Canadian Fashion Connection – Eileen Collard

Between 1969 and 1983 Eileen Collard researched, wrote and published twelve books on fashion history from a Canadian perspective.


Eileen Collard looking at a dress from her collection, 1987

Born Constance Eileen McCarthy in Oxford, England in 1912 ‘Eileen’ immigrated to Hamilton, Ontario with her family in 1919. Her interest in fashion design was sparked in the late 1920s when she took a fashion design course while attending the Detroit School of Arts and Crafts. Eileen then enrolled in the London branch of the Paris Academy of Dressmaking where she learned draping and pattern drafting. After graduating in 1933 she took various jobs, eventually becoming an assistant designer at Nicholls of Regent Street in London. Her marriage to James Collard and the onset of World War II took her away from her field but with her husband in service, and after a brief stint at monitoring propaganda programs for the BBC, Eileen discovered her dressmaking skills were a more useful and patriotic pursuit. She opened a dressmaking establishment in 1942, delighting in the challenge to make beautiful clothes from rationed materials under government imposed austerity restrictions. Years later, Eileen recalled in an interview how a high society client had asked her to make a dress from a pair of damask curtains. The dressmaking business continued after the war until 1948 when Eileen closed up shop and re-immigrated to Canada with her husband.

Dress design in the 1950s could be learned at only one location in Ontario – Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic. Eileen’s skills in pattern drafting, cutting, and draping were put to use teaching evening courses at schools in the Hamilton area, and, in the early 1960s, at her own dress design academy in Burlington. Her ten-week courses were popular but they were also a lot of work and in 1963 she took a break from teaching. The more leisurely pace did not last long and soon Eileen founded the Fashion Arts Group – a collective of women who gathered at Collard’s home to further their appreciation of fashion. As a project, the group made fourteen half-size models depicting fashions from pre-history to 1900 that were shown at local schools and libraries. Eileen had always included some fashion history in her dressmaking course but this project amplified her interest in the field of historic dress.

In 1965 Eileen joined the recently formed Costume Society of Great Britain and, whenever possible, attended their annual symposiums. As a personal project for the Canadian Centennial, Eileen decided to create a register of garments worn in the Burlington Ontario area between 1800 and 1935. There was no museum in Burlington in the 1960s that collected and displayed historic dress so a catalogue of garments found in the attics of old local families seemed the next best thing. Newspaper articles reported on Eileen’s project and soon she was known as ‘the old clothes lady’; gifts of antique dresses and accessories arrived in the mail from as far away as Manitoba. Eileen had become a collector.

A small exhibition of wedding attire at the Joseph Brant Museum in 1966 was a hit with visitors and by the end of that year an agreement was in place for the museum to accession Eileen Collard’s collection and make her the first costume curator (an honorary position she held until 1972). The Fashion Arts Group acted as the museum’s costume volunteer corps. The inaugural exhibition of the Joseph Brant Museum costume collection was during the centennial summer of 1967.

Soon afterwards, Eileen began teaching again, this time at Mohawk College, which set up a fashion arts program with her help. In 1969, the first results of her research became the basis of her book Early Clothing in Southern Ontario. For illustrations, Eileen created line drawings taken from period prints as well as from the garments she collected that were now in the Joseph Brant Museum. This illustration technique was an inexpensive standard for publishing at the time and was popular with contemporary authors in her field including Norah Waugh, Nancy Bradfield, and Janet Arnold.

At Eileen’s suggestion, the Costume Society of Ontario (CSO) was formed in November 1970 of which she became the first chair, a position she held for four years. Modelled after the Costume Society of Great Britain, the initial 84 members of the CSO were an assemblage of costume and fashion professionals that included theatre costumers, museum curators, fashion educators and private collectors. The CSO, which still exists, brought together its membership at social and educational functions throughout the year, especially at annual symposiums.

I was studying Canadian history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver the fall of 1979 when I first discovered Collard’s book Clothing in English Canada 1867 – 1907. Any proposals I submitted to write papers about fashion history were usually met with glacial reserve from my professors but a few courses in social geography and women’s studies allowed me the opportunity to explore various aspects of historic dress. However, apart from a few booklets by Katherine Brett from the Royal Ontario Museum, Eileen Collard was the only published authority on Canadian historical dress.

When I attended my first Costume Society of Ontario meeting in 1985 I had hoped to meet Eileen Collard but by then she was into her seventies and no longer attended CSO events due to failing health.  In 1987 Eileen Collard was recognized for her work when the Joseph Brant Museum officially named the second floor gallery in her honour, fifteen years before her passing at the age of ninety in 2002.

List of Publications by Eileen Collard:

Early Clothing in Southern Ontario (1969)

Patterns of Fashion of the 1870s (1971)

The Cut of Women’s 19th Century Dress:

Part 1 – The Vertical Epoch, Circa 1800 – 1821 (1972)

Part 2 – Romance and Sentiment, Circa 1822 – 1839 (1973)

Part 3 – Victorian Gothic, Circa 1840 – 1866 (1978)

Part 4 – The Rise and Fall of the Bustle, Circa 1867 – 1898 (1979)

From Toddler to Teens: An Outline of Children’s Clothing, Circa 1780 – 1930 (1974)

Clothing in English Canada, Circa 1867 – 1907 (1976)

Guide to Dressmaking and Fancy Work, reprint of 1870s work, with additional information (1977)

Women’s Dress In the 1920s (1981)

Decades of Clothing, Circa 1909 – 1919 (1982)

Cut and Construction of Women’s Dress in the 1930s (1983)

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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