Shoes | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments