Fashion History with live models

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Denise Lee, c. 1938

I am often asked what got me started in the field of fashion history. I blogged about this a few years ago but to be honest, I change my answer every time because there is no one reason. My interest in history is innate, I am fascinated by how people lived, what they wore, ate, read, and thought about…

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Shirley Lee, c. 1966

When I was a child I loved watching historically set films but more for the costumes than the plot: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and my favourite, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Anna Quayle singing ‘You’re my teddy bear’ while wearing a boned corset and teddy. I remember crying myself to sleep because I wasn’t allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch the Six Wives of Henry VIII.

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Julia Pine c. 1944

When my family moved to Ontario from B.C. in 1972 I took every opportunity I could to visit the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto – the costume displays were my favourite. When we returned to Vancouver in 1975 I couldn’t find costume displays at any museum so I went back to watching television shows and films set in the past – The Duchess of Duke Street, Poldark, Barry Lyndon…

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Liz Derbecker c. 1974

While we were still in Ontario we attended a Victorian-themed church picnic in Oakville (I was a choirboy at the local Anglican church…) and one parishioner wore her grandmother’s 1880s wedding dress of starched linen voile that rustled as she walked across the lawn. I was fascinated that such a thing had survived outside of a museum. My family weren’t keepers – I had grown up in a mid century modern house with Danish teak furniture. The only vintage clothing that had survived in our house was my mother’s wedding dress from 1952 and a beaded purse from the 1920s that had belonged to a great aunt. I had seen bits and pieces of antique and vintage clothing for sale in antique stores, but with an allowance of $5.00 per week buying anything was fiscally impossible and would have been difficult to explain to my parents.

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Sheena Andrews, c. 1958

One day in 1976 my mother and I attended an historical fashion show held at a church in West Vancouver. Vancouver clothing collector Ivan Sayers, who had been acquiring vintage clothing since the mid 1960s, was presenting a fashion show of clothing dating from the 1860s to the 1960s. Every decade was represented by authentic dresses worn by models in period perfect underwear and accessories. The result was magical – history was alive and walking right in front of me.

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Anne Keyes, c. 1959

In 1977 I began working part time at Heritage Village Museum in Burnaby – a recreated turn-of-the-century village. The costume supplied to me was simple and uninspired – a collarless shirt. I set about finding the missing parts to make it a real outfit – the collars and ties, caps and sweaters, knickers and suspenders although having size 11½ feet and a 7¾ head made finding real vintage a challenge. Every penny I made was plowed back into my costume, as well as some of those bits and pieces at antique stores and vintage clothing shops I had seen scattered about town. In late 1977 I bought my first garment for the collection – a black net dress from c. 1894 from Cabbages and Kinx, a vintage clothing store in Gastown.

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Susie Jackson c. 1916

Over the next few years I frequented every charity shop and garage sale I could. A school friend of my mother gave me several pieces after her father died including his morning suit from 1921, three pairs of John Lobb button boots, and a 1930s lame evening gown worn by her mother on an Atlantic crossing of the Queen Mary. Other gifts came in and the collection grew quickly, filling the closet in the guest room, redubbed the ‘collection closet.’

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Kim Darby c. 1961

In spring 1980 I got my first behind-the-scenes job in a museum as a part time assistant curator at the North Shore Museum in North Vancouver, but before I left Heritage Village, I mounted my very first fashion show for the Easter weekend. That show started a twenty-seven year run of producing a hundred fashion shows (I counted – it was exactly 100) for a variety of clients including: University women’s clubs, colleges, museums, church and temple groups, and retirement homes. Most of the shows went well, only a couple bombed – the worst was a country club women’s group who were more in the mood for Chippendale dancers than a fashion show.

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Erin Darby, c. 1934

A few museum professionals piously criticized how I was damaging original clothes in my presentation. I felt the educational value of seeing the clothes in movement outweighed the value of the clothes I had acquired for the shows, which were not considered museum quality garments (although since then, some have been upgraded to the museum collection.) I relied mostly upon durable cotton dresses, wool suits, as well as pieces that were altered/damaged but presentable from a distance, and worked well as examples of fashion when properly accessorized.

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Julia Pine, c. 1901

In all the years of doing shows I had a surprisingly low amount of damage: 5 pairs of seamed stockings were ruined; a princess line slip from c. 1912 that saw use in nearly all 100 fashion shows had a lot of tears and repairs, one 1930s evening dress  got lipstick on it (it was already discoloured), and one pair of glass earrings got broken. I also had a model steal a pair of earrings…

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Sarah Beam, c. 1942

We stopped promoting the shows in 1999 but took three more bookings before finally calling it quits in 2007. We needed to refocus our energy on the museum, and the clothes and accessories I was keeping for the fashion shows were taking up too much room. It was a lot of fun, but a LOT of work! Funnily enough, I got a call a few weeks ago from someone who had seen one of the shows in 1986 and wanted to book a show for her club’s anniversary in 2017! I will be going back but only to lecture. However, we have talked about creating a Youtube film of 20th century fashion on live models (not museum clothes obviously, but pieces acquired specifically for the project) so we may come out of retirement for one last project…

16 thoughts on “Fashion History with live models

  1. Out of curiosity, did you retain anything for the collection from the live shows? It interests me that the Museum of Costume, Bath, recently went to great lengths (Art Fund purchase etc) to purchase back some of the dresses that Doris Langley Moore had used on live models in her books. In a way it’s part of the history of the collection isn’t it?

    • I did use some things that I now consider a part of the museum collection like the Rosy the Riveter overalls and the brown wool dress and hat from 1938 in the top picture. I also still have the 1916 blue wool suit and hat, and the pink lace bridesmaid dress, but those may not remain in the collection forever. The lining of the blue wool suit is completely shredded, and the pink lace bridesmaid outfit doesn’t have any provenance – a rule I try to keep for all bridal party clothing so the museum isn’t inundated with wedding and bridesmaid gowns!

      • That’s good practice – I think it depends on the item though. I gladly bought an Utility CC41-labelled wedding dress because I’d never seen one before (or since, although I have seen a couple dinner-plate label ones….). I do have other items I know were worn for weddings, although no details have been forthcoming, such as three pretty spectacular Gina Fratini numbers, where the designer is just as important as the provenance (indeed, one was modelled by the actress Sarah Miles in Vogue in 1973) but obviously these are different kettles of fish.

        • We have had offers for at least twenty wedding dresses just in the last few months. Unless the dress is VERY old (over 100 years) or by an important designer, I have made it a rule that it must have a photograph of the bride and positive identification (date, place etc.) That only knocked out about 4 or 5 of the ones offered to us! We are doing a wedding show next year and we already have too many to use for some eras, like the 1950s, but the last one that was offered I took because it also came with her going away suit, with a photo of her wearing that as well with her husband who wore a suit made of the same material! I couldn’t break up the set!

          • That is FANTASTIC! Love the matching his and hers suits story, shame you didn’t have his suit to go with it too….

    • It was Frederick’s of Hollywood! I probably should have kept that suit, but I opted for a more tasteful blue denim suit with studs instead…

  2. It is interesting that you name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a formative influence. Suzanne Rogers, wife to famous rich telecom giant Edward (son of Ted) Rogers, claims that her childhood idol was Truly Scrumptious from CCBB and she has modelled her personal style after her. Especially the hair.

    • And THAT would be the difference between Suzanne Rogers and me…. I never took to Truly Scrumptious and her insipid hats. Baroness Bomburst from Vulgaria was my idol!

          • More interesting for sure, as well the costumes for the baroness were wonderful. Over the top and Anna Quayle had the shape for them. Even as a kid I found it odd that the Baron wanted her gone 🙂

          • She might have been high maintenance but the toy-playing Baron was no prize!

          • High maintenance for sure, but she was a Baroness living in a castle, you’d expect that, I would think. All I know is that if I was the baron and had her as my wife, constantly wearing very flattering dresses and lingerie while loving me, I’d be in heaven..and likely late for every function ;0)

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