Canadian Fashion Connection – Ellen Peterson (1922 – 2018)

This past week the Fashion History Museum received the archives of Ellen Peterson. Born Ellen Tullus in Pärnu Estonia on April 29, 1922, she was the third generation from a family of dressmakers. Her mother had a salon that was closed when the Soviet Union annexed Estonia in June 1940. A year later, when the German army liberated Estonia from the Soviets, Ellen and her mother went to Germany where Ellen married in 1944 and bore two children over the next two years.

In 1947 Ellen was admitted to Germany’s Esslingen Fashion School and upon completing the program opened a dressmaking salon. In 1949 she won first prize from four hundred entries for a one-shouldered dress design she called ‘Diana’, and later the same year registered a patent for a coat design she called ‘Regola’ that could be converted into a jacket via removable coat tails and  shoulder cape.

One of Ellen most popular wedding and evening dress designs that featured on the cover of Canadian Bride in 1962.

One of Ellen Peterson’s most popular wedding and evening dress designs, featured on the cover of Canadian Bride in 1962.

In 1952 Ellen left Germany for Canada and worked as a freelance designer for various sportswear and dress manufacturers before starting up her own salon again. By 1957 Ellen was known for her bridal wear but also evening gowns and elegant daywear. As the fashion world changed in the 1960s, Ellen’s business dwindled, closing to the public in early 1963.

In 1970 Ellen opened a school of fashion design, and received official diploma-granting status as a registered fashion institute in 1978. She closed the school in 1990 and worked as a fashion design teacher in Tallinn, Estonia, and at Sheridan College in Toronto before retiring from the business in 1992.

Ellen Peterson passed away at the age of 96 on October 13, 2018.

21 thoughts on “Canadian Fashion Connection – Ellen Peterson (1922 – 2018)

  1. As my partner is currently living in Estonia (although not Estonian) it’s great to hear something about fashion with an Estonian connection.

  2. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – February 3, 2013 | The Vintage Traveler

  3. I was the Vice Principal in Ellen Peterson Fashion Institue and eventually our paths separated. I often wonder if she could possibly still be alive, she was an amazingly strong lady. Or has she passed away and when. Would you know any of this? I modelled her Diana and her versatile coat in fashion shows the Institute held yearly. I think of her often.

    • Hi Rena;
      Last I heard, she was still alive (this was a year ago). She was in a retirement home, but doing well. She must be well into her 90s now! The Diana dress and the versatile coat are now in the Fashion History Museum’s collection in Cambridge. We also have her archives, although we have a list of all the students and what years they attended, we destroyed their grade records for privacy reasons.

  4. Thank you for your reply, Jonathon. I would not be surprised to know she may still be alive even if in a retirement home. She was a powerhouse of strength and I know she would be around 96-97 as of last April.

    • If you are interested in seeing the archives, perhaps you could also help identify many of the people in photographs who are not identified.

  5. I should have mentioned how nice it is that her award winning creations are being honoured. She was an amazingly talented lady. When we taught in the school she could make even a piece of tissue paper into a marvellous creation. We did samples to display to the student. Good that the records were destroyed. I was one of her earlier students and rose to Vice Principal as I mentioned before. Why are her items in Cambridge, because that is where the museum is? Where is it located?

    • Our museum, which is located in Cambridge (74 Queen Street East), was approached by a friend and former student who was helping to dispense of her possessions at the time she went into the retirement home five years ago. Unfortunately there was a miscommunication and our email reply was not received so some of the clothing was sold to a dealer before we reconnected. However, we have all her early important pieces – and her paper archives.

  6. Hello Jonathan, I have not been checking email much lately so missed your comment, sorry. When the weather becomes a bit more stable I may try to get to visit the museum and, maybe, even identify a few former students. It would be nice to see some of mine if the photographs go back so far. The school closed a couple of years after I left so it would depend just how far back the records go. I am enjoying hearing updates on Ellen, is the retirement home in Cambridge?

    • Hi Rena, I believe the home is in Toronto – I actually don’t know, sorry. I would be happy to show you the pictures in her files – there are a LOT of them!

  7. Apologies again Jonathon, I have not been very active so missed what you said about the home being in Toronto. I wonder if it has anything to do with Estonian House or if there is any contact with her son Peter.
    I have not been too well for a few days, something completely alien to me, but when I feel a bit more active perhaps I will contact Estonian House and ask if they know anything. How did you and the museum get to know about Ellen and her history, someone must know something if you spoke to anyone in particular.
    My curiousity is piqued after so many years.
    Take care, Rena

    • A former student who was helping her move into her current place contacted various museums and dealers, so it was a cold call that I responded to.

  8. Now I am curious all over again. I wonder who the student would be who contacted you. I am glad they did, Ellen’s work should be respected. As I believe I mentioned, she had a real genius touch in being so creative. I have seen ‘creations’ that would not hold a candle to hers.

    • I sent an email to the student asking if they minded if I revealed her name, but didn’t get a reply, so I can’t tell you who it was at this time, but I will ask when we get in touch again.

  9. Hello Jonathan
    I was also one of Ellen Peterson’s students from 1980 to 83. And of course I knew Rena Graefner. She was always a strong supporter for Mrs Peterson’s endeavours to educate and I somehow doubt she could have done so without her. For students, Rena was the softer side to Ellen’s more demanding side. I am sorry to hear of her passing but glad to know she has been honoured and remembered. I recall Mrs Peterson as a strong minded, determined and elegant woman with high standards and expectations of her students. I don’ t know if any went on to be successful in their own right but we were certainly given the knowledge and taught the skills necessary to create whatever we could imagine. She was of the couture era when designers knew how to sew, not just draw pretty designs. There was magic in her fingers, she could instantly ascertain the composition of a fabric, how it would drape and ultimately look in a design, something most designers today may not have a clue about. She used to tell wonderful stories to her students of how she learned at the feet of already skilled couturiers and rose up through their ranks, in the beginning just holding pins for the designers and sewers as they made their creations. (As a side note, I loved The film Phantom Thread for the glimpse we had of dress construction. It brought back many memories of my schooling with Mrs Peterson.)
    Her stitches and seams were impeccable and if her designs were handcrafted today would fetch thousands. Unfortunately people do not demand such style or workmanship anymore, and indeed very few are home sewers with neither the time or patience, more content with fast, cheap fashion. But there is something so exquisite about a well crafted, perfectly fitted garment. You put it on and that old saying of “Made for you” and “Fits like a glove” rings so true: a second skin, comfortable and beautiful. I was so happy to finally find something online about Ellen Peterson. She deserves to be included in The Fashion History Museum.

      • Tere!
        Olen Ellenile õetütar Eestist.Mul oli au temaga kohtuda Eestis kui ka Torontos.Mul on heameel,et Torontos on olemas tema elu ja töö Moeajaloomuuseumis. Kui kunagi satun Torontosse,siis kindlasti külastan seda muuseumi.

        • Tere-Tänan, et kirjutasite. Loodetavasti õnnestub teil siin kunagi tulla. Oleme Cambridge’is, mis on tund Torontost läänes – võin teile näidata isegi mõnda asja, mis meil temalt on.

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