Canadian Fashion Connection: Hudson’s Bay Company Mirror Room

Perhaps one of the most defining historical differences between Canada and the United States is that there was never a Canadian ‘Wild West’ frontier. From 1670 to 1870 the Hudson’s Bay Company had jurisdiction over much of present-day western and northern Canada. The HBC didn’t own the land but they managed its exploitation. The company operated a series of trading posts where blankets, iron pots, cloth and basic food stuffs were traded with Native and licensed European fur trappers for pelts and hides (primarily beaver, otter and fox.) When the HBC’s sovereignty was transferred to the new country of Canada in 1870, the Northwest Territories and the provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia were created. When settlement lands were opened up, the early pioneers shopped with cash not animal pelts and the trading posts became general stores.

The first Hudson’s Bay Company department store opened in Winnipeg in 1881 but in 1912 it was replaced with a modern building with a neoclassical façade. That same year five similar looking stores opened in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Saskatoon. Without Holt Renfrew or any of the other high-end fashion stores from back east, the Hudson’s Bay Company soon became the supplier of high-end fashions for Western Canada. In the 1930s the ‘Mirror Room’ became a specialty shop within the HBC store that offered designer clothes from Montreal, New York, London, and Paris.

Irving Samuel trapeze coat of Ottoman silk, c. 1958 - 1959, front view (Irving Samuel was founded in 1946 by Samuel Workman and closed in 1995)

In the late 1950s my father, who just passed away this week, was a buyer for the Mirror Room of the Hudson’s Bay Company store in Vancouver, and in Calgary in 1959/60. He began in millinery, worked his way up to include wedding dresses and finally got coats and suits. As a buyer he traveled twice a year to Montreal’s Chabanel Street and New York’s 7th Avenue where he would be shown the collections at various firms. When there were two or more competing stores vieing for the same collections, priority was given to the buyer who had spent more money with the company the previous season, but this was rarely a problem with Canadian buyers. My father’s favourite makers of suits and coats in Montreal were Aukie Sanft and Irving Samuel, and in New York, Peck and Peck and Davidow. Some years my father would receive a thank-you gift from one or more of the manufacturers such as a Mohair tweed suit or camelhair coat that just happened to be in my mother’s size. In 1958 or 1959 he received the pictured black silk ottoman trapeze-style coat from Irving Samuel in Montreal that my mother wore until at least February 1961 because it worked well as a maternity coat for me.

Irving Samuel coat, back view, c. 1958 - 1959

The Mirror Room was an exclusive salon that not only carried the best clothes but also kept track of who owned what. Society ladies’ purchases would be unofficially registered with the Mirror Room sales clerks. If a society lady wanted a dress that had already been purchased by another lady in the same social circle, she would be informed that the dress was ‘unavailable.’

The Hudson’s Bay Company remained a Western Canadian department store until 1960 when it acquired Morgan’s, a Montreal based department store chain that also had some stores in Ontario. The Ontario Stores, as well as the Western Canadian stores, were rebranded as ‘The Bay’ in 1964, although the Quebec stores retained their original Morgan’s name until 1972 when they were renamed ‘La Baie.’ The Bay continued to expand with the takeover of Freiman’s in 1972, Zellers, Fields, and Simpsons in 1978, Robinson’s in 1979, Towers/Bonimart in 1990, Woodwards in 1993, and K-Mart in 1998. The old Simpsons main store in Toronto, which had been the high-end department store in Toronto throughout most of the 20th century, had been bought out by the Bay in 1978 but was only merged and renamed in 1991. In 2008, the Hudson’s Bay Company was sold to American Richard C. Baker and an investment group who had purchased Lord & Taylor in New York in 2006.

One of the elements of the Hudson’s Bay Company that had been lost over the years was the Mirror Room. Borrowing from that idea (as well as the St. Regis Room, which had been Simpson’s couture room in the main store that was now the Bay’s flagship store), ‘The Room’ was reopened at The Bay in Toronto in 2010.

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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22 Responses to Canadian Fashion Connection: Hudson’s Bay Company Mirror Room

  1. Daniel Milford-Cottam says:

    So sorry to hear about your father, thoughts are with you.

  2. Laura says:

    Great info.
    I’m wondering what year the Mirror Room closed?

    • Jonathan says:

      I don’t think I found an exact year when it closed but it was sometime around 1970.

      • Laura says:

        Thanks again. I have an amazing vintage studded sweater from the Mirror Room (which has a mirror room label), and I am going to include a link to your article in my etsy listing. Cheers.

      • Susan says:

        I worked at the Bay in Vancouver in the late 1970s (in the advertising department), and the Mirror Room was still around then.

        • Jonathan says:

          Thanks – that’s good to know. Someone else said they remembered the Mirror from as late as 1985/86, but didn’t specify which store. I think the older HBC’s might have retained them longer.

  3. Laura says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    As mentioned before I have a fantastic vintage sweater from the Mirror Room.
    I delayed listing it as it was just too nice this summer to think about sweaters, but its up now and might be of interest to you. I have referred to your website on the listing (because it’s always nice to know where an item came from). Cheers.

  4. Lois Byham says:

    I went into the site The Mirror Room because I have an antique mirror that says Hudson Bay on the back of it. Obviously it was the wrong site. Is there anyone who can help me find something about this mirror?

    • Jonathan says:

      Sorry, I can’t help. It was probably sold through one of its department stores located in Western Canada.

  5. Mary Doris says:

    Hello Jonathon, I just found this page as I was looking up the label of a coat I purchased at a second hand store in the 80’s. It is a beautiful Irving Samuel wool trench in taupe that I still wear today. I enjoyed reading your blog about your Father and The Room. I remember visiting the room with my Mother for the first time when I was ten and how special it was. Nice to know your Fathers legacy still lives on in the closets of many woman.

  6. Susan McCaine says:

    Thank you for your article. I enjoy Canadian history. What lead me to your article is my search regarding the Mirror Room and Ceil Chapman. I acquired a gorgeous cocktail dress in midnight blue satin with the two identifying labels stitched inside. A friend found it at a yard sale in Winnipeg for $5 about 20 years ago. What a treasure this dress is! Do you know any history regarding this connection of HBC and Ceil Chapman? Thank you.
    Susan

    • Jonathan says:

      Every HBC had in-house buyers for each of the types of clothes sold through the Mirror Room. My father was, at different times, the buyer for millinery, suits and coats, and wedding dresses. I don’t know who the buyer was for After Five wear for the Mirror Room in Winnipeg – which is probably where the dress was originally purchased. My father never bought from Ceil Chapman, but she was known almost exclusively for After-Five dresses.

  7. Tomko says:

    I worked for the Bay from 1982 to 1986. The Mirror Room was still a part of the store’s floor plan during that time.

    • Jonathan says:

      May I ask which location? I wonder if it was left over from before, or if it was a newer store. I don’t recall the HBC having a mirror room in Toronto in 1985/86, but as it was a newer store it may have never had one put in, or I might not be remembering it correctly. I recall the HBC in Toronto had ‘stores within’ by the mid 80s, like Ports, Mexx, Anne Klein…

  8. Anna Stopar says:

    Can anybody tell me something about this vintage mohair fully lined jacket by Irving Samuel? It’s striped mohair. How do I post a picture here?

  9. Olly says:

    My fiancée and I just had an amazing experience the other day when we went to a thrift store. She saw a short wedding dress in the window and went in to try it on, when she put it on it fit perfectly and all the ladies in the store were fussing over her because they were so excited to see it on someone. One of the ladies who turned out to just be a customer got so emotional seeing the dress on her that she went and bought it for us! We both love it so much and it feels like such fate that my lady has abandoned her idea of making a wedding dress for herself and she’s going to wear this one! It was just such an awesome experience. Anyway the point I was getting at is it’s got a mirror room lable and I can’t find a lot of information about it, do you know of any way I could try to date it? The ladies in the store said it was from the 50s or 60s which it looks like but I’m just curious to know for sure.

  10. linda larson says:

    My daughter just gave me a retirement gift of a black trapeze Irving Samuel coat. My father was co-founder of Irving Samuel. Irving Sneidman and Samuel Workman founded Irving Samuel and worked together until it closed when my father again started Majestic Garment Inc. I grew up in Montreal and had a wonderful time visiting my father’s factory. Not only could I and my 2 sisters and our mother pick out garments from the samples but my father always made us custom clothes. I passed down a box pleat skirt to my daughter and now she enjoys researching vintage Irving Samuel garments and purchasing them. Thanks for the article on Canadian high fashion industry.

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