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…

Fashion Show Images: 1900-1920s

I originally began collecting vintage clothing in the summer of 1977 after I took a job at Heritage Village Museum, in Burnaby B.C. I was given a white collarless shirt to wear as my uniform but I wanted to look better than that, so I began scouring Vancouver’s vintage clothing stores for straw boaters, lace-up boots, stiff collars and knitted ties. Finding men’s vintage that fit me (I wore size 11 1/2 shoes and take a 7 3/4 hat size) was not easy, but I also began to buy other vintage and antique clothing, including a black net dress from 1894 purchased at a shop called Cabbages and Kinx in Gastown, Vancouver.

By the spring of 1980 my collection was nearing a hundred items when I was asked to give a fashion show presentation at the museum. I asked all my female friends to model, and managed to pull together a show of 12 outfits, starting with the 1894 black net dress and ending with a Disco T-shirt and knickers. For the next twenty-five years I continued to do fashion shows and often took photographs backstage, or sometimes someone in the audience took photos and sent me copies. There are videos as well, but that project will be for another day…

Last week my computer started to die, so I moved all my files to a new computer, including some of the image files from past fashion shows. My new computer is a Mac and has all sorts of fun gadgets, so I thought I would put some of these images into four presentations that highlight some of the looks from the historical fashion shows I used to produce.  And thanks again to all the women who squirmed into girdles and suffered back-combed hair for the sake of past beauty!

1900-1925 fashion