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.”