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Welcome to the Fashion History Museum of Cambridge, Ontario
The tiny Fashion History Museum opened in 2015

ISABEL B. SLONE May 18, 2016

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Cambridge, Ontario is the home of the mighty Grand River, a ripping Highland Games and…not much else. Halfway between rural and metropolis, it’s an awkward mashup of big box stores and idyllic nature trails, with highways dividing the three distinct townships — Galt, Preston and Hespeler — that were amalgamated in 1973 to form the town. It’s the kind of place where a Kentucky Fried Chicken resides a few short steps away from a gourmet vinegar shop. Somewhat inexplicably, it is also home to a tiny Fashion History Museum; one of the only independent museums of its kind in all of North America.

The Fashion History Museum opened in 2015 and resides downtown in a stately brick building covered in climbing vines, that used to be the town’s old post office. It is the brainchild of Jonathan Walford, a former curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, and his partner Kenn Norman. Sitting side-by-side, they appear almost identical; two husky gay men in their mid-50s with graying beards, blue button-down shirts and sensible shoes. Norman wears artsy John Lennon frames, while Walford sports a more classic pair of square Drew Carey-esque spectacles.

But as soon as they open their mouths the differences begin to emerge: Walford has a deep, throaty laugh that materializes frequently while Norman is much more soft-spoken and reserved; the brash confidence of the lion juxtaposing the quiet thoughtfulness of the lamb. Norman gleefully recounts the story of their meeting through a mutual friend who happened to be a Transylvanian dwarf. (“I had seen [Walford] in the newspaper the week before, so I knew who he was and thought he looked like an interesting person. I invited myself to go along with my friend to a garage sale he was having and we just clicked immediately…Meeting through a Transylvanian dwarf, I knew my life would never be the same.”) Together their differences are the special sauce that keep the Fashion History Museum running: Norman’s adeptness at crunching numbers provides Walford’s flyaway creativity a solid platform to stand on.

Walford’s interest in collecting began in the 1970s when he got his first job as a costumed guide at a local heritage museum in Burnaby, British Columbia. “The outfit they gave me was just a collarless shirt and I thought ‘I can do better than that.'” So Walford started venturing down to the hippie hangout of Gastown in Vancouver, mining dank old curio shops for clothing he could actually wear. Amid his purchases of stiff collars and knitted ties, he became enamored with the beauty and intricacy of the antique women’s clothes he happened upon. “The first thing I bought was a black net dress from the 1890s.”

Some of his best finds have been salvaged from the trash — literally. “I used to drive past a house in North Vancouver every day that had been boarded up for months,” says Walford. “One day I was driving by and noticed that the basement door had been kicked down, so I decided to take a look around. Inside there were garbage bags of clothes; somebody had obviously gone through them, there was clothing everywhere. But it was really great stuff, clothing from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. So I went to the corner store and bought a box of garbage bags and went back into the house and piled all of the clothing I could fit into the bags. Sometimes I worry, ‘maybe I stole them, I shouldn’t have done that.’ But a week later the house was torn down.”

Other items they scored from estate sales or online auctions, or were donated by friends and strangers who wanted to see their family heirlooms preserved long term. By the year 2004, Walford had amassed a basement full of 8,000 garments; including a hat worn by Julia Grant, wife of Ulysses Grant, a pair of shoes worn by Ginger Rogers and an old brown leather shoe that dates back to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam. “I think it’s likely the oldest European shoe existing that was ever worn in North America,” says Walford. “There are older Native shoes that have been found at burial sites but this would be the oldest European shoe.”

In the mid-1980s, the couple moved across the country from Vancouver to Toronto to kickstart their careers. Walford secured the position of Assistant Curator at Todmorden Mills Museum — a picturesque local heritage site which hosts many a summer wedding — but set his sights higher, on the Bata Shoe Museum, a massive glass-and-brick structure in downtown Toronto housing an impressive collection of both fashionably-and-historically-significant footwear.

“Every year I would send my resume off saying I’m interested in a position there. I didn’t think I would ever get a phone call back. Then in 1987 I got a phone call from Sonja Bata, who said ‘I’d like you to come in for an interview.’ I went in and she had every single resume in front of her, she’d kept all of them.” At the Bata Shoe Museum he tried to convince his superiors to bid on Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz and the boots Jimi Hendrix wore at Woodstock, but to no avail. He did manage to acquire some of Elton John’s platform shoes, whom his boss took to calling “John Elton.”

Shortly after Walford left the Bata Shoe Museum they became exhausted by the pace of the city and decided to move out to the country; more specifically, Fonthill, Ontario. “At the time there was this sort of Martha Stewart trend of leaving the city for the country and working by computer,” recounts Norman. They ran an eBay business buying and selling antique clothing, but after the market crashed, they reassessed and realized they were earning less than minimum wage.

In 2004, they decided to get serious and create a permanent home for their daunting collection. At the time, Norman was working as a professional life coach whose specialty was entrepreneurs who want to make their dreams come true; “We had a dream as well, so everything just clicked,” he says. In the decade between their Eureka moment to their metaphorical ribbon-cutting ceremony, they developed a business plan and created travelling exhibitions to test-drive the possibility for a more permanent museum.

While scouting locations, they looked at Toronto but found it was too expensive and had too much competition from other museums. Victoria, B.C. was another possible option, but they ended up settling on Cambridge, ON, where there are three international airports within 45 minutes driving distance and the combined population of neighbouring towns is close to a million people. “Geographically, we couldn’t have hit a better option,” says Walford.

The biggest difference between running the Bata Shoe Museum and the Fashion History Museum is the size of the chequebook. “People always make the assumption that in founding a museum we’re quite flush with cash,” says Norman. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. The museum tends to rely on donations of artifacts and has a very limited budget for operations.

Neither Walford nor Norman earn a salary for their work. Instead, they manage to subsist income from odd jobs; Norman takes on consulting gigs while Walford writes books, gives speeches and more surprisingly, appears as an expert witness in legal cases. “Most recently I did a trademark case about sneakers. I was hired to give a historical perspective on sneakers, and when the various design elements showed up on the sneaker. Somebody was trying to trademark them who didn’t have the rights.” While it’s the trademark cases that pay handsomely, Walford has also testified as an expert witness in criminal cases. “I was asked to identify boots from a corpse they found in a cold case. I found them in a Sears catalogue.”

At only 3,000 square feet, the Fashion History Museum is one of the smallest museums I’ve seen. It encompasses three rotating galleries; at the time of my visit there’s an exhibit of the groovy Biba-by-way-of-Canada designs of Canadian fashion legend Pat McDonough, an exhibit of glittering Mardi Gras shoes, and another of clothing worn in the presence of royalty. So far the museum has housed exhibitions on vintage Hollywood glamour and futuristic designs from the 1980s. The most striking piece currently on display is by far a blue silk taffeta gown dating back to 1860, originally owned by the daughter of a prosperous mill owner in St. Thomas, Ontario, who wore it to dance at a ball with Edward VII, when he was still the Prince of Wales. Upcoming exhibitions will catalog 200 years of wedding fashion, as well as a one-day exhibition of Dior clothing to celebrate the upcoming 70th anniversary of the storied fashion house in 2017.

One dress currently on display, a grey silk flapper number, revealed a prominent pit stain. When I ask Walford about the less-than-pristine condition of the clothing, he laughs. “That’s why it’s called the Fashion History Museum, not the Fashion Art Museum. One of the best donations we’ve received this year is a bunch of patched clothing worn by a woman who was going to Princeton in the early 70s. She had these worn-out jeans that were covered in patches and told us that there were only patches where she had worn holes. Then she passed me her jean jacket and said ‘I’ve never washed it.’ She was really proud of that,” he says. “I don’t know if the Met would acquire that.”

Walford and Norman view their museum as an economic driver, built to bring people into the area who wouldn’t normally set foot there. “We had a professor of fashion design who came from Latvia as part of her tour of North America. She went to see the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit at the Met and then made a special trip up here to Cambridge,” says Norman. Not to mention visitors from as far as Australia, Thailand and Argentina have come specifically to check them out. “To have a fashion museum is unusual. It states that this city is open to something different and is a great place to live,” says Norman. “We want the museum to be a tourist draw, a business draw, and a quality of life draw for the people in this area.”

The Kitchener-Waterloo region, of which Cambridge is a part, is heavily focused on the tech industry, but somewhat lacking in arts and culture. Nicknamed the “Silicon Valley of Canada,” it’s home to the University of Waterloo (aka Canada’s answer to MIT), plus Research in Motion, the fallen tech giants behind Blackberry, and dozens of other tech startups. The whole area is so wedded to their image as a tech hotbed that Cambridge recently renamed their public library the “Idea Exchange.”

“On a bad day, it feels like we opened up a double-headed snake sideshow on Route 66. ‘Come see the Fashion History Museum!’ Walford jokes. “But we’re fortunate we love what we do,” interjects Norman.

If Cambridge still seems like an odd choice to house one of the world’s only fashion history museums, it’s not quite as alien as it seems. The area itself is imbued with a rich history of garment manufacturing; Cambridge was once dubbed “the Manchester of Canada” due to its industrial roots. It was home to Dominion Textiles, which boasted the largest woolen mill in the British Empire in the 1920s and produced all the wool for the allied uniforms worn in World Wars I and II. “It may not be a high fashion thing, but around here, this is where all the foundation garments — the rubber galoshes, the brassieres, the sweaters and the underwear — were created,” says Walford.

The founders also like to think of their unique location as something of a boon. “When you go to Europe, there’ll be amazing museums in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly you’ll come across this incredible museum of fans or tin ware — all these crazy things — and they’re usually magical little museums,” says Walford. “We want to grow but what we need to be right now is a little jewel.”

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Canadian lingerie designer Claire Haddad 1924-2016 (primarily active 1964-1985)

Claire Haddad receiving her Cody award in 1967

Claire Haddad receiving her Coty award in 1967

Born Claire Margaret Bardwell in Toronto, Claire Haddad was  a pioneer of Canadian designer wear. She was born into the fashion trade – her parents, born in Syria and Lebanon, had started Bard’s, a company that made bathrobes and housecoats from terrycloth and Viyella – a cotton/wool blend.  After taking some pattern making and design courses, Claire went into the family business at about the same time she married Albert Haddad in 1944.

Varuchka modelling a Claire Haddad in the April 15 1966 edition of Vogue

Veruschka modelling a Claire Haddad in the April 15 1966 edition of Vogue

In 1964 Claire and Albert launched Claire Haddad Limited, their own lingerie company that specialized in peignoir sets. Their venture was an immediate success. Claire received six Edee (Canadian fashion) awards between 1965 and 1968, and an American Coty award in 1967. Her clothes were often reported in American fashion publications including Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue. Some of Claire’s clients included: Carol Burnett, Cyd Charisse, Arlene Dahl, Dinah Christie, Mary Tyler Moore, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Claire’s business peaked around the time she received an Order of Canada for her contribution to the Canadian fashion industry in 1979. Off-shore manufacturing was creating a competitive market in the early 1980s and obtaining quality materials and workmanship was becoming increasingly difficult. Rather than see the quality of her products suffer, Claire closed her business in 1985. For more information about Claire Haddad visit her website.

Albert Haddad predeceased Claire in 2014, Claire passed away May 17, 2016

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Shoe designer Joan Helpern 1926 – 2016 (active 1967 – 2000)

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David and Joan Helpern, 1978

Better known as the ‘Joan’ in Joan and David shoes, she and her husband’s eponymous shoe line was a top seller in the 1980s.

Born October 10, 1926 in New York, divorcee Joan married widower David Helpern in 1960. His Boston-based family operated clothing store chains including Suburban Shoe Stores. Although trained as a child psychologist, Joan soon realized she knew better what sort of footwear working women wanted in the 1960s than her husband, who was buying the inventory. Joan started designing at a small Boston shoe company “shoes for women who run through airports”, and in 1967 created her first design – a navy and white low-heeled Oxford.

With David managing the business and Joan as the creative director, they launched Joan and David, a line of shoes for working women in 1977. In 1982, David and Joan, a line of shoes for men, was launched. By 1987 when they opened Joan and David Too, a line of cheaper shoes, the company was reaching sales of 100 million dollars a year.

Joan received a Coty Fashion Award in 1978 and was named designer of the year by Footwear News in 1986. Despite meteoric success, the shoe industry was under a lot of strain in the 1990s with off-shore manufacturing competition. The strain lead to Joan and David separating in 1998, and the company sought bankruptcy protection in 2000. The company was sold for 16.8 million and relocated to Italy. David Helpern predeceased Joan, passing in 2012. Joan passed away May 8.

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Going to the Mall in 1989

The site Vintage Everyday posted a collection of photos taken by 20 year old photographer Michael Galinsky at malls across the U.S. in 1989. My how times have changed:

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Fashion in Song – Stitch

neema_singsGoing to the opera has always been a fashion-conscious event. However, I don’t believe fashion has ever been the subject of an opera. Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow inspired a hat style, and the Barber of Seville, was — a barber, but that is all I can think of. That is until I recently read about a contemporary ‘a cappella’ opera that was first performed in Toronto in 2008 called Stitch.

Composed by Julia Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton, the two created the three-woman opera set in a sweatshop. Technically, it’s not a cappella because sewing machines are used to provide percussive accompaniment, from the light whirring of a ‘Singer’ treadle  to the chugging groans of an industrial machine, as well, there are other sweatshop sounds like the ripping of cloth.

The Dora-nominated production (Canada’s Tony award), follows the inner thoughts of a worker while she does repetitive labour – often musing on the double entendre of sewing terms. For example ‘pinstripe is watching our logo’, is a song about a foreman scrutinizing the workers. It appears to have been last performed in 2010.

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Real to Reel – Costume design in Bridge of Spies

bridge-of-spies05We just saw Bridge of Spies last night and I was very impressed by the period realism of the costume design. The film takes place between 1957 and 1962, and although the film doesn’t promote the five year time frame (the children of the main character never age), there is a subtle shift in the costuming that reflects the real timeline while retaining an authentic aesthetic for the entire era. These subtle period films rarely get award nominations when they are well done because the costuming isn’t obvious, it’s just there — like Fred Astaire’s dancing – he makes it look easy.

bridge-of-spies-image02The costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who also did exceptional period costuming for the films Capote and Amelia, and more whimsical period styling of the films Moonrise Kingdom and the Adjustment Bureau, was asked about her work on Bridge of Spies, and its an interesting interview:

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Swastikas in fashion before 1933…

I have seen many garments and accessories sporting swastikas that have nothing to do with Nazism, from embroidery on Edwardian underwear to hat pins and buttons. The symbol was poisoned in 1933 when the Nazis came to power and its association spread well outside Germany. The Toronto Telegram reported on August 1, 1933 that 150 members of the Toronto Swastika Club, an anti-semitic association, marched to protest Jewish immigration and the use of public beaches by Jews — many members of the club wore shirts emblazoned with swastikas. Two weeks later this same group instigated a riot that has been remembered as the Christie Pits Riot, which lead to the banning of the Nazi flag in Toronto.

There is now a movement to reclaim the swastika symbol — maybe some day.

Interesting footnote sent in by a reader about the town of Swastika, Ontario.

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What surprises me…

Queen Maxima of the Netherlands was in Germany two days ago wearing this grey coat. Many noticed that some of the star designs on her coat resembled swastikas, which lead to criticism of the Queen. What I find surprising about this whole brouhaha is that:

  1. The crosses are largely made up from cheap hardware hooks and screws
  2. Judging by the picture that shows the edge of the coat sleeve, the coat is badly finished or shows considerable wear
  3. That a Dutch queen would wear something by a Danish designer (Claes Iversen) rather than something by one of the many talented Dutch designers
  4. That there are enough people in Germany to create a stink over an obviously unintentional oversight
  5. That there was an oversight – Come on! someone didn’t notice the resemblance?
  6. That people still confuse the Nazi swastika with the Buddhist symbol of rebirth/eternity
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Barbie’s Boyfriend Ken – The Vintage Years

Opening June 4 will be a special exhibition at the FHM. Ken collector James Fowler is curating an exhibition of Ken’s clothes from 1961 – 1967, presented in ‘tableau vivant’ themes. To whet the appetite, here’s Toy Story’s take on vintage Ken (and yes, all the clothes he models are based on his clothes made by Mattel):

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Lots of GREAT films about fashion

Maybe this is old news, but I have just run across two sources for fashion films. The first is a series of films done by the New York Times entitled Fashion Week: In the Studio Video Channel with three minute visits to the workplaces of contemporary designers like Thom Browne, Dries Van Noten, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Giambattista Valli, Vera Wang and more…

The other is the British Film Institute with a catalogue of historical films about textiles and fashions dating mostly from the 1940s – 1970s. Unfortunately, it is not available in Canada. I know there is a way of getting an ISP so you can view things restricted by location. I can’t figure out what’s the bloody point of putting stuff up on the net for free and then locking out certain locations. It’s like they don’t get the the whole point of the internet!

Here’s a clip from the 5 minute film about paper fashions (un)available on the BFI site.

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