Fashioning Canada Since 1867 article

The latest article about Fashioning Canada Since 1867:

150 years of Canadian fashions – Bill Doucet | Cambridge Times

While Canada’s contribution to fashion may be somewhat underappreciated, there are garments that are internationally known.

Take for instance a Russian group that came to the Fashion History Museum in Hespeler to see the newest exhibition, Fashioning Canada Since 1867, which runs until Dec. 17 to coincide with the country’s 150th birthday.

As museum curator Jonathan Walford tells it, the visitors spoke very little English, but as they were mulling over the works of Canadian designers and some of the more well known apparel, they caught sight of something very Canadian — the tartan jacket. They pointed to the jacket and, with a thick Russian accent, said, “Don Cherry”.

Though the co-host of CBC’s Coach’s Corner is known for his fashion choices, the fact people who likely live outside the country know the tartan coat speaks volumes about Canada’s fashion reach, said Walford.

So much so, the exhibit has been divided into four sections to give the historical significance its due. The first being some of Canada’s most notable homegrown contributions. Along with the tartan coat is native wear, apparel from the Rio Olympics and two of the country’s greatest fashion exports, the Canada Goose jacket and Cowichan sweater.

The Cowichan sweater, though most people aren’t familiar with the proper name, came about in dialogue between the Salish natives in Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and early European settlers, who taught the natives to knit. The sweaters have become cold weather fashion in Europe and the U.S. It also became part of Jeff Bridges “The Dude” character in The Big Lebowski.

Walford noted the common theme through many of the recognizable garments. “They’re almost all winter,” he said with a laugh, “and almost all them have some connection to native culture as well because Canada did rely so much on native experience to learn how to dress in the climate. “We wanted to try and define what was a Canadian identity through dress, that was one big part of the exhibition.”

One of the items in the exhibition is also a misnomer. The Canadian tuxedo — a denim jacket with denim pants — was not in fact Canadian, but pegged that way after a fishing trip to the country by Bing Crosby in 1951.

The movie star was wearing the outfit when he tried to get a reservation at a hotel and was denied access because of his wardrobe. That, of course, made the news. A few months later, Crosby was at a rodeo in Nevada and was presented with a denim tuxedo with a patch inside. Walford recited the patch basically said, “notice to hoteliers everywhere, if you’re wearing this jacket you are dressed appropriate for any occasion and hotel as well.” From that point, it was known as the Canadian tuxedo.

The exhibition moves on to fashion and the development of the industry in Canada, which sees more formal wear come into play. The Canadian industry emerged after the Second World War and evolved until it hit a boom in the late 1960s.

“That kind of development of the Canadian version of fashion, which really was pretty much a reflection of what was going on everywhere else. The same thing happened in the United States as well. They’re essentially making a local version of what is high fashion in Paris or London,” Walford said.

Of course, the section carries the famous chapeau — a grey fedora with a silk band around the top — that coined a famous hockey phrase. When Chicago Blackhawks winger Alex Kaleta came to Toronto in 1946 for a game against the Maple Leafs, he went into a local haberdashery owned by Sammy Taft.

Kaleta eyed the hat but didn’t have enough money for it as he had just returned from serving in the war. Taft cut him a deal: if he could score three goals that night he could have the hat for free. Kaleta potted four in a 6-5 loss, but got the free “hat” for his “trick”.

A look at Canada’s fashion would be remiss without mentioning some of the designers themselves and their work, which is also on display — Wayne Clark, Marilyn Brooks, Brian Bailey and Christopher Bates.

Clark and Brooks, veterans of the industry, enjoyed their success in Canada until the abolishment of tariffs on global trade in the 1990s practically forced them to work overseas. “We’re in direct competition with Asia and other parts of the world where labour is so much cheaper that things are no longer made in Canada,” Walford said. “So there really isn’t much of a Canadian fashion industry anymore, but there still is a Canadian pool of talent. So a lot of Canadian designers go abroad and you end up with some really well-known Canadians working out of London and Milan and New York.”

The final part of the exhibition looks at the top 10 contributions Canada has made to fashion, which includes the protective cup jockstrap, the hockey mask, MAC Cosmetics, Elizabeth Arden (born in Canada), false eyelashes, the invention of Botox and supermodel Linda Evangelista, from St. Catharines.

One of the crazier items invented by a Canadian, who had the patent taken by his boss, never earned a penny for the creator. While working at a wire company in the U.S. — which manufactured lampshades and the like — Albert J. Parkhouse didn’t have a hook to hang his coat in the company coatroom. He grabbed a piece of wire and bent in two places and made a hook at the top for the first wire coat hanger.

That tidbit is only surpassed by the finale to the exhibition — a tea gown created by Lady Duff Gordon, who designed under her professional name, Lucile. She and her husband survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 in one of the emptiest lifeboats. His reputation was destroyed as people believe he paid off the sailors not to go back and pick up survivors in the water. Her reputation soared, however, as everyone wanted a dress from a survivor.

So far, the exhibition has received a lot of attention, though Walford admits he was initially hesitant about the theme he picked. “I was a little bit nervous when I was putting this together because I thought is there going to be interest for this out there. Then, after I did more research and more writing I thought, yeah, it will because it really is about us as a nation,” he said.

“I think what people are surprised at is how interesting the show is. A lot of people don’t really know what Canadian clothing is and what Canadian fashion is, you don’t really have an image in your mind until you come into the exhibition and you look and go, ‘OK, I get that’. Just because it’s familiar, you may not see it because you have to step back from it.”

He added what makes Canadian fashion so intriguing is that it is always renewing itself. “With every immigration wave there’s another element brought into Canada and it eventually worms its way into the entire fabric of the nation,” Walford said. “You do find little bits of it here and there.”

“We’re changing and constantly growing; it’s not stagnant. We don’t have a traditional costume like a European country with something that was invented 200 years ago. Our costume is still happening, it’s still developing and changing.”

The cost of the entry into the fashion museum for Fashioning Canada Since 1867 is $5, while children age 12 and younger are free. Beginning June 9, and running throughout the summer, admission is free on Fridays between 5 and 7 p.m. to coincide with Hespeler Village Market.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.

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