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.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice to hear more about Jonathon and ken. as a sidebar, I have laid hands on that dress worn by Queen Elizabth at CMC. They asked me to make a new crin for it! Never actually did, as the display was cancelled, but I had a good look and boy! is the Queen busty! The decrations were also hideously 50's kitsch!