Gloria Vanderbilt 1924 – 2019

New York ‘best-dressed’ heiress and ‘Jeans Queen’ socialite known for her troubled childhood, failed marriages, various affairs with numerous celebrities, exquisite taste, and mother of news journalist Anderson Cooper, died Monday (June 17).

There are plenty of tributes about Ms. Vanderbilt, but it’s primarily her contribution to fashion I want to mark with this post. In 1976, Gloria Vanderbilt was in discussion with Hong Kong fashion firm Murjani about creating a line of clothes under her name. Sexy-fitted high-waisted women’s jeans in stretch denim became the focus of the line that was an instant success the moment it was launched in 1977. Vanderbilt ushered in the era of designer jeans that would become cluttered with names like Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Sasson. The label remained popular for years, but by the late 1980s other brands had overtaken sales.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Oppio

In 1940, Anna Ancillotti Chiarugi established a dressmaking business in Sovigliana-Vinci, near Florence. Her four daughters Sandra, Lucia, Rosaria and Stella Chiarugi inherited the business in 1975 and seven years later renamed the company Oppio (Italian for opium). The label found international success, but by 2009 the company had been bought out or sold.

Embroidered and applique knit two piece dress, mid 1980s, by Oppio

WHAM, Slogan T-shirts, and Katherine Hamnett

Although George Michael (1963 – 2016) was not a fashion designer, he was influential in bringing success to English designer Katharine Hamnett. The 32-year-old English born Hamnett was a graduate of London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art when she founded her label in 1979.

In 1983 Hamnett launched a collection of oversized t-shirts with large block letter slogans. When George Michael and Andrew Ridgely of WHAM wore Hamnett’s ‘Choose Life’ shirts in their Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go video in May 1984, Hamnett’s shirts became not only successful political statement fashions, but also internationally-recognized iconic images of the 1980s. After the Choose Life slogan, intended as an anti-suicide message, was appropriated by the anti-abortion movement, the slogan was dropped from Hamnett’s production.

In 1996 Hamnett won the first ever British Fashion Award as Britain’s favourite designer, and in 2011, Hamnett was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her service to the British fashion industry.

Back to the Eighties Fashion Film Festival

Every Friday night at 7 p.m. from August 14 – November 20, the Fashion History Museum (74 Queen Street East) is screening a free fashion film essential from the 1980s to accompany our feature exhibition ‘Back to the Eighties’. The series is made possible by a grant from the Cambridge & North Dumfries Community Foundation. We have already screened Can’t Stop the Music (1980), and Pretty in Pink (1985) – coming up are:

August 28 – Mannequin (1987)

UnknownKim Cattrall plays a blond-haired ancient Egyptian princess who is cursed to live out her life as a mannequin until true love comes along. Fast Forward to Wannamaker’s department store in 1987 Philadelphia, and the curse may be lifted forever.

Comedy (mild expletives, suggestive scenes)



September 4 – True Stories (1986)

Unknown-1Various quirky characters are visited in this mockumentary of a Texas town’s sesquicentennial celebrations. One of the most bizarre mall fashion shows ever! David Byrne of Talking Heads is the narrator.

Musical comedy



September 11 – Flashdance (1983)

Unknown-2Jennifer Beals plays a Pittsburgh welder by day and exotic dancer by night, who finds love, and auditions for a ballet company. The dancing sequences save this film, and the fad for cutting out the necklines of sweatshirts started here.

Romance (expletives, suggestive scenes)



September 18 – Earth Girls are Easy (1989)

Unknown-3Jeff Goldblum and Gina Davis star in this story of three hirsute aliens who splash down in an L.A. swimming pool, get a make over, fall in love and have an adventure. Fun musical sequences include ‘Cause I’m a Blonde’, and ‘Brand New You’.

Musical comedy (expletives, comedic suggestive scenes)



September 25 – Valley Girl (1983)

Unknown-4Two worlds totally collide when a grody Hollywood punk rocker (played by Nicholas Cage) falls for a bitchin’ mall rat from the valley.

Romance (expletives, nudity, suggestive scenes)




October 2 – Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985)

Unknown-5Classic teen flick that is better than most. Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt star in a tale of two girls who share a passion for dancing and want to win a contest to become regular dancers on a television dance show.

Romance/Musical comedy



October 9 – Starstruck (1982)

Unknown-6Australian film by Gillian Armstrong about a New Wave wannabe singing star who tries to make it big in time to save her family’s business.

Musical Comedy (expletives)


October 16 – Slaves of New York (1989)

Unknown-7Amusing tale of Manhattan gallery openings, fashion shows, and trendy bars filled with wannabe artists and one hat designer, played by Bernadette Peters, who is looking for her big break. A Stephen Sprouse fashion show is featured.

Comedy (expletives)



October 23 – Where the Heart Is (1989)

Unknown-8Dabney Coleman plays a conservative father who forces his artistic adult children to make it on their own. The tables turn in the volatile economy of the 1980s and the children end up taking in their parents. The film ends with a fashion show finale!

Comedy (expletives, nudity)



October 30 – Xanadu (1980)

imagesFantasy musical filmed during the winter of 1979/80 about a struggling graphic artist who opens a roller derby with the help of a Greek muse, played by Olivia Newton John, and Gene Kelly. It’s so bad its good. Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies) for bad films.

Musical fantasy comedy (two mild expletives)


November 6 – Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Unknown-9A bored housewife is mistaken for a punker wanted by the mob. This is probably Madonna’s best role.

Comedy (expletives)




November 13 – Troop Beverly Hills (1989)

Unknown-10Shelly Long plays a Beverly Hills housewife in the middle of a divorce when she finds focus in her life by becoming the den mother of her daughter’s Wilderness Girl troop and gives the organization a makeover in the process.




November 20 – Ruthless People (1986)

Unknown-11Bette Midler is held captive as the wife of a manufacturer who steals the idea for lycra miniskirts from a young designer.

Comedy (many expletives, brief nudity, suggestive scenes)



Back to the Eighties and yes, we ARE open!

Everyone keeps asking when the Fashion History Museum will have its grand opening… We actually are open but it was very quiet – no fanfare, we just unlocked the front door. The main reason we chose to not tell anybody that we are now open is because the road in front of the museum is being ripped up and redone this summer, from sewer pipes to lamp standards and accessing the museum isn’t the easiest. However, despite our best efforts to keep the museum a secret we have already welcomed over 1,500 visitors from as far away as Romania and Australia since moving into the former old post office building.


View of Back to the Eighties – Romance and Innovation

There are plans for a more formal launch and marketing campaign once the roadwork is complete this fall, but in the meantime we are open Wednesday – Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

We have three galleries: the first currently features treasures from the collection. Next year we have plans for three exhibitions in this space: ‘To Meet the Queen’ – what to wear when meeting royalty, ‘Ken’ – the fashions of Barbie’s boyfriend 1961-1968, and ‘Wild and Rare’ – endangered species and fashion. Gallery two is currently featuring ‘Back to the Eighties’ – a retrospective of the decade’s fashions. Next year we will be starting with a retrospective of the Toronto fashion designer Pat McDonagh, followed by ‘Tying the Knot’ – 150 years of wedding fashions. Gallery three is for two dimensional exhibitions including contemporary artist and photography shows with a fashion theme. The exhibition schedule for this space is less formal and changes frequently. Currently we have a photographic exhibition ‘Punks and Posers’ – portraits from London and New York in the 1980s.

We have also launched a Fashion in Film series to accompany the 1980s theme. Every Friday night at 7 p.m. we screen a fashion film essential from the decade. See the next post for coming films.

Fred Slatten (1922 – 2015)

fullThere was a wave of innovative shoe designers who all opened their businesses in about 1970. In London it was Terry de Havilland, in Vancouver it was Peter Fox and John Fluevog, in Toronto it was Master John, and in Los Angeles it was Fred Slatten. Born 10 October 1922 in Kansas City Missouri, Slatten began selling shoes while he was still attending college. In the late 1940s he moved to California and began working as a shoe buyer for Bullocks department stores. Eventually he ended up in the wholesale shoe business, and in 1970 Fred opened his Los Angeles shop on Santa Monica Boulevard near San Vicente.

6073fe3ff2e59bd4961531572a63431aWhen platforms became popular in the early 1970s, Slatten became famous for his towering, eccentric styles. Celebrities came to buy: Liberace, Cher, Elton John, and Sally Struthers who wore her Slatten platforms on All in the Family. Slatten’s boots, shoes and sandals were embellished by artists who hand-painted, decoupaged, gold leafed, airbrushed, and bedazzled the platform soles for their clients, often in styles inspired by ‘Old Hollywood’. Slatten also took credit for creating the apocryphal live goldfish swimming in a see-through platform.

His shop window was known for the outrageous shoes revolving on mirrored turntables, illuminated by disco balls. When platforms fell from fashion Slatten then became known for his high heel styles instead. Slatten closed his shop in 1992, when he turned 70, and died on July 1 at the age of 92.

Spread from TV Guide November 15, 1975:

platform-shoes-tvguide-nov15-21-1975-cher-carol-burnett platform-shoes-tvguide-nov15-21-1975-sally-struthers

Elio Fiorucci (1935 – 2015)

Italian fashion designer and entrepreneur Elio Fiorucci posing in his shop in Galleria Passarella. In the background, the shop assistant Cristina Bagnoli posing wearing a sexy gown designed by the fashion designer. Milan, 1970 (Photo by Giuseppe Pino/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Elio Fiorucci in his shop in Galleria Passarella, Milan, 1970 (Photo by Giuseppe Pino/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

In 1979’s The Greatest Dancer, Sister Sledge sang “He wears the finest clothes, the best designers, heaven knows, from his head down to his toes – Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci…” Although I don’t believe Fiorucci ever made or sold men’s clothes, the song immortalizes how important the label was in the late 1970s.

Elio Fiorucci was born in Milan on June 10, 1935. He began his fashion career as a teenager, working in his father’s shoe shop. In 1967 he opened a boutique on Galleria Passarella in Milan, modelled after the lifestyle emporium Biba in London, with most of his stock coming from English designers like Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes. In 1970 Elio began styling his own eponymous line that mixed the spirit of Carnaby street with his Italian sense of colour and humour. He also kept his eye on trends, and popularized Afghani coats and Brazilian thong bikinis in his store. His approach was right for the times, and within a few years he was expanding his fashion empire, opening stores in London in 1975 and New York in 1976.

Fiorucci store on 59th street in New York

Fiorucci store on 59th street in New York

When Studio 54 opened in Manhattan in 1977 Fiorucci was hired to organize the grand opening. The clothes Fiorucci sold became associated with the disco scene. In 1980 when Warhol launched Interview magazine, the opening party was held at Fiorucci’s store. Fiorucci was more of a stylist and retailer than a designer – in 1978 he was the first brand to sign a collection of sunglasses. The Fiorucci logo became a pair of cherubs wearing sunglasses – an image that could be found on everything from T-shirts to key chains.

Advert for Fiorucci jeans, c. late 1970s

Advert for Fiorucci jeans, c. late 1970s

Although known for colourful, fun clothing, including clothes of vinyl and plastic, it was tight-fitting jeans that really established Fiorucci’s international reputation and set off the designer jean wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Tight-fitting jeans were a staple of the Disco scene and later, in the early 1980s, Fiorucci reportedly became the first to carry stretch jeans made from a mix of Lycra and denim. His skinny clientele loved them – Fiorucci only carried clothing for thin girls, explaining “To manufacture only small sizes is doing a favour for humanity. I prevent ugly girls from showing off their bad figures.’’

knapsack from the Fiorucci store in Rome, 1981, donated to the FHM by Liz Derbecker, 12.22.11

knapsack from the Fiorucci store in Rome, 1981, donated to the FHM by Liz Derbecker, 12.22.11

After meteoric success in the 1970s and early 1980s, Fiorucci’s fortunes began to turn. By the late 1980s his style had fallen from favour, he ran into distribution problems, and had to close his New York location. In the mid 1990s Fiorucci was up on charges of fraud for falsifying reports to increase the value of his company when it was sold to Carrera in 1989. He was sentenced by an Italian court to a suspended prison term of 22 months.

Fiorucci’s fortune eventually changed and in 2004 he founded the brand ‘Love Therapy’.

Back to the Eighties…

Satin suit by Cache, c. 1984

Satin suit by Cache, c. 1984

linen jodhpurs and blouse, by Bern Conrad, c. 1981

Jodhpurs and blouse, by Bern Conrad, c. 1981

The Fashion History Museum’s inaugural exhibition at our new gallery in the former Hespeler post office (74 Queen Street East) in Cambridge, will be all about the 1980s. This show will explore 80s fashion in a thematic survey under topics such as: glamour; power; shock; innovation; and romance. The show opens June 27 and runs until the end of the year.

It’s HIS fault – Koos’ Cosby sweaters

I can’t say I ever loved those kooky sweaters made famous by Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable, even though I did buy a knock-off of one in fall 1987 and wore it that winter before coming to my senses. Unfortunately there is film footage existing of me wearing that sweater in an interview about women’s underthings for the now defunct Canadian television show ‘Live it Up’ (I really hope they burned all their videotape!)

I was never aware of there being a prominent designer behind those sweaters, but I was wrong. Dutch born designer Koos van den Akker, who trained at Dior in the early 1960s before immigrating to New York in 1968, is the name behind those sweaters. Shortly after Koos began creating his crazy coloured and patterned applique sweaters, a friend purchased one as a gift for Bill Cosby, who was already a frequent sweater wearer on his show, but in more traditional argyle and striped patterns. Cosby wore the Koos sweater on the show during the second season, which aired in early 1986 and fan mail for the sweater poured in. Each episode soon featured a crazy sweater as a regular feature of the show, and the style became an icon of late 1980s fashion.

For more detail, there is the Cosby Sweater Project that is documenting every crazy sweater that appeared on the show. There is also this interview with Koos van den Akker about his background, work, and his memoirs of the infamous ‘Cosby’ sweater: