Acquiring Contemporary Clothing: Weston Wear, c. 2010

When collecting fashions from the recent past for the future, it can be a challenge to make sound decisions without the perspective of time that allows us to see the past more clearly. Since the museum was founded in 2004 we have acquired a mix of contemporary pieces ranging from  Alexander McQueen to a pair of Crocs.

A recent donation included a brown stretchy nylon mesh dress labelled Weston Wear. The dress is from c. 2010, and is similar to the reddish dress pictured at left from the blog missdisgrace, but with long sleeves. After doing some research on the label, I decided we will accession it into the collection – primarily because it represents the shift in retailing that has occurred since the turn of the millenium.

Weston Wear was founded in San Francisco by Julienne Weston in 1980. She launched a line of stretchy cotton/Lycra separates and in the 1990s started working with nylon mesh, the material from which our dress is made. When worn with Spanx, these dresses instantly made you look like you had lost ten pounds — a winner with most women. Weston Wear was worn by Madonna, and sold through Nordstrom’s, Macy’s and Anthropologie, as well as through her own boutique in the Mission district of San Francisco, not far from where her clothes were made. By 2010, around the time our dress was made, sales were mounting to 10 million per year, and were being carried in stores internationally.

But in 2017 Julienne Weston shuttered her business, citing a list of issues from e-commerce competition, to undisclosed internal reasons. “You could see it coming from 20 years ago” she said, regarding consumer trends. “I just took it as far as it could go.”

Julienne Weston in 2009

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Mary Humphries, 1926 – 2018

I just read that Canadian fibre/fabric specialist and author Mary Humphries passed away February 22 at the age of 92.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, she grew up in Thornhill, Ontario, and received her MA from University College, University of Toronto. After marrying Michael Humphries in 1949, Mary became a specialist in textile and dye chemistry for Croy Knitting Mills. She also broadcast a weekly consumer program on CBC Radio in the 1960s.

Mary taught textile science at Seneca College in Toronto from its founding until she retired in the early 90s. During her tenure as a teacher, she developed a definitive book on fibre identification, that she self published many times (due to demand). The FHM has a first edition in its library, complete with all the swatches of material she attached to each fibre definition. Mary was also the editor of the Costume Society of Ontario’s newsletter for nearly two decades, until she retired and moved out to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia over a decade ago.

We are sorry to lose Mary who was always so supportive of the Fashion History Museum.

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Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Carole Little

Jacket by Carole Little, late 1990s

Mary Carole Lenski was born September 27, 1934. After studying fashion design in Los Angeles, she started her fashion career as a secretary at swimsuit maker Rose Marie Reid. She married her boss, James Little and by the early 1970s Carole was designing hot pants for junior sportswear manufacturer Jasper Brothers.

In 1974 she struck out on her own with Leonard Rabinowitz, her division manager from Jasper who bankrolled the venture with a $20,000 loan from his parents. The company initially sold clothing under the label Saint Tropez West.

May 12, 1975

Little had noticed how young Parisian women were so adept at putting together chic outfits on limited budgets. In 1993 Little reminisced to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch how “Instead of all these throwaway clothes, they would wear a very expensive designer blouse and jeans, the next day, it would be the same blouse with different accessories.”

Little felt American women could benefit from using separates for creating different looks. Her first hit design was a crepe de Chine shirt with epaulets and front pockets. It became a huge hit after Lauren Hutton wore the blouse on the cover of the May 12, 1975 edition of People magazine.

In 1979, Little and Rabinowitz married, and the company was booming. The clothes were selling through high end department stores like Bloomingdales and Saks, alongside labels like Jones New York and Liz Claiborne. Sales peaked in 1994 at 375 million — then everything started going wrong.

Carole Little, c. 1989

Department stores were in trouble and cutting back on the number of vendors. Little had to broaden her line to service more stores, not just the upscale locations. That meant diluting their designer image with mid-market saleables. Profit margins shrank, and Little’s company had to pay back markdown costs to department stores for merchandise sold below expected retail.

Around this same time, two of the company’s top executives, the Vice President, and Chief Financial Officer, were gunned down in separate instances – the motives presumably related to subcontractor cutbacks by the company.

In 2001 Little and Rabinowitz divorced, and the following year, the company was sold to Cherokee Inc. The company still exists, selling through department stores, and online.
Carole Little passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 80.

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Fashion in Song – Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy (1950)

The Chatanooga Shoe Shine Boy by Red Foley was at the top of charts in 1950, and was later covered by other artists, including Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, and Bing Crosby.

Have you ever passed the corner of Fourth and Grand
Where a little ball of rhythm has a shoeshine stand?
People gather ’round and they clap their hands,
He’s a great big bundle of joy–
He pops a boogie woogie rag,
The Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.

He charges you a nickel just to shine one shoe.
He makes the oldest kind of leather look like new.
You feel as tho’ you want to dance when he gets thru.
He’s a great big bundle of joy–
He pops a boogie woogie rag,
The Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.

It’s a wonder that the rag don’t tear the way he makes it pop
You ought to see him fan the air, with his hoppity hippity hippity hoppity hoppity hippity hop.

He opens up for bus’ness when the clock strikes nine,
He likes to get ’em early when they’re feelin’ fine.
Ev’rybody gets a little rise and shine
With the great big bundle of joy.
He pops a boogie woogie rag,
The Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy…
The Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy!

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Canadian Fashion Connection – H. V. Cowie Company Ltd.

The H.V. Cowie Company Limited was founded by 45 year old Hedley Vicars Cowie on March 6, 1922. The company specialized in manufacturing and importing menswear (dress pants, blazers, dressing gowns, smoking jackets, neckwear, scarves…) Initially located at 22 Front Street in Toronto,  the company later moved to 43 Sheppard Avenue East.

One of H. V. Cowie’s more popular imports were Dunlop Slacks, made in England, and sold with the promise they were “Anatomically correct in the comfort zone”.

On June 13, 1945, a Canadian trademark was registered by H. V. Cowie for ‘Bonnington’ (Bonnington House, Lansing, Toronto). The Bonnington trademark was abandoned in 1990. Another trademark for ‘San Remo’ was registered June 10, 1966 but not renewed in 1981.

After Hedley Cowie’s death in 1965, the company went into decline. The Sheppard Avenue sewing plant was sold off in 1967, although the company remained in existence (perhaps just as an importer?) until dissolution on 1 July, 2008.

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Canadian Fashion Connection – Photographer William Notman

Some of the earliest fashionable images of Canadians come from photographs taken by William Notman’s studios. Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1826 and became a partner in his father’s wholesale woollen cloth business in 1851. In 1856 he was caught ‘cooking the books’ and fled to Canada where he worked with Ogilvy & Lewis, a Montreal wholesale dry-goods merchant.

In November 1856, Notman opened a photography studio to supplement his income during the winter months when shipping was halted. He quickly built an impressive clientele drawn from Montreal society, and in 1860 presented an album of photographs of Montreal to the Prince of Wales during his famous tour of Canada. The following year he received a royal warrant from Queen Victoria.

In 1866, Notman opened a studio in Boston, and in 1868, studios were added in Ottawa and Toronto (the Toronto studio in partnership with employee John A. Fraser.) A studio in Halifax followed in 1869, St. John, N.B. in 1872, and Albany, New York in 1877. More American studios were later added in Newport, R.I., Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn.

Notman’s son William M. joined the business in 1873 and when he became a partner in 1882, the company’s name was changed to William Notman & Son. In 1883, John Fraser bought out Notman’s share of the Toronto studio and renamed his firm Fraser & Sons. Fraser then moved to Boston, leaving his sons to run the business, which they sold in 1886.

In 1891 William Notman & Son opened a studio on Madison Avenue in New York a few months before William Notman died from pneumonia. William M. ran the business until his own death from cancer in 1913. The business then passed to William’s younger brother, Charles who resold the business to a film company in 1935. Upon Charles’ death in 1955, the Notman archives were donated to Montreal’s McGill University.

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Fashion and Humour

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Canadian Fashion Connection – Lou Myles

Lou Myles in 2003, photo by Hans Deryk/ Toronto Star

Luigi Cocomile was born in 1928, a month after Joseph and Lucetta Cocomile (an itinerant shoemaker and his wife), immigrated from Calabria, Italy to Toronto, Canada. The family struggled financially and Luigi dropped out of school after grade 8, earning a living at a factory – or so his parents thought. Luigi’s first career was as a bookie and gambler, and he did well, until one night in 1956 when he lost every penny he had. Luigi turned to a more reputable career, which he found in the field of men’s fashion. He worked his way up at the Toronto men’s chain store Dunn’s, from salesman to assistant buyer to store manager. Then, on March 10, 1960, Luigi opened his own menswear shop on Yonge street under his new name Lou Myles.

In 1962 Myles moved to 363 Yonge Street, and bought the building in 1964. He remained at the same location until the 1980s when he relocated to Yorkville. In the 1990s he again relocated, this time to Vaughan, in north Toronto.

Myles success was based on his use of fine Italian cloth, and his ability to slenderize his clients by the cut of his trousers and jacket. In 1968, Myles opened his own factory on the edge of Toronto where he employed 80 tailors and seamsters who made 250 suits per week to supply his shop as well as for retailers who carried the Lou Myles brand of ready-made suits. By the 1970s he had opened shops from Vancouver to New York, although he never advertised.

Myles’ client list included an impressive number of celebrities: Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Pierre Trudeau, Tony Bennett, Laurence Olivier, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Anka, Yogi Berra, Tony Curtis, Kobe Bryant, The Four Tops, The Beatles, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Boby Orr, Richard Harris, Telly Savalas (40 suits were made for his Kojak character), even the gangster John Gotti (who was reportedly buried in a Lou Myles suit.)

The company remains in business, although Luigi (Lou) passed away on July 9, 2015.

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Judith Leiber, 1921 – 2018

Handbag designer Judith Leiber passed away last Saturday at the age of 97, a few hours after her artist husband of 72 years Gerson Leiber. Both died of heart attacks.

Born Judith Marianne Peto in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1921, she apprenticed at an artisan guild learning every aspect of how to make handbags. During World War II she and her family sewed army uniforms, escaping the fate of many Hungarian Jews.

After the war, Judith began making handbags from whatever materials she could find, selling them to American soldiers stationed in Budapest. It was while selling her purses that she met Gerson Leiber, a sergeant in the Signal Corps. They married in 1946 and Judith emigrated to the U.S. as a war bride.

Judith Leiber worked at a number of handbag manufacturers until 1963 when they went out on their own, with Judith overseeing manufacturing and Gerson looking after the business. She received a Coty Fashion Award in 1973 and a Neiman Marcus award in 1980; in 1994 she was voted accessories designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).

Although Leiber bags came in many forms and materials, the company was best known for their small novelty-shaped metal bags covered with crystals.

The Leibers sold their business in 1993 to a British firm with Judith remaining as lead designer until 1997. In 2008 Gerson and Judith opened their own museum on their property in Springs, New York that features both Gerson’s art and Judith’s purses.

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Canadian Fashion Connection – Cover Girls

It could be argued that Canada’s first internationally famous models to appear on the cover of a magazine were the Dionne Quintuplets, whose images were used to promote a number of products in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Joanna Shimkus, Paris Vogue, April 1968

However, until the 1980s, few Canadian models worked outside the Canadian fashion industry and even fewer appeared on the cover of an international fashion magazine. Halifax born Joanna Shimkus was the first to appear on the cover of Paris Vogue a few times in 1968 and 1969. Montreal’s Dayle Haddon found success in the 1970s including several Paris Vogue covers, as well as the cover of 1973’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

Linda Evangelista, Vogue Italia, August 1991

As Canadian fashion became more international in the 1980s, so did the reputation of Canadian models. Scarborough’s 14 year old Monica Schnarre won the Ford Models ‘Supermodel of the World’ contest in 1986 and became the first Canadian model to appear on the cover of U.S. Vogue.

Since then, many Canadian-born models have appeared on the covers of some the most prestigious fashion magazines including American, Italian, and Paris Vogues, Harper’s Bazaar, L’Officiel, and Elle. The top three most popular Canadian cover models have been Shalom Harlow, Daria Webowy, and way out in the lead — Linda Evangelista, who appeared on the covers of nearly 700 magazines during her career which spanned mostly from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, but continues today.


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