PD Day in Toronto – Part One – The Aga Khan Museum

Yesterday started off with me cracking a tooth on a piece of 12 grain toast (so much for whole grains being good for you…) After a trip into Toronto for emergency dental work, we had the rest of the day to ourselves, so we decided to make the best of it while my face thawed.

View of the permanent collection gallery

Our first museum stop was the Aga Khan Museum. The Aga Khan is the latest addition to the Toronto museum scene and has been open almost four years. Despite best intentions, I had not made it in yet because the museum is far from our usual destination – downtown Toronto. It would take the best part of an hour to get there by public transit from downtown Toronto, and with Toronto’s traffic, nearly as much time by car. It is built on the site of the old Bata Shoe headquarters where I worked for seven years before the Bata Shoe Museum opened on Bloor street in 1995. Instead of the concrete internationalist style of the old Bata HQ, the Aga Kahn is a postmodern multi-facetted geometric edifice of white marble that would look at home in a sand-swept equatorial climate, but looks more like an oddly-shaped igloo in Canada. Inside, the building is impressive with black marble walls and decorative metal grid windows surrounding a courtyard where light creates playful shadows. However, trying to get into the building is a challenge.

Firstly, it is not clear which entrance you are supposed to use to get to the parking from the main road, and once you figure that out the signs say authorized parking  only. As I am not a staff member, visiting dignitary, or delivery person, I assumed I was not authorized but it turns out visitors are authorized (they really need to reword those signs.) After driving over some of the largest speed bumps this side of the border between North and South Korea, we paid $10.00 to park underground. Signs for the entrance directed visitors to the P2 level, but after walking the entire perimeter of the underground parking we discovered it was about 40 feet from where we had parked — it just doesn’t look like an entrance.

The entrance to the museum from P2

I was now annoyed, especially when I realized we would have to pay $40.00 on top of parking to get into the museum. However, my awful day began to thaw along with my jaw when we got to the counter and discovered that the museum was free after 4 p.m.on Wednesdays. I guess that is why the museum was also busy — in fact it was crowded.

The museum has three exhibition spaces. The first is a small gallery of Islamic pottery that was a gift to the museum by the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan on the condition the collection be displayed in the same manner as it had been in his home. The main gallery is a huge ‘L’-shaped contemporary space for the permanent collection’s overview exhibition of Islamic cultural material. Upstairs there is a duplicate of the main gallery for special exhibitions. Currently there is a loan display from Egypt about the World of the Fatimids.

The tilework panel above had a great story: The iconography is under debate but some feel it is the prophet Muhammad’s sandals depicted under a lamp, alluding to the concept of God being like a light shining in a niche.

Our museum experience was good – there were pop-up musicians every hour on the hour, the staff were super pleasant and helpful, and there was even a decent concession stand with tasty and affordable food. The main gallery with the overview of Islamic cultural material was excellent, albeit perhaps the labels were a little too academic for most museum visitors because of their use of undefined terms.

The show approaches the topic chronologically and comparatively, following the progress of Islam across the Middle East, into Europe and Asia. A colourful display of Turkomen garments are disappointingly barely identified amidst the academically described caligraphy-illuminated Qurans, lustreware pottery, and brassware.

Display of 19th and 20th century robes from Turkmenistan. The robe on the right is a chyrpy – a woman’s cloak with false sleeves

After a break, we tackled the upstairs special exhibition about the Fatimids (we had to take an elevator because we couldn’t find stairs.) The first part of the exhibition summed up the story very well, but by the time we got halfway through this large exhibition, everything began to look the same — more of what we had already seen downstairs and not as impressive in terms of artistry or condition. At this point we had been at the museum for two hours and fatigue was setting in, so we skimmed the rest of the exhibition then tried to watch a presentation that we couldn’t hear for the noise outside the viewing room, and left.

The museum building has some beautiful elements but it lacks some logic. While the courtyard is stunning and the black marble lower hall and bathrooms luxurious, access into the building, and from floor to floor, is not easy to figure out. Regardless, this is a museum to keep your eye on for special events, concerts and important travelling shows, but check to see when there are free days, because $50.00 is a lot of money for two to visit a three gallery, one topic boutique museum — at least it is to me.

…Part Two – Iris Van Herpen

The Collectors – a visit with Lizzie Bramlett

1960s/70s decorative clothes hangers – another one of Lizzie’s weaknesses…

Image of LIzzie Bramlett from her about page (the pics I took were all blurry…)

About 16 years ago I met Sharon Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bramlett online through the Vintage Fashion Guild, and I have been an avid follower of her posts and blog, The Vintage Traveller, ever since. Kenn and I were especially delighted to meet up with her in person for the first time last week on our quick trip down south to Asheville, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where we installed our Lucile dress at the Titanic Museum.

Looking at a Bonnie Cashin sketch that matches her Cashin suit – part of her collection’s catalogueing

After meeting at a restaurant for lunch we followed her to where she stores her collection — a ‘darling’ duplex cottage built in 1903 (darling is not a word I generally use, but there is no other word for the quaint southern charm of this little white wooden house.)

Upstairs, the racks are filled to capacity with riding habits, bicycling skirts, snappy suits and coats and sporty dresses; boxes are packed with woollen bathing suits and accessories.  She has assembled a tight collection of garments and accessories ranging from couture pieces to a selection of sportswear, both active and spectator, dating mostly from the 1870s to the 1970s. She is not apologetic for collecting what she likes – decorative hat boxes and hangers, 1920s/30s ensembles, disposition-printed 1950s skirts, and at least one example from couturiers and designers whose work she admires: Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Chanel…

Lizzie is a curator without a museum – her collection is meticulously tagged, bagged, photographed and recorded, with everything identified chronologically in a series of catalogues. Her memory snaps to attention when asked where something was found — a flea market in Savannah, eBay, the local thrift store… She remembers each piece like she acquired it yesterday.

Here, hanging on her racks and tucked away in boxes is a carefully curated exhibition that needs to be seen, and what better way than through a museum exhibition… hmm, sounds like an idea for the FHM!

I didn’t even notice she had a camera… but she snapped a shot as we started looking through one of her racks! https://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/a-visit-from-the-fashion-history-museum-guys/

The Devil Wears Bata — Sonja Bata 1926-2018

Nineteen years ago today I left the Bata Shoe Museum. The reasons I left came flooding back when I heard that Sonja Bata died two days ago at the age of 91.

Bata Shoe Museum, designed by Moriyama & Teshima, built 1994-1995

In 2006 I saw the movie The Devil Wears Prada – it was astonishingly close to my own experience of working at the Bata Shoe Museum. The movie about a young, energetic, naive assistant to an overbearing control freak was based on Lauren Weisberger’s thinly veiled experience of working for Anna Wintour at Vogue magazine.

Everything in that story was familiar, from the ‘gird your loins’ warning phone call from the front desk upon Sonja’s arrival, to being under the constant threat of disapproval and punishment for failure. She even flung her coat on my desk one morning, although that only happened once after I left it there all day. With the perspective of time, I now see Sonja’s sadistic management style for what it was, but at the time Sonja Bata had me convinced I was the one who was always at fault and needed to fix my shortcomings.

Sonja had been born into a wealthy upper middle-class Swiss family with strict, traditional values. She always told interviewers that she was studying architecture when she met her future husband. The truth was that she had just started her undergrad when she met Thomas Bata. In a soft moment she once told me her mother took her out of university and enrolled her in a cooking school so she would make a better wife. This was Sonja’s Achilles heel – she was in awe of academics, jealous of their accomplishments because their success was her unfulfilled dream.

Sonja in front of her Annigoni portrait from c. 1960

In 1946, at the age of 19, Sonja married Thomas Bata. The Bata Shoe Company had been founded in 1894 in the town of Zlin (in what is today the Czech Republic), by Thomas Bata’s father Tomáš. The company was at the height of success in 1932 when Tomáš died in a plane crash, leaving Thomas and Tomáš’ brother Jan in a legal battle over control of the company. Anticipating the coming war, Thomas built manufacturing plants in the United States and Canada in 1939. After the war, all the Eastern European manufacturing plants and stores disappeared behind the descending iron curtain. The company’s HQ was relocated first to England, and later Canada.

During this post war period Bata aimed at international expansion in Asia, Africa, and South America where huge opportunities awaited. Bata excelled at locating in countries where locals were employed to manufacture simple styles of footwear for their own markets. Bata was not a high fashion label. In the Western World, Bata was known for producing everyday ‘back to school’ sneakers and shoes for children, working women’s low heeled pumps, and wardrobe essentials such as slippers and galoshes. Sonja often joked that when she was learning the business she worked in a shoe store in the East End of London trying to sell high heeled shoes in ‘sunset pink’ and ‘avocado green’, but in working class postwar London, black and brown were the only colours that sold.

While travelling the world in the 1950s and 1960s, Sonja collected various historical and indigenous types of footwear from the countries she and Thomas visited. She had accumulated close to a thousand examples when in 1979 she created a foundation that would someday fund a museum for footwear. She hired a conservator and a collections manager to care for and document the collection, and engaged anthropology hobbyist Alika Podlinsky Webber to acquire examples of Native American footwear for the collection. Webber’s antiquated methods of categorizing material culture by construction methods eventually resulted in the museum’s first publication, a near-useless typology of “Indian and Eskimo” footwear.

I had been keenly following the museum’s progress since I first heard about Sonja Bata’s collection in 1981. I wrote letters to her annually, asking for the opportunity to work with the collection in a curatorial capacity. Then, one day in November, 1987, I received a phone call from her secretary, Margaret Leask, asking if I could come in for an interview. A position was available to catalogue and care for the collection in the basement of the shoe company’s Don Mills headquarters.

The now-demolished Bata HQ in Don Mills, designed by John B. Parkin, built 1964-65

I was 26 and already had a decade’s worth of museum experience, as well as visible enthusiasm, but I was incredibly nervous during my interview because I really wanted the job. The interview went well, even though I could see she was disappointed when I told her I could only read French, and that I had an incomplete Masters. I had been paying for my university education by working part-time during the school year and full time during the summer, but after five years student fatigue had set in and I called it quits half way through my Masters. I did notice during the interview that she looked at my hands a lot. Years later she said her mother always told her to look at the nails of prospective servants because those with short nails worked harder.

A week later Sonja called to say she would like to hire me and could I come in for orientation and to discuss salary. I gave notice at my other job and bought myself a brand new pair of expensive Florsheim shoes for good luck. At our second meeting she proceeded to tell me that she had thought it over, but the tone and hesitancy in her voice suggested she had changed her mind – my stomach flipped. She hadn’t, but then she explained that I would be replacing the previous collections manager who had a PHD and spoke three languages. I realize now her tone and hesitancy was a ploy to lower my salary expectations in light of my shortcomings in languages and education – a point brought up annually prior to any discussion about a salary increase. I later found out that my predecessor, Lena Fattah, had resigned abruptly after telling Sonja to “Fuck Off”. She later became a Buddhist monk.

The position was assistant curator. There was no curator, so it was a pay scale thing with opportunity for promotion. I undersold myself by settling for the first offer at 24,000 per year to start, which in 1987 was okay for an assistant curator’s starting salary. Little did I know that all future salary increases would never exceed 4%, and be indexed to the cost of living and tied to annual reviews. However, at the time I was grateful for the opportunity. I had dreamed of working in a museum devoted to clothing or textiles, and few opportunities existed in Canada.

Bata Shoe Museum exhibition opening at the Colonnade (a temporary exhibition space before the permanent museum opened in 1995), 1992

Things were fine for the first few months while I was in a learning curve. My first real negative experience occurred when I was about to take my first week of holiday (which was never allowed to exceed two weeks per year during my 11 year tenure). I was completing an annual inventory of the entire collection, which by 1988 numbered over 6,000 artifacts. Two days before I was to leave, I submitted the report with a total of nineteen missing objects, all of which had been reported missing in previous inventories. My report was rejected for being incomplete. I was told I would have to cancel my holidays until everything was found. After wasting two days frantically looking for the missing items I went on holiday anyway – anticipating throughout my entire vacation that I would be fired upon my return (not exactly relaxing). However, nothing further was said, although her secretary Margaret told me that in future to always leave the phone number of my hotel where I would be staying in case I needed to be contacted (Sonja didn’t understand that on $24,000 per year, holidays were spent in motels, not hotels, and that holidays were for decompressing, not to be on call.) This was also the first of many projects that were never signed off as completed – every project remained an open file so that nothing was ever accomplished. Ironically, years later when Sonja was clearing out her attic at home, thirteen of the missing items showed up. (I only ever found one of the other missing artifacts – a shoe token that someone had wrapped in paper and put inside a leather shoe-shaped box.)

Similar instances began to happen more regularly. I could excuse some of her criticisms for being a perfectionist with high standards and I was missing her mark, but I was never given direction so everything was a set-up for failure. I was frequently asked to mount small exhibitions at locations like malls and even the Ontario legislature, but no budget was allocated to do these displays and I had to make do with what supplies and display aids I could find. I was inevitably criticized because something didn’t look as good as it could – only then would money be spent, or someone else brought in, to ‘fix’ my work.

The annual salary review became an opportunity for her to shame me for everything from my messy handwriting to my failure to always wear crisply starched shirts, and re-bring up months-old issues that had been dealt with at the time they occurred. Meanwhile, anything I was good at doing and relevant to my job, like research, writing, and public speaking, was only allowed to be done as an extra-curricular activity. I was actually not allowed to read a book or visit a library to do research about the artifacts on museum time, even though I was expected to know as much as possible about everything I was handling, which included artifacts from three thousand years of various cultures around the world. I frequently spoke to groups around Toronto, all of which were done on my own time in evenings or on weekends. I was not even allowed to leave the premises during work hours, other than for lunch.

For someone who admired academia, Sonja disliked investing in knowledge. I was never permitted to attend shoe or museum-related conferences. Even buying books for the library was a struggle when they weren’t at her suggestion. When William Rossi, author of several books including The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, and The Complete Footwear Dictionary, donated his massive library of shoe and foot related books (including complete runs of rare shoe trade journals) to the museum in the early 1990s, Sonja refused to have the shipment brought to the museum for accessioning. Her excuse was that we didn’t have the time to devote to it because something else was always more important. She must not have paid the storage fees because after a couple of years, the shipment was disposed of by the shipping company. When the 90 year old William Rossi called to ask me what happened to his library I lied to save his feelings and told him I hadn’t had the chance to accession it yet. He was disappointed with that news – he would have been devastated if he found out his library was gone.

For the Bata Shoe Company’s 100th anniversary, I was asked by Thomas Bata to work on a book while he and ‘Sunny’ were in Czechoslovakia most of the summer. With a project coordinator, I picked the shoes, provided all the research, wrote much of the text, worked with a photographer to take over 200 photographs, sourced most of the props, even suggested the name for the book and the cover designs. The book was nearly finished when Thomas and Sonja returned. Sonja hit the roof when she found out I had ‘wasted’ my time on this book and was screaming at me until Thomas came out of his office to explain he had asked me to do this. Nothing more was ever said, however I was removed from the remaining production meetings. I heard later that she didn’t want my name in the book at all, but the rest of the team protested, and in the end my name appeared second from last in the credits as ‘museum co-ordinator’.

I ignored or worked around what I could because the work was still my first love – it was everything I wanted to do, but in a toxic workplace. The constant barrage of small instances continued: I was once coerced to skip an uncle’s funeral when I was asked if it was really important for me to attend, in a tone that suggested she felt it wasn’t. I was also requested to return to work one afternoon after lunch when my cat was in labour – I returned home to find two healthy kittens, and one dead kitten suffocated by its caul.

Sonja ruined what should have been one of the happiest days of my life – moving into my first house (in the furthest environs of Toronto because that was all I could afford.) She had decided the date of a shoe museum symposium she was hosting over a weekend, without my input, to occur the very day I had booked for the closing and move. I was asked to reschedule my moving date, which I refused to do – even after a scene in front of the staff that lead to me breaking out in tears. I paid for that defiance for weeks which kept everyone in the office on edge. The symposium went ahead, with everyone attending wondering why I was absent.

The Fashion Staircase in All About Shoes

Despite these instances, she was relying on me more, even though she never once said in the entire 11 years ‘good job’, or ‘thank-you’. In 1994, with the new museum building nearing completion she decided that with the founding of the museum I needed to become the official curator. At the time I was making about $33,000 per year. She offered a $7,000 increase, but after I showed her that comparable starting salaries for curatorial positions in Toronto ranged between $50,000 – $60,000 she agreed to $45,000, split in two, 7K immediately, and 5K mid-year. June came and went, then July – in August I asked when the rest of my raise would kick in. The new director, Edward Maeder, checked but came back to ask if I had our agreement in writing. I was absolutely crushed. Sonja had lied to me and used the new director, who didn’t stand up for me, as a shield. So when the new Bata Shoe Museum opened with great fanfare to the public in May 1995, I was making less than half of what the director was making, and only a few thousand more per annum than the newly hired janitor, and I didn’t even have a key that opened all the doors. Instead, I had a key that opened a door in the basement where a lock box was located where I retrieved the various keys I needed for the day, signing them out and back in. Nothing was ever made to ease performance.

While it felt at times like she focussed on making my life miserable, I was not the only employee to experience her moods. After the museum opened, the entire staff and even some of the contractors, gathered for what is called nowadays a ‘kiki’ party to blow off steam. Everyone shared their Sonja horror stories and experiences, and there were many. There was even a souvenir program put together with some of the stories called ‘Tongues-a-Wagging’ of which I have kept my copy but will not reprint since it names names…

Although everyone felt her wrath at times, Sonja didn’t focus on real issues, often turning a blind eye to employees who were actively stealing from her. A now-retired part-time conservator did very little real work – she would come into the museum once a week mostly to talk to her friends on the phone all day because they were long distance from where she lived. Even worse, the janitor would take props and stock from storage and sell it at flea markets on the weekend. Years after I left, I found a shoemaker’s bench in an antique store that I knew came into the museum while I was there…

The other employee she tormented to the same extent as me was Susana Petti, a smart and eager marketing person hired at the time the new museum opened in 1995. Susana worked hard and had great ideas, but she was constantly met with resistance by Sonja. Susana had brought in the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mathers to donate their services to create an advertising campaign shortly after the museum opened. For some reason Sonja actively undermined any progression in creating the campaign until they walked away in search of a company who would be grateful for their gift.

Opening day at the  Museum, 1995 The shoes were an 11, I wear a 12…

As curator, I became the liaison between Sonja and many of the guest curators and designers. At the museum’s official opening in May 1995, Laurent Carrier of Design+Communications of Montreal, who had designed the flagship exhibition All About Shoes, came up to me and said “I won’t say it was a pleasure working with you…” his words surprised me because that exhibition was the least plagued by problems – I realized then that I was becoming used to the drama. Despite his angst, Laurent returned to produce other exhibitions for the museum. This was a pattern typical of many of the guest curators and designers. They all recognized how difficult it was to work with Sonja but they also knew it would only be for a few months, and at the end there would be an inflated pay cheque (everyone surcharged for the ‘sturm und drang’ of working with Sonja.) An American guest curator/project manager billed the museum in Canadian funds for his services but was mistakenly paid in U.S. funds when the American dollar was trading at around $1.40. He cashed the cheque and said nothing.

Another guest curator, Dr. Jill Oakes, had been commissioned on several occasions to collect items for the museum from Canada’s North, as well as curate several exhibitions and write accompanying books for the museum. Her expertise in northern cultures was eventually expanded to create a storyline for an exhibition about American Southwest Native footwear – an exhibition I was unaware she had been contracted to curate when Sonja asked me to also write a proposal and outline for the same show (on my own time, of course.) Sonja showed my proposal to Dr. Oakes telling her she liked mine better. Although Oakes professed the incident was nothing to worry about, it created an embarrassing situation.

Fortunately, I knew that most people could see what I was dealing with via knowing smiles and rolled eyes – even her own children. At the opening ceremonies, where my name was never uttered and I was never thanked, even though I had curated two of the four opening exhibitions, I wore a black jacket upon which I had painted white foot prints. Christine Schmidt quipped “Is mom stepping all over you?” I assured her she was.

At one point after the museum was open for about a year, Sonja realized there was a morale problem with the staff and hired a business consultant (Hugh… I have forgotten his last name) to assess what could be done. After extensive interviews and research, his report concluded that Sonja was the problem, not the staff. I never saw him again – the staff joked that he was probably buried in the basement.

Guiding Haakon on a tour, with Sonja in pink nervously fingering her necklace, ready to pounce…

Although I often was not introduced to special guests that came to the museum (Liona Boyd, Andre Pfister, Maureen Forrester…) I was brought in to give a ‘royal tour’ to Norway’s Prince Haakon. Judging by his reactions, I could see the 22 year old Prince was interested in fashion and celebrity shoes. He was admiring a pair of platforms worn by Madonna, when Sonja decided I wasn’t giving the right tour and stepped in to take over saying “Perhaps his highness would like to examine our Lapp collection?” This made me cringe since Lapp is the politically incorrect term for the Sami (the indigenous population of Northern Scandinavia). As well, our Sami collection was poor – hardly something worth showing the Crown Prince of Norway. Haakon politely followed Sonja as she completed the tour. I faded to the back of the entourage, embarrassed and emasculated. However, as he was leaving, Haakon sought me out to thank me for showing him the “most interesting shoes”. I thought he worded that well.

Until my promotion as curator, the staff consisted of myself, the full time conservator Ada Hopkins, and a part time conservator (the one on the phone all the time.) Prior to the opening of the new museum, more staff were hired including education coordinator Sheila Knox, and director Edward Maeder. I warned the egocentric Maeder that Sonja was not easy to work with but he assured me he knew how to handle women like her – he fled halfway through his five year contract.

The next director to come along was Sharon MacDonald who was the exact opposite of Edward Maeder in every aspect. She came from the police museum and was a bureaucratic rule follower. Within a couple of months she admitted to me Sonja appeared sadistic at times, especially towards me.

Shoe designer Beth Levine at the Bata Shoe museum 1996

The final straw came when my credibility was threatened on my 38th birthday, on February 23, 1999. Prophetically, my horoscope that day had said ‘don’t take up issues with your boss today, you will lose.’ Two events occurred that day that made it impossible for me to remain with the museum. The first happened when I came across the recently submitted tax receipts on the secretary’s desk. Looking through them I found one for $46,000 to Rick Riewe for photographs. Imagine my surprise when I saw the forged signature of the name of the person who had done the evaluation – Jonathan Walford. Rick Riewe was Jill Oakes husband, and had taken hundreds of photographs documenting the process of making traditional clothing in Siberia where Oakes had conducted a field collection the previous summer. Even if I agreed with the amount, I hadn’t done the evaluation, and certainly would not permit my name to appear for that huge an amount without documentation to prove fair market value, and/or an arm’s length third party assessment.

While I was contemplating what to do about this situation, the catalogues for the Japanese exhibition, which was opening that night, arrived from the printer. At the final production meeting two weeks earlier, I noticed my name was spelled correctly in the credits as both the exhibition curator and author of the catalogue. A few days after that meeting Sonja had told me she had called them to make a couple of minor changes, but it didn’t occur to me that it would be to remove any trace of my name from the catalogue. Knowing how Sonja’s mind works, she wanted it to look like the exhibition and the catalogue had been done in cooperation with the Japanese community by having only Japanese names in the credit list. Although the designer had a Japanese name, I did not.

My name was being added to things I hadn’t done and being removed from things I had done…I went ballistic.

I contemplated wiping out the entire catalogueing system (something I actually could have done – I knew how) However, I calmed down, got a box, filled it with my personal possessions and any damning evidence, and left the building. I went back a week later for a de-briefing, but instead of discussing the real issues, Sonja had pulled out some of my recent catalogueing sheets and pointed to insufficiently notated references. She then said she thought I must be entering a mid-life crisis… I stopped her there, stood up, held out my hand, thanked her for the opportunity of working with the collection but that I couldn’t work with her anymore. I still recall the look of complete shock on her face.  I was told later by the director, Sharon, who was in the meeting with us, that Sonja immediately said after I left that she realized she had not handled that well.

I had no option but to report the tax receipt to Revenue Canada – an action that resulted in a three year audit for the museum. Leslie Tenenbaum, one of the company’s lawyers, was brought in to mediate my departure in a heavy-handed manner. He tried to mitigate any possibility of my suing for constructive dismissal or fraud, and explained how I didn’t deserve an exit package because I left of my own accord. I just wanted out – all I could think of was the Tina Turner movie where she says all she wants is her name. I didn’t care what it took to get away from Sonja’s clutches and the frequent phone calls from her minion lawyer.

Sonja could be charming, but her motivation was power. She was not a great leader – she was an iron-fisted bully, and because she was at the top of the food chain, there was no managerial accountability. You know there is a problem when the only days you look forward to at work are the ones when the boss is out of town. There was an ongoing sardonic joke I had with Robert Barron, the education assistant – I would walk into the office in the morning and say “Is she dead yet?”, and he would retort “Maybe today!”

I am actually saddened by Sonja’s death, because of what could have been. She spent a fortune on artifacts that are a gift to the world through her architecturally important museum. She had a great eye for design and hired many good people over the years, but most of them left because she had problems trusting, respecting, supporting, appreciating, or allowing anyone to grow and learn. Eventually, her micromanagement and lack of integrity drove most everyone away. However, even a bad example is a model to learn from, and I learned amazing things while at Bata. I wouldn’t have started the Fashion History Museum without the experience I gained as the Bata Shoe Museum’s founding curator.

I had hoped my departure might change things for the better, but it made little difference. Sarah Beam, now an ex-employee of the museum, told me a few years ago how Sonja had bought a playhouse for her great grandson – Graydon, the son of Galen and Alexandra Weston. Sonja said she thought it would be amusing to watch Galen try to put it together on Christmas day – to which Sarah pointed out “That’s not very Christmasy – is it?”

An Old Fashioned museum – Huronia Museum, Midland, Ontario

A while back we visited the Huronia Museum in Midland, Ontario. It was an unexpected treat because it’s an old fashioned museum – and I mean that in a nice way. It’s not all push buttons and dioramas with cut-out picture boards and light effects, with nary an artifact in sight. This is a crammed-to-the-gills museum of cool stuff; Penny farthings, 1940s/50s televisions, ancient ‘Indian’ artifacts, Regency era cast iron stoves, and a fair bit of clothing too, including: two really nice Edwardian bathing suits with not one moth nip, one of the prettiest Edwardian wedding dresses I have ever seen, World War II uniforms…. and more. Most items are shown in finely crafted mahogany cases from the turn-of-the-century. It won’t be to everybody’s taste but I loved it!

MOMA’s take on fashion

Is Fashion Modern? is MOMA’s first foray into a fashion exhibition since their 1944 exhibition Are Clothes Modern? While their 1944 exhibition, curated by Bernard Rudofsky, focussed on the meaning of dress as an aspect of human subconscious expression governed by habit, this year’s exhibition looks at 111 articles of dress and accessories that had, or currently have an impact on contemporary clothing.

This is not an exhibition about design or art, but rather an exhibition of everyday clothing and its relationship between fashionable aesthetics, function, culture, identity, politics, economy, and technology. Blue jeans, pantyhose, and the LBD appear alongside the sari, kippah, and keffiyeh.

I won’t be seeing the show. It’s not that I disagree with the premise, in fact it is everything I find fascinating about fashion – its relationship with everything else in the world. However, is an exhibition about the sociology of everyday dress in the right venue at one of the world’s leading art museums? The topic borders on the mundane as virtually every artifact could be found for a scavenger hunt via a visit to a box store or local thrift shop. There is something very bloggy about the topic. It is subject matter that lends itself well to a top 100 list of fashion hits from the past century. It could be one of those online ‘clickbait’ features you have to laboriously click through to see the next picture.

There is a valid argument that the museum is elevating the sociological story of fashion into a topic of conversation, but how many of the 111 artifacts will be remembered by visiting patrons? This is really a topic best kept between the covers of a book – and I bet the catalogue is great, but when I go to a museum I want to see nice things I can’t find at a thrift store. 

Added January 3/2018: It seems I am not the only one to question this exhibition.

Montreal in two days and six exhibitions – Exhibits 4, 5 & 6 in Old Montreal

Montreal History Centre

Day two in Montreal was spent walking until chafed — mostly in Old Montreal. This historic area is a strange mix of beautiful architecture and tourist hell. Many buildings are empty of tenants and endless shops of ‘Canadian’ art and souvenirs seem to be the only businesses, other than restaurants that, if our lunch is any measure, offer only adequate quality cuisine.

Amazonian headdress decorated with parrot feathers

 

Our first museum visit was the Montreal History Centre, located in a beautiful Beaux Arts style fire hall built in 1903. Like many other museums, they also had an exhibition about Montreal in 1967 (this is where I found a second example of a Quebec hostess uniform on display after the first one I saw at the McCord.) The exhibition was not artifact rich, and used films and various computer presentations instead. My favourite was a virtual reality ride on an Expo monorail. Another was a touch screen mosaic with dozens of stories about everything from political unrest to pop songs in Montreal during the era. The best story was a recollection by a man who was 13 when he bicycled from Michigan to Montreal to see Expo 67 – with his parent’s blessing!

MASSIVE hat/masks used for dancing

Our second exhibition was a random surprise. I had forgotten to check the Point-à-Calliere Archeology and History Museum to see what they had on display, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a superb exhibition of Amazonian Native dress and tools on loan from the Ethnographic Museum of Geneva, and the Royal Museums of Art and History of Brussels. The exhibition included colourful parrot feather-trimmed headresses, decorative arm bands, and woven loin cloths, baskets, and masks. The presentation used stunning lighting and sound effects to evoke the Amazon river and heavy tree canopy. This is not a part of the world I know much about, so it was a great learning experience and visual treat. Amazonia is on until October 22.

Our final museum visit was to the Bonsecours market where the Musee de la Mode has 3,000 square feet of exhibition and administrative space – the same size as the FHM. Their current exhibition is called Established in Montreal and is about Montreal manufacturers and retailers. There are plenty of examples in their department store inspired presentation, but the majority of artifacts date after 1965. I know one of the biggest problems of having a small space is trying to keep a balance of artifacts on display that appeal to the broadest market, and I would have liked to see more older items mixed in. This exhibition continues until the end of the year.

Montreal in two days and six exhibitions – Exhibits 2 & 3 – Musee des Beaux Arts

Paco Rabanne outfit for Jane Fonda in Barbarella

The Musee des Beaux Arts has created some phenomenal fashion exhibitions in the past. This is where the amazing Yves St. Laurent retrospective was launched in 2008, as well as where the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition was conceived and began its long world tour in 2011. This summer it has two exhibitions I wanted to see, although the first was not strictly a fashion exhibition.

Revolution was created in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert museum (modified and expanded for the Quebec audience.) The exhibition looks at consumerism, protests, drugs, concerts, civil rights, sex and everything else that was revolutionary about the late 1960s. Several galleries tell parts of the story in a categorical approach to the topic. The artifacts were spectacular – ranging from John Lennon’s suit from the Sgt. Pepper album cover to the chain mail outfit made by Paco Rabanne for Jane Fonda in Barbarella… really iconic pieces.

The dress on the left is by Thea Porter, but I couldn’t read anything more about it or the caftan next to it because the labels were either illegible or inaccessible due to the crowds in the Woodstock gallery standing in front of the cases

However, this exhibition had some organizational issues. Firstly, the audio sets were just music and added no further information to the show. The labelling was largely unreadable – dark text was often applied to vertical glass, becoming illegible in the dimly lit galleries. Some label information was missing or wrong: A Wiccan robe decorated with silver lurex was identified as dating from 1953 – unlikely as lurex was barely available in 1953, and besides the show was about the 60s, not the 50s. I could find no label to identify a peacock chair, and Greenpeace was not founded in California, but in Vancouver B.C. in 1971.

The show was also not well laid out for accessibility. In the second to last gallery, a massive wall projection of scenes from Woodstock was playing and the floor scattered with large pillows so that visitors could lie down to enjoy the projection. This left a narrow walkway at the back where other visitors stood to watch the film. The problem is they stood in front of the glass cases that had the REAL artifacts worn to Woodstock! Why anyone would waste their time watching clips they can see on Netflix while ignoring the actual garments worn by Roger Daltry, Jimi Hendrix, and Janice Joplin is beyond me!

A variety of Carnaby street fashions including Mick Jagger’s stuffed jumpsuit

Fortunately an exhibition of wedding attire by Jean Paul Gaultier downstairs more than made up for any complaints I had about the Revolution show.

Love is Love is a spectacular exhibition of wedding attire created by Jean Paul Gaultier that includes pieces he has designed over the last twenty-odd years. A massive tiered wedding cake in the middle of the gallery holds the bulk of the dresses and suits, shown in non-traditional pairings, while other unusual wedding outfits line the outer walls that have been covered with a scrim creating ghostly 3D images of chairs and picture frames – the presentation is fantastic.

In one corner is a mannequin on a swing with a massive train that had been the backdrop for the duration of a fashion show, until the wedding dress (traditionally the last image in a fashion show) appeared and the backdrop turned into her train. Gaultier’s clothes always surprise you – there is nothing typical about his work. Superb tailoring stands next to patchwork frou-frou and while some garments appear to be original ideas, others are unapologetically appropriated and reinvented.

The artifacts in Revolution, and the artifacts and presentation in Love is Love are worth seeing. Revolution concludes October 9, and Love is Love ends October 22.

Montreal in two days and six exhibitions – Exhibit 1 – Fashioning Expo 67

Canada pulp and paper pavilion uniform by John Warden

Warden’s design for the Pulp and Paper pavilion

When the possibility for a few days away could be pried out of the summer schedule, Montreal came up tops as a destination. I especially wanted to see Fashioning Expo 67 because the FHM had loaned a couple of garments for the show. Also, when I was six I remember feeling deprived when I was informed we were not going to Montreal for Expo because we lived in Vancouver and it was too far — so I wasn’t going to miss this show too! Kenn and I took the scenic route to get there, picking up donations for the museum in Killaloe and checking out the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte where the FHM will be mounting WARdrobe in 2019.

On our first day in Montreal we met up with friends Mary Jane and Ron Enros from the Vintage Fashion Guild who joined us on our visit to the McCord to see Fashioning Expo 67. The exhibition was meticulous. The period-inspired presentation is thoughtful, flawlessly mounted, and the vast amount of information is shared in different ways so you can read or listen to as much as you want. I often don’t like audio guides because they repeat label information, however, in this show the audio guides have some great background stories and first-hand recollections from the hostesses who were there.

Orange suit and dress for the Italian pavilion designed by Sorelle Fontana; Striped dress and suit designed by Roger Nelson for the British pavilion, and the PVC raincoat and white dress with scarf headwrap designed by Bill Blass for the American pavilion.

The first gallery showcased about twenty-five original host and hostess outfits designed by Serge & Real, Michel Robichaud, John Warden, Bill Blass, Sorelle Fontana, and others — all chic, mod dresses and suits in contemporary textiles like polyester/wool blends and corfam that must have been uncomfortable in the hot humid Montreal summer. The hats were largely hated by most of the hostesses, but were designed as part of the uniforms so they could be easily spotted in a crowd. As the fair opened in April 1967, most of the uniforms were designed the previous year and although fashionable, most were not conspicuously edgy in their styling – hemlines hovered just above the knee. The one exception was the British uniform which had the shortest skirts. Apparently once their deportment inspection was complete in the morning, Canadian hostesses would roll the waistband of their skirts to hike up the hemline to try to match the British girls. There were many wonderful stories told in this section – enough to keep us in the first gallery for the best part of an hour.

In the next gallery there were clothes worn by Madame Drapeau, the wife of the mayor of Montreal who entertained various visiting heads of state, including Grace Kelly whose flowered frock is also on display.

The rest of the exhibition looks at the fashions promoted in the pavilions and showcased in lively fashion shows at the fair where models roller-skated and danced down the runway (yes, there is a video of one of the shows!) Some of the garments on display in this section were made by Montreal manufacturers, like the two dresses on loan from the FHM that included a flowered summer outfit consisting of bermuda shorts and top, and a tailored beige wool dress with standing collar that resembles the uniforms worn by the hostesses in the first gallery.

Fashioning Expo 67 is a great show and worth the visit, but hurry, it closes October 1.

A visit to the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum

The Mississippi Valley Textile Museum (MVTM) is located in an 1860s woollen mill in Almonte, Ontario, (west of Ottawa.) The museum preserves early machinery, local mill history, and early Canadian textile history.

Before I go any further let’s clear up the fact that the word Mississippi is derived from the Algonquin ‘Misi-ziibi’, which means ‘Great River’. While the most famous Mississippi River runs down the middle of the United States, a smaller but still great Mississippi river also runs through Ontario and is a tributary of the St. Lawrence River. The river was a source of industry for early settlers who created water-powered mills along its length in the early 19th century, especially woollen and textile mills.

As the Fashion History Museum will be redeveloping its former travelling exhibition WARdrobe: Fashion During World War II for MVTM in 2019, a trip to check out the facility was in order. WARdrobe will be installed in a gallery for temporary exhibitions on the main floor, but upstairs there is a permanent exhibition about the 19th century textile industry that is fascinating.

The permanent gallery space is huge with high-ceilings, tall windows, stone walls and wide plank floors. Dotted about the gallery are several massive Victorian era machines used for carding, combing, spinning, twisting, weaving, and finishing textiles. Although these industrial sculptures sit silent, many are still in working order and have a film showing it, or a similar machine, in action.

The weirdest artifact on display is a stuffed sheep preserved in a glass case. The Cumberland Ram was the last of an extinct breed of sheep from Cape Breton. The same ram currently on display was also on show at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo when assassin Leon Czolgosz leaned against the case to steady his aim to fire a shot at President McKinley, mortally wounding the president.

For more information about the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, visit their website: http://mvtm.ca