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.

FHM in the news – Two Recent articles about the FHM

NUVO magazine, by Deirdre Kelly

Sesquicentennial style at Ontario’s Fashion History Museum.

The fuchsia and orange gown by Toronto designer Lucian Matis that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wore to the state dinner in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama last year highlights a new exhibition opening this week at the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario.

Fashioning Canada Since 1867, running from March 15 to December 17, 2017, coincides with the 150th anniversary of Confederation and shows how Canadian style has evolved along with the country. There are over 64 items on display in the museum (itself housed in a former 1928 post office) ranging from the practical, bulky knit sweaters to hand-beaded dresses worn in the presence of world leaders.

The fashion reflects the nation, tracing its evolution from dull colonial outpost to vibrant international player, observes FHM co-founder Jonathan Walford, a founding curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum who opened the FHM with fellow co-founder Kenn Norman in 2015.

“Fashion encompasses everything,” Walford elaborates. “You can read in it all the outlining influences, the social, the cultural, the political, and the economic. It’s never just about clothes.” The four central displays describe distinct stages in the development of Canadian fashion over the last century and a half. Posing the question, “What is Canadian Fashion?” the first examines how geography, in particular Canada’s harsh climate, along with the fur trade, helped shape a national identity through clothing custom-made for life outdoors.

Items include a head-to-toe woollen outfit created for a member of Ottawa’s Snowshoe Club in 1890, several variations on a theme of a Hudson’s Bay striped blanket coat, Inuit knits, First Nations-inspired parkas and mukluks. Mixed in with the historical are pieces by contemporary Canadian fashion brands like Canada Goose, Linda Lundström and DSquared2, linking fashion today to what came before.

Next, Clothing the Nation takes a more indoor view of the country’s sartorial leanings. Presented here are bustles and taffeta, sleek Edwardian silhouettes and large plumed hats, gold silk day dresses, and matching gloves. Some of the clothing came from abroad, accumulated by Canadian high society women in London for parties back home. As the following section, Made in Canada shows, other items were purchased locally at Eaton’s, Creeds, and D’Allairds, an early Canadian department store chain, or else were made by professional dressmakers and tailors plying their trade in communities across Canada.

By the 1960s, Canadian fashion was starting to become internationally known, spearheaded by homegrown designers like Claire Haddad, the first Canadian honoured with a prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, and Arnold Scaasi, the Montrealer born Arnold Isaacs who created gowns for first ladies in the U.S., including Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush, as well as A-list celebrities, among them Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall.

These Canadian fashion innovators broke ground for the designers who follow after in the 1970s, the focus of the final display, The Canadian Brand, which is where in the Lucian Matis dress is, among other pieces. The colours and shapes are as plentiful here as the names assembled, Wayne Clark, Simon Chang, Lida Baday, Jean-Claude Poitras, and Bernard McGee and Shelley Wickabrod for Clothesline to name a few.

Walford says this eclecticism mirrors Canada as a whole, a country not cut from a single cloth but representing many threads from around the world to form an attractive cosmopolitan fabric. “The fashion tells its own story,” he says.

Fashioning Canada Since 1867

Grand Magazine, March/April 2017 by Lynn Haddrall




Another season at the FHM

We open for another year this Wednesday, March 15 with two exhibitions. In Gallery One from March 15 – July 9: Dior, 1947 – 1962. Ten dresses from the first 15 years of the House of Dior that illustrate Dior’s design perspective and savvy business skills that resulted in a leading fashion brand.

In Gallery Two from March 15 – December 17: Fashioning Canada Since 1867. Sixy-seven examples of Canadian fashions that celebrate the sesquicentennial of Canada through the history of Canadian fashion design, manufacturing, and retailing, as well as the development of a national identity.

100 Years of Swimwear

These past few months the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas has been showcasing 10 bathing suits from the Fashion History Museum collection with the 1930s and up augmented with hats, sunglasses, and other fun beach paraphernalia. The show is about to end in a few weeks:

And while we are on the topic of swimwear, I thought this recently colourized picture from c. 1910 was interesting. History seems more real when it’s in colour:1905

FHM article on

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

ISABEL B. SLONE May 18, 2016

(To see with images on click here)

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.”


Strawberrry Fields, Central Park, New Yori

Strawberrry Fields, Central Park, New York

We just launched a new facebook page this morning for ‘Selfeets’. Those are selfie photos of your feet not your face. They have been showing up in social media for about a year now.  The first time I saw a ‘Selfeet’ was of someone’s bare toes perched in front of a white sand beach and palm trees. Seeing it in the middle of February didn’t impress me favourably – it was social media schadenfreude. Since then the trend has become more creative: bright patterned tiles, ancient mosaics and worn, waxed parquetry are the new backgrounds.

Sidewalk dates in Vancouver

Sidewalk dates in Vancouver

I remember seeing sidewalks in Vancouver in the 1970s with the dates they were made stamped in the corners. As the climate was mild, sidewalks lasted for decades and even with the unbridled urban development of the last twenty years, some still remain. The oldest I remember seeing in the 1970s was on Burrard street – dated 1895. I always thought it would be interesting to take photos of period shoes and boots with those dated sidewalks as the background.

So now the Fashion History Museum is launching a project – a challenge to “floor us by showing us the world at your feet so we can picture ourselves in your shoes!” So post your ‘Selfeets‘ on the FHM’s new Facebook page. Next fall we will assemble a photographic exhibition of some of the most interesting examples.  And as we are a fashion museum – bare toes are boring – keep your shoes on!