Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Fashion History Museum

Some events in life, no matter how humble, tend to leave a lasting impression.  That is how it was with my first exposure to a museum.  I can't remember how old I was when my father first took me to the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto, to view the Egyptian mummies and dinosaurs, but I couldn't have been more than 11 years old.  While climbing the great staircase on our way to the third floor, we passed the entrance to the costume galleries, and while the gowns on display within my sight intrigued me, we were not detoured from our intended destination.  I can still remember that gown.  It was once worn by Queen Elizabeth II on a state visit in the 1950's, and was embroidered and appliqued with green velvet leaves.  I haven't seen the dress since, but I think that I can recount its every detail from that first glimpse.  (You can now find it on Google images.)

Viewing the artifacts that day, I hardly gave a thought as to how they came to rest in the museum. It wasn't until I was much older and started to acquire things myself that I learned something of the history of collecting. Accumulating and collecting as a pass time can probably be dated to the earliest civilizations. Certainly we can document the interest and patronage of Renaissance men or the enlightened gentleman of the 17th century with his "cabinet of curiosities." In both instances, though purchased for private pleasure, these collections would become the nucleus of some of the greatest holdings in public galleries and museums around the world.  Amazingly, museum collections are a fairly recent phenomenon of the past two hundred years.

I was curious to know what makes someone collect things on such a large scale. In my teenage years I collected American glassware and English china.  My foray into costume collecting has happened only recently, in the past 10 years. I never expected to collect, but with the acquisition of a few gifts of vintage clothing, I became hooked. In particular, I was drawn especially to the needle arts. Collecting in itself has not been the rewarding part. Clothing artifacts are not convenient to collect and, for the most part, items remain out of sight in closets and boxes. So why have I spent so much energy and money on acquiring these garments?  For me, the joy comes in sharing my collection with others and I suspect this to be true of other collectors, too.

Jonathan Walford:  Not your average rag and bone man!

I first met Jonathan through a social occasion in the late 1980's.  I was throwing a birthday party for a mutual acquaintance; Jonathan and his partner, Ken, were invited.  They showed a particular interest in a portrait that was then hanging over the fireplace and that is how we began our discourse on fashion history. At the time, I was not collecting but I did have a couple of rags—literally—that had come through my grandmother. I presented them like holy relics and Jonathan was instinctively respectful in his approach to discussing them with me. If you know Jonathan, he can make an old bandana sound interesting and, by the time he's done, it acquires far greater value. Several years later our paths would cross again through our association with the Costume Society of Ontario. Eventually we would do some business together and a friendship has developed over the years.

Jonathan came to Ontario from British Columbia in 1985, having finished his B.A. in History and Museum Studies, at Simon Fraser. When I met him, he was working as a curator for The Bata Shoe Museum. Actually, the renowned museum on Bloor Street, in Toronto, had yet to become a reality. Jonathan was responsible for overseeing the transformation of a private footwear collection—stored in the basement of the shoe manufacturer's headquarters—into the world class museum it is today. He remained in that position, curating shows and overseeing its education programming until 1999, when he left the Bata to pursue other opportunities in the broader field of fashion history and scholarship.  

Kenn and Jonathan among their collection
The collecting bug hit Jonathan when he was 12 or 13 years old. Like me, he did not start out to collect articles related to dress, but rather vintage sheet music and recipe books!  A stint working in the local museum in Burnaby, B.C. demanded that he wear a costume. In his own words: "My costume consisted of a collarless shirt and cap—I had to do better than that!"  So began his exposure to the world of second-hand and vintage clothing stores. By 1978, at the age of seventeen, he purchased his first dress for $60.00.  It was made of black net, from around 1894, and was soon joined by pieces he found from around the house.  Jonathan's father was a women's clothing buyer for the Hudson Bay Company's Mirror Room, in Vancouver and he says that, by extension, his mother was a bit of a fashion plate. So you could say that fashion was part of his DNA. He "caught the bug" and, within a year, his mother informed him that he was not allowed to take over the guest room for his growing collection.
Jonathan estimates that the current collection contains approximately 8,000 artifacts! While his family was not sentimental about old clothes, he has been able to preserve his mother's wedding dress, a black Ottoman silk coat from 1958, and a dress that his sister wore in 1978 when she won a disco dancing contest.

Canadian perspectives

It is this ability to place costume within a context of time and personal experience that appeals to Jonathan. He explains: "We all wear it and it is THE most intimate part of history. Costume is the best expression of a generation or a culture. You can tell more about the people from how they dressed than from any other type of decorative art form."

"Sometimes I get taken in by a story, like a dress and coat set I bought. The vendor's grandmother had worn the outfit the morning of November 22, 1963 when she shook President John F. Kennedy's hand at a Fort Worth, Texas hotel, just a mere two hours before he was fatally shot in Dallas."

Not every garment in the collection has such provenance, but many do. I remember seeing a suit owned and worn by Eva Peron and shoes that once graced the foot of a famous Hollywood leading lady in his collection. He admits that mistakes have happened too, but he is extremely cautious in his collecting. "My worst mistakes have been for the things I didn't buy and should have," Jonathan claims. That would include a Mario Fortuny that he passed up because he suspected that it might have been shortened. As a serious collector, he is still in search of some elusive items:  an elevator skirt from the 1860's (they have strings underneath to raise the skirt when exercising), a proper bicycling suit with trousers from the 1890's and, of course, designer labels by Worth, Patou, Doucet, Lucille, Paquin or Poiret.

Is it too late to build a really serious collection? Jonathan says that it is never too late, but that you may have to modify what it is that you wish to collect. With the recent interest in costume and dress generated by blockbuster museum shows and due to their ephemeral nature, older and higher profile items have become harder to acquire. He suggests that "specialization" and "focusing" are the keys to success.

Jonathan advises: "Most importantly, a collector is a discerning connoisseur, not a hoarder. I have a rule, if I can't publish an image of something in my collection, use it in an exhibition, or learn from it, then why do I have it? The whole point of collecting is to obtain the best you can find and afford."

Supported by a reference collection of periodicals and exhibition catalogues that would be the envy of many, when Jonathan curates a show or displays his collection, everything is just right. This is true for the photographs and illustrations in his published works, as well.
Since leaving the Bata Shoe Museum in 1999, Jonathan has been extremely busy, curating exhibitions as diverse as:

"Nuclear Fashion" (fashion advertising 1946-1964)
"The Art of the Shoe" (fashion footwear)
"WARdrobe" (1940's fashion)
"Ready to Tear" (on paper clothing)
"A Head of Style" (hats and bonnets) 
"The Taming of the Shoe" (collecting footwear)
"Shake Your Booty" (dance footwear 1720-1980)

Jonathan's publications include:
ISBN-10: 0500515263


He is currently working on two more publications, one about American fashion from the 1950's and a larger book on fashions of the 1960's.

The Present and the Future:

In 2004, Jonathan and Kenn founded the Fashion History Museum and in 2009 it received charitable status. They continue to build the collection through private donations and thoughtful acquisitions. Their long term goal is the establishment of the Fashion History Museum in its own permanent building. They admit that in these hard economic times finding funding for the needs of such an ambitious project has been a challenge. Jonathan does point out: "However, cultural institutions are what make a city unique."

Currently you can get a peak at what this dynamic duo can do with limited resources. If you happen to be in the Guelph, Ontario area over the next month be sure to visit the Guelph Civic Museum to see: 

"12.12.12: Life in Three Centuries"

This exhibit compares the fashions, social history, popular culture, and news headlines of 1812, 1912 and 2012, and demonstrates Jonathan's conviction that fashion be viewed within its larger cultural context.  Like a mirror, it reflects the society in which it was worn.  

It is due to travel to Markham, Ontario in September of this year.  

Installation: "12.12.12: Life in Three Centuries"

Like every age, we need our visionaries. Where would we be today without the collectors and dreamers who have had the foresight to preserve and share their collections with future generations? For those of us who know Jonathan and Kenn, we wish them all the best with The Fashion History Museum, and you can be sure that when the doors finally open, I'll be there to share the excitement with you.

P.S.  If you wish to follow an insightful, fun and scholarly blog, be sure to visit Jonathan's. Just type:  "The Fashion History Museum" or "Kickshaw Productions" into your search engine.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dressed to Kill

A Dance of Death
Last fall it was announced from Spain that the city of Barcelona had held its last bull fight.  The spectacle, I cannot call it a sport, has traditions reaching back to the middle ages when the pitting of man against beast was an acceptable form of entertainment.  Like bear baiting or cock fighting, it probably had its roots in the games of the Colosseum.  While I have never attended a bull fight—it wasn't from any lack of opportunity but more from a matter of personal choice—I do appreciate the artisanal skill in creating the costume known as the suit of lights.

In the Middle Ages, participation in this event was reserved for knights and noblemen.  Perhaps practiced earlier by the Moors, it was first performed on horseback against the bull in the arena.  The spectacle was as much about horsemanship and valor as it was about man's superiority over nature.  By the 18th century it was possible for commoners to earn the right to enter the arena.  Their status, or lack of it, necessitated the wearing of a red sash across the chest.  As well, because of their lowly rank, commoners had to face the bull on foot and the rest, as they say, is history. 

So how did the current costume develop from the humble leather breaches, simple belt, coarse woolen shirt, and red sash into the spectacular display it is today.  The suit eventually borrowed details from the "majos", Spanish aristocrats, who were influenced by the Bourbon court of Louis XIV's grandson, in the 18th century.  Assimilating the fashion for decorative embellishment that was so much a feature of court dress, it became blended with the stylized characteristics of Islamic patterns, a constant reminder of Spain's 8th and 9th century occupation, and more contemporary fashions of floral and Christian iconography.  The eventual use of gold thread and bullion came later, around the beginning of the 19th century and can be documented in images painted by Goya.  The transition from "majo" to matador—or from dandy to idol—was now complete.  Profane elegance becomes sacred elegance.   

Contemporary Suit of Lights
The term "suit of lights" is a metaphor and a play on the word "Lucifer," meaning bearer of light.  The battle in the arena can be compared to the mythical battles of the great archangels, such as Saint George who slew the dragon.  The finest of silks, linens, and velvets embroidered with shining gold arabesques are now the hallmark of a matador.  Only he can wear the suit embellished with gold threads.  His assistants, the banderilleros or picadors, wear silver embroideries.  The entire costume, designed to catch and reflect the light and shadow of the late afternoon sun, locks the matador and bull in a macabre ballet of life and death.  The reflective qualities of the suit are designed to dazzle the crowd and confuse the bull.

A matador's suit requires more than a month to create, not including the preparation period during which the colours, the embroidery and the materials are chosen.  Many fittings insure that the garment acts like a second skin.  The tailoring is flawless; every cut is exact to avoid one false fold.  The matador must remain impeccable during the fight for he represents a kind of sacrifice or saintliness.  Like the knights of the 13th century, colours and emblems work together symbolically, signifying his membership in a sort of bullfighting nobility.  Don't be fooled; this is more than a pretty costume. Like a corset, it is cut to enhance the stance of the fighter and mentally prepare him to do battle.  A matador may require seven or eight such suits per year depending on his fighting schedule!

Embroidery detail
The suit consists of three pieces and the cape.  The jacket is shortened to waist length to avoid obstructed movement during the fight. Shoulders are emphasized by enormous epaulettes which accentuate the neatness of the waist by broadening the chest.  The sleeve is not sewn into the armseye, but only over the shoulder to allow for greater freedom of movement while maintaining a tight silhouette over the torso.  The effect can be traced to elements of medieval armor. Tassels and fringe provide further movement and play with the light reflective qualities of the metal threads to dazzle and distract. The jacket is always worn open to reveal the vest and a pristine linen shirt.  Often the shirt is so heavily embroidered that it can weigh between 6 to 8 pounds. The vest is attached to the jacket in a way that, when buttoned, the two are perfectly aligned.  Once again, these details were introduced to maintain the bullfighter's neat appearance during the fight.  The shirt itself retains religious symbolism and some matadors are superstitious enough to keep repairing this garment as it becomes worn with wear.  Embroidery in the form of white work or broderie anglaise decorates the finest of batiste.  The appearance is similar to the old tuxedo shirts of the 1970's.

Vest always coordinates with the suit
Up to 12 miles of gold thread can be required to complete the embroidery on the more elaborate suits!  The narrow pants, with their high waist suspended from the shoulders, can be traced to the early 19th century.  Since the 18th century these pants have been made of silk or satin.  The outside of the leg is embroidered with the same motifs that decorate the vest and jacket.  Garters and silk stockings complete the ensemble.  It is this garment which accentuates the torero's masculinity and turns him into an object of myth and sexual desire.  The act of dressing becomes an art form as well.  Women are not permitted to attend this ceremony. It can take up to three hours of solemn prayer and contemplation, for the matador is constantly aware that this could be his last fight.  Following prayer, personal ablutions are performed in a manner than can only be described as ritualistic.  The placement of a lock of hair—"la coleta"—to the back of the neck begins the transformation from mortal to god.  The suit is laid out on a chair in a particular presentation and, with the aid of his valet, the dressing begins, a procedure that can last for some 45 minutes.  Stepping into the soft pumps of calves skin, designed to grip the sandy floor of the arena, and the donning of his cape completes this ceremony.  

A bullfighter is a superstitious and religious man.  Colour choices and embroidered patterns can be based on a matador's personal fears or taboos, as much as on personal associations.  Often, the costume's  palette borrows the colours of a religious holiday or saint.  A suit of black cloth and jet embroidery communicates personal mourning and is tied to earlier customs that culminated in the 19th century practices for men and women.

Mourning suit
A skin tight net is worn beneath this garment for support
Sleeve detail
Arabesques and florals display Islamic influences

Immaculate fit is the hallmark of the tailor

Epaulette influenced by earlier armors
The dance of death begins.  The silhouette defined by the elaborate embroideries creates a visual armor in the pose below.  What will happen to the art form?  Will Madrid and Mexico follow the movement away from the arena?  Due to the fragile nature of these garments and the conditions under which they are used, very few pieces survive for posterity.  If damaged or stained severely, the embellishment is unpicked to reclaim the precious gold for reprocessing.   

Let's hope that museum curators will start to consider the importance of collecting some of these suits before it's "Lights Out!"

Fit for battle
While the future of the bull fight is in question, my tour this September to Spain is not.  Why not join me on:

A Spanish Sojourn
September 23 to October 7, 2012

For complete details visit. and look under Joseph Hisey Specialty Tours