Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

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Mary Hamilton’s Wedding Dress: A Study of a 1930’s Gown

Wedding dresses are often only worn once and then carefully stored away as a material memory of a significant event” (note 1).

This is true of  a fashionable 1930s satin wedding dress and headpiece that was worn by Mary Hamilton (1908-2000) at her Toronto wedding in 1936. Mary’s dress and headpiece as well as related ephemera were recently donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection by her daughter, Mary Walton-Ball.

Walton-Ball Ephemera_newspaper clipping.jpg

Newspaper clippings of Mollie Hamilton from June 6, 1931 and February 1, 1930 (left to right). Publication unknown.

Mary Hamilton, known as Mollie, was born into a prosperous Toronto family in 1908. The Hamiltons were in the steel business and made many contributions to the city’s industry. Mollie studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and sang in Healey Willan’s choir, as well as the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church choir. In 1935, Mollie was offered a position with a stage company and performed live before the main show at the Imperial Theatre. In addition to these endeavours, she sang on a radio show called the “Blue Coal Hour”.

On June 27, 1936, Mollie married Dr. Horace Gifford (Lou) Walton-Ball. The reception was held in the garden of their home at three in the afternoon (note 2). The couple went on to have two children; David in 1939 and Mary in 1945. Mollie contributed to her community as a volunteer at the Toronto Western Hospital gift shop (note 3). Throughout her life, Mollie travelled across Europe and North America. Mollie, in her 92nd year, passed away on July 4, 2000. She was described as “feisty with a quick sense of humour” and “elegant, articulate, and graceful” (note 4).

The words elegant and graceful describe 1930s fashion just as fittingly as they do Mollie’s personality and demeanor. According to the book The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashion, dress styles from this period were, “eclectic, but the strongest trends were slim-fitting draped styles inspired by classic or medieval dress” (note 5). Mollie Hamilton’s wedding dress fulfills all of this criteria, making it an embodiment of a fashionable 1930s bridal gown.


A photo of Mollie on her wedding day; June 27, 1936.

The dress is made of a creamy white bias cut satin (FRC2015.09.001). It has no labels, so there is no indication of where or by whom it was made. Mollie’s daughter Mary suggested that the garment was likely custom-made by a dressmaker in Toronto (note 6). The bodice features gathers on either side of the point created by the empire waist seam. Those gathers are repeated along the neckline, which is topped by a border of silk rosettes with beaded centers. The sleeves of the dress are adorned with beaded smocking on the shoulders and along the cuffs at the wrists. There are snaps at the base of the wrist to allow the hand of the wearer to pass through this snug closure.

Sketch of the wedding dress sleeve, rosette, and bodice by Hannah Dobbie, 2016.

The gown’s skirt begins at the empire waist and continues in a gradual flare. The skirt’s already long length is extended by a train of 41 inches (104 cm). The train begins at either side of centre front, growing in size as it reaches the centre back of the garment. The flare created is dramatic; to ensure that the fabric fell with the desired effect when worn, small weights were sewn into each side of the hem.

This dress was machine-stitched, with the beadwork being sewn by hand. The dress is unlined and does not have any pockets. The selvedge of the fabric can be seen in one of the seams between the train and the skirt. There is no form of reinforcement and there has not been any finishing process on the fabric. Four self-covered buttons arranged vertically down centre back with a hook and eye closure above them serve as this garment’s only form of closure.

The dress is in good condition. It shows little to no fading and only very slight signs of wear. Some beads have fallen off and there are some small stains on the under side of the train where it would have dragged on the ground. There do not seem to be any signs of alteration or intentional removal of embellishments.

When worn, this fabric would feel smooth, cool, light, and luxurious on the skin. A faint swooshing of the satin would be heard when parts of the dress rubbed against each other. The garment’s construction is relatively simple, but the intricate details and beadwork create an impression of understated beauty.

According to a study of vintage evening wear by DeLong and Petersen, dresses in the 1930s were characterized “by slim-fitting elegant shapes and vertical lines that created the image of a womanly curvaceous body, with surfaces defined by fluid fabrics and enhanced by fitted shapes” (note 7). Mrs. Walton-Ball’s wedding dress was a very of-the-moment, stylish piece that, 80 years later, still looks fashionable. This garment evokes a sense of glamour, elegance, and femininity — characteristics that Mollie Walton-Ball herself exemplified.


Note 1: Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim. 2015. “Case Study of a Lanvin Wedding Gown” in The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury, 160.

Note 2: Handwritten letter written by Mollie Walton-Ball in April, 1968.

Note 3: Funeral program for Mollie Hamilton dated August 8, 2000.

Note 4: Ibid.

Note 5: Edwina Ehrman. 2011. The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publications, 117.

Note 6: Email correspondence with Mary Walton-Ball dated October 6, 2016.

Note 7: See M. DeLong and K. Petersen, 2004. “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection”. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22 (3): 99-112.


Ehrman, Edwina. 2011. The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashion. London: V & A Publications. Accessed September 30, 2016.

DeLong, M. R. and K. Petersen. 2004. “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection”. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22 (3): 99-112. doi:10.1177/0887302×0402200301. Accessed September 30, 2016.

Mida, Ingrid and Kim, Alexandra. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Research. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

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Introducing another member of the FRC team

I am delighted to welcome Teresa Adamo to the FRC team this year.  Teresa made a memorable impression last year when she came in to research one of our ballet costumes. As a maker, Teresa brings research talents as well as much needed sewing and design skills that will help us accomplish our goals for 2016/2017.


Teresa Adamo

Teresa is in her third year of the Fashion Design program at Ryerson. She is interested in learning more about historic dress and costume in the FRC and has previous experience working for The Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. Her goal is to become a costume designer for theatre, dance, or the screen.

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Introducing the Newest Member of the FRC Team

Every year I have the privilege of working with one or two work-study students. I am grateful for their help and still keep in touch with many of them, who have since gone on to other wonderful adventures.

This year I am delighted to introduce Hannah Dobbie, who will be working with me on writing the FRC blog, evaluating our social media sites, and also photographing some of the collection. Initially we will be focussing on photographing our most recent donations, many of which include extensive documentations of family histories.


Hannah Dobbie

Hannah Dobbie is a second year Fashion Communication student at Ryerson University. In addition to her work-study position in the Fashion Research Collection, she is a representative for the Fashion Union, a member of the StyleCircle team, and the producer of the student run INTRO fashion show. She hopes to bring together her creative eye and love of art to one day pursue a career in graphic design.

Please join me in welcoming Hannah to the FRC team!

Cream silk damask bodice with high neckline, extended sailor collar, and gigot sleeves with ribbon closure at cuff, front hook and eye closures, cream satin bow at chest, pink, green blue and cream vertical beaded trim at neckline, cotton interior lining with boning, self-fabric asymmetrical belt. C. 1890-1895. FRC 1999.06.066

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FRC Research Appointments Fall 2016

For the fall term, research appointments in the FRC will generally be available on Mondays 830 am – 2 pm and Wednesday afternoons 130-6 p.m., as well as on Thursday afternoons between 4-6 p.m. The last appointment can begin no later than one hour beforehand.

Appointments must be booked in advance and are not available on short notice. Depending on the garments requested, it can take an hour to set up for a single appointment. Please make your requests with as much notice as possible. 

For tips on how to make an appointment and what type of information is needed so that I can best help you with your research question, please click on the tab at the top: “How to make a Research Appointment.”

I generally advise that students read Chapters 1-5 of my book The Dress Detective: The Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion before their appointment.
Dress Detective_Cover_LRThere are two checklists at the end of the book to guide you through the steps so that you can make the most effective use of your time. It will also be helpful to read or peruse the case studies in the book, which include historic garments, couture, undergarments, bridal wear, and menswear. This book is available online through the Ryerson library portal.


Other tips to help you make most of your appointment:

1. Do some reading in advance. Read about the designer, the time period or the type of garment that you have asked to see. For example, if you are going to study this dress by Balenciaga, read about the designer in advance. Or if you are asking to look at dresses from the Edwardian era, know the characteristics of the period. Knowing what you might expect to see will help you recognize when something is unusual. Garments have complex histories and might have been altered by the wearer.
2. Look up similar garments or designers in other collections. More museums are offering parts of their collections online. These usually do not come up in a Google search. Visit the websites of the largest collections of costume such as the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to access and search their online collection and ancillary scholarly material.
3.  Bring the right tools. Your tool kit might include a pencil, notebook, camera (with the flash disabled), and perhaps a measuring tape and magnifying glass.
4.  Wash your hands before your visit and be prepared to wear gloves. Leave dangling jewelry, long scarves and big backpacks in your locker.
5.  Slow down. Turn off your phone and other distractions. Make a mental shift to be present and engaged.


Cream silk damask bodice with high neckline, extended sailor collar, and gigot sleeves with ribbon closure at cuff, front hook and eye closures, cream satin bow at chest, pink, green blue and cream vertical beaded trim at neckline, cotton interior lining with boning, self-fabric asymmetrical belt. C. 1890-1895. Donated by Alan Suddon, FRC 1999.06.066          Photo by Ingrid Mida, 2012.


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Looking forward and back – The Summer of 2016 in the FRC

The halls of Kerr Hall West have been quiet over the summer. And yet, behind the closed doors of the FRC, there has been a hub of activity. I have been doing inventory and updating the catalogue, processing donations, fielding loan requests and research questions from around the world.

In part that level of interest in the collection can be attributed to the release of The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion in November 2015. This book, which I co-wrote with Alexandra Kim, highlights some of the many treasures in the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson and also includes a checklist-based approach to object-based research in fashion. Sold round the world and on the shelves of several prominent European museums including the V&A Museum in London as well as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, this book has transformed Ryerson’s little-known collection of dress artifacts into a place that international scholars want to visit.

Dress Detective_Cover_LR

Cover of The Dress Detective, Cover Image by Ingrid Mida

This summer I welcomed scholars from as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom who come to study objects in the collection. I also fielded research inquiries from the USA, Japan, UK, and Australia. There is no doubt that the FRC is a hidden jewel within Ryerson.

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Sarah Casey at work drawing artifacts in the FRC, Photo Ingrid Mida, May 2016

A memorable event for me was the visit of artist and prof Dr. Sarah Casey from the United Kingdom. Sarah has drawn artifacts from the collections of Kensington Palace and also at the Bowes Museum in the UK. She uses these drawings as a way of expressing ideas of temporality. After reading The Dress Detective and finding an affinity for the “Slow Approach to Seeing”, Sarah came across the pond for a visit – not once, but twice this summer. She drew a variety of artifacts from the collection, including gloves, bonnets, 19th century undergarments, and an exquisite 19th century two-piece gown.

What all these pieces shared in common was that they had been somewhat forgotten – not often requested or considered “important” as artifacts. Sarah drew these pieces and time will tell how she transforms lines on paper into something else altogether. This collaboration brought me back to my roots – as an artist – and reminded me that creativity is part of who I am and what has led me to this place. I have rekindled my drawing practice with a curator’s sketchbook and have resumed drawing as a meditation and as a research tool.

Curator's Sketchbook_MIDA_!_LR

Curator’s Sketchbook by Ingrid Mida 2015.99.002A

It is a pleasure and privilege to be able to share the many wondrous objects in the FRC with students, faculty and visiting scholars.

What is your area of research? Have you thought of visiting the FRC?




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A Peek inside a Pumpkin Yellow Corset


Corset, c.1900. Cotton, Metal, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Millie Yates

This under bust corset (FRC 2013.05.001), dated 1900, is made of a rich pumpkin coloured woven jacquard cotton with a motif of staggered flower buds and stems (Note 1). The corset is lavishly trimmed with lace threaded with a similar yellow toned satin ribbon along the busk, and top and bottom edges. The centre front closes with metal slot and studs that are unmarked. The spoon busk measures 12 ¾ inches, with hand-stitching visible at the openings for surrounding each of the slots of the busk.  The closed waist measures 23 inches, and there is notable discolouration along the panels along the waistline of the corset, as well as signs of wear including small stains and discolouration. Looking closely, there appears to have been four separate remnants of stitching resembling the shape of a dart, located respectively on each side of the front and back of the corset.  There are 12 pairs of metal eyelets on the back to lace the corset; however the original laces are not present. The corset is lightly boned with 5 flexible bones placed directly beside each other, on each side of the corset, as well as one bone on either side of the eyelets at the back.  One of the bones located on the back pokes out of the casing at revealing what appears to be ¼ inch flat white metal bone. The garment appears to have been sewn by machine; however the stitching is noticeably lacking fluidity and accuracy.


Back view corset, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Millie Yates

Examining the inside of the corset, the top and bottom edges are trimmed in cotton bias tape in a darker shade of pumpkin yellow. The five bones on each side of the corset are clearly visible within their white cotton casings. The busk has been enclosed leaving the raw edge of the fabric visible, and closed with large herringbone like stitch along the length of the busk. The seaming is quite visible and the seam allowance along the waistline, and centre front and back have been left raw, and have shredded over the years. Upon close inspection there are remnants of vibrant pink stitching concentrated along the waistline. Given the placement it could be surmised that the raw edges of seaming along the waist could have been enclosed by lining along the waistline at some point.


Inside view, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Ingrid Mida


This corset is a bit of a conundrum. The vibrant colour and trimmings, as well as light boning and size would suggest that this is more of a fashion corset for a smaller women; however the use of the spoon busk is usually for the more practical purpose of containing a larger stomach. Furthermore given the construction of the corset with flexible boning only being used at the sides, this corset was probably intended more for looks rather than to greatly reduce one’s waist; as it would only lightly shape and support the figure. The weight and quality of fabric do not seem to be appropriate for the early 1900s, as it is a lightweight cotton jacquard fabric in a very vibrant yellow (Note 2). Nor does use of the spoon busk, or decoration of it, which does not seem to be typical of the period (Note 2).  Additionally the decorative outside of the corset would infer that the garment was more of a fashion item, made for someone who could afford to have a more frivolously coloured item of clothing; in contradiction there is the odd lack of finishing on the inside of the garment, as well as in the accuracy of the stitching.


Side view corset, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Millie Yates



The vibrant pink stitching remnants may indicate that there once was a lining of that colour; however the remaining raw edges still seem very odd for a corset from the early 20th century. As for the indications of the four dart-like stitch remnants, this again is extremely odd as darts are not a normal feature in corsets. This would suggest that they would have been added later to accommodate a smaller waist, and then taken out later to expand it again.


Detail inside corset (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Ingrid Mida

Typically corsets from the early 1900s are longer lined, and have a more curvaceous silhouette with the S bend shape. This is not at all consistent with the style of this corset; though it could be argued that the surface embellishment is somewhat similar. While there were shorter under bust corsets, more similar to the shape of this corset, there are very distinct differences.


Corset, c.1907, French, The Metropolitain Museum of Art (C145.68.174)

Under bust corsets from the turn of the century have far more boning, and are constructed in less vibrant coloured but lavish fabrics like silk,  with more detail, and do not employ the use of a spoon busk, but a straight busk. They can however be trimmed with decoration, but the busk is not typically decorated.  This is clearly illustrated in contrast between the corset in question, and this plain white cotton corset, ca. 1900 (C.I.41.103.4) from the Met, which is similarly cut, but far more heavily boned. It also closes with a straight busk, and has far less surface decoration in contrast to the highly decorated spoon busk of the pumpkin yellow corset.


Corset, ca.1900, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I41.103.4)

There were also ribbon corsets at this time, like this cream ribbon corset from Ryerson (FRC 2014.07.228) which have only light boning at the sides, very similar to this corset in number and placement-all being concentrated beside one another at the sides.  The fabric used in this ribbon corset is also far more expensive, being entirely silk,. Though the fabric is on the more decorative side, the fabric is still a plain weave, not patterned. Finally, the ribbon corset does not have similar trimmings, but instead a single ribbon decoration at the top of the busk, which is straight not a spoon shaped.


Ribbon Corset, c.1900, R&G No.65, Ryerson (FRC 2014.07.228) Photo by Millie Yates

None of the other early 20th century corsets were constructed from comparable textiles – neither in composition, weave or colour. Nor do any of the corsets feature decorated busks, or even just spoon busks; nor do they have separate panels cut along the waistline. Given the inconsistencies when compared to various other corsets from the early 1900s, there is a good chance that this pumpkin cotton corset is a vintage theatre costume corset, taking inspiration from the style of early 1900s corsets.

This corset seems to be a hybrid of different corset styles which would coincide with it being a theatre costume corset, as costume designers do not always make period accurate costumes, but are looking more for a certain aesthetic. This would also account for the vibrant colour of the fabric, and stitching, as well as the amount of surface decoration. Additionally the peculiar lack of finishing on the inside would makes sense as well, as  theatre costumes are often left unfinished on the inside as they are not visible to the audience, as well as for ease of making alterations. This could also explain the dart like shapes still visible, as it could have been altered for a production. Finally the amount of wear it seems to have could be explained by the use it would have gone through being a costume; but also suggested that it is a vintage item.

As there was no provenance attached to the artifact upon acquisition, there is no way to know with certainty the origins of this undergarment. However, this artifact offers an interesting peek into 20th century corsetry and the complex nature of dress artifacts.



1. For more information on fabrics, see: http://www.dressandtextilespecialists.org.uk/dats-toolkits

2. See various early twentieth century corsets, all in pale coloured, plain cotton or silk fabrics with surface embellishments and straight plain busks.

Corset, ca.1900

Corset, ca.1900

Corset, ca.1900

Corset, ca.1900-1905

Corset, ca.1900

3. To learn a bit more about common corsetry misconceptions, this article offers additional information: http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/everything-you-know-about-corsets-is-false/



“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86753.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/109083.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86390.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86393.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86394.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86398.

“Corsets Early 19th Century – Edwardian.” Vintage Fashion Guild : Lingerie Guide : Corsets Early 19th Century. July 11, 2012. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://vintagefashionguild.org/lingerie-guide/corsets-early-19th-century-edwardian/.

Johnston, Lucy. “Corsets in the Early 20th Century.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/corsets-early-20th-century/.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective a Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic,  2015.

“Reflecting Historical Periods in Stage Costume.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/reflecting-historical-periods-in-stage-costume/.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1970.


This post was reviewed and edited by Curator and Dress Historian Ingrid Mida.

hooks and eyes

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A Child’s Paisley Dress from the 1850s

The following children’s short story “Frankie’s Party Dress” by Pam Johnston is a creative interpretation of an object analysis exercise.  

This story is based on a child’s paisley dress in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2014.07.196) dated to the 1850s. The dress was donated by Katherine Cleaver in 2014 as part of the Suddon-Cleaver Collection. The dress originally had a matching cape, but at some point before the transfer, the cape was lost.

Pam Johnston was inspired by her object analysis to create a fictional story about a making and initial wearing of a new dress in the mid-19th century. This story is told in the voice of a little girl named Frankie (Frances), only 3.5 years old. Although one might argue that a very young child would not notice such subtle details of cut and construction, I have known a couple very precocious children that noticed everything. And while it is also more likely that the dress was cut down from a larger garment instead of being made from a new bolt of cloth, I think Pam’s charming story serves to show how an object-based analysis might be used to creative ends.


Frankie’s Party Dress

by Pam Johnston

object lesson sketches 001

Sketch of Paisley dress back 2014.07.196A by Pam Johnston

Mother is going to make me a new dress! This morning, Mother tied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin, made sure my little straw hat was secure, and took my hand to walk across town to Mr. Whitely’s General Store. Mrs. Whitely had told mother that some new fabrics had just arrived at the shop from Britain.

Yesterday, my flat, black ankle-boots got muddy squishing in the rain-softened road, but today my boots, eyelet-trimmed drawers and white stockings stayed clean. The dirt road was firmly packed, the sun glowed bright and the breeze was fresh this late-summer morning. Soon it would be September, and Aunt Martha, Uncle Peter and Cousin Sarah would be moving West. I would miss my cousin Sarah, one of the only girls close to my age whom I had loved for as long as I could remember.

A brass bell tinkled as Mother swung the door open at Mr. Whitely’s. The leather soles of my boots made a stiff padding sound on the general store’s hardwood floors. Mother was wearing a low heeled boot which announced her presence with staccato-like steps (Severa 1995, 103). Mrs. Whitely greeted us warmly and immediately set to pulling the newest fabrics from their neat stack on the shelf. She smiled from behind the counter as she spread brightly coloured cotton calicos from Lancashire and fine worsted wool plaids and prints from West Yorkshire for us to see.

Even standing on my tip-toes, I could not see the top of the counter, so mother hoisted me up on a bent knee so I could see some fabrics made especially for little girls and boys my age. They were printed with patterns of tiny dots, triangles, stars, toy boats and balls (Severa 1995, 108). While mother rubbed the material between her fingers and thumb, and stretched out lengths to examine the patterns and quality, my eyes wandered to other fabrics still stacked on the shelf behind the counter. One pattern seemed to jump out at me.

pattern detail

Pattern detail 2014.07.196A Photo by Pam Johnston

The fabric looked very familiar. Its pattern was bit like the swirling tear-drop shapes I had seen so often on the shawls many ladies in town wore. Mother and all the grand ladies wore those big shawls folded in a triangle shape, draped around their shoulders. They think these shawls are very special (Hiner 81-2), though I overheard Mother telling Aunt Martha that Mrs. Field’s shawl is even more special because it is made from soft goat hair, comes all the way from India, and cost Mr. Field a lot of money. I loved to lean on Mother’s shoulder when she wore that shawl. It felt so soft! Sometimes I would gently pull the fringes through my fingers, or pick up a corner in my hand. The fabric was smooth like silk, but slightly downy too, and hung heavily on my hand.

Picture 003

Paisley Shawl, Wool, ca.1850. Met CI 2009.300.2962 Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Celeste H. Chasmer, 1921.

I had seen those same swirly sprigs and curled teardrops, in various sizes, on fabrics that covered cushioned chairs and dressed windows at Aunt Martha’s house, and our neighbour Rosa’s (Rossbach 10-11). Dresses made up in calicoes or worsted wools, block- or roller printed since well before I was born in 1849, were decorated with those same motifs (Johnston 104).

Despite its familiarity, somehow I knew the pattern was special, as if those who wore it were particularly respectable or rich or worldly (Hiner 82, 86). Though the fabric was not designed especially for little girls, I wanted to be like the grown ladies, and to be seen as special and smart.

I turned to Mother and whispered in her ear that I would like to see the fabric with the red and pink swirly branches on it. Mother searched the shelf with her eyes until she found the fabric and, when she did, a smile spread from her lips to her eyes. She seemed to approve, and accordingly asked Mrs. Whitely for a closer look.

The fabric was creamy white, like freshly shorn sheep, with alternating dense and sparse bands of pattern printed in stripes. A purple-red colour dominated the fabric, but as I looked closely, I saw that dusty rose, marigold, periwinkle blue, maroon, olive green and bright red interlaced the purple-red outlines. The motifs in one band looked like fans of leaves and grasses crawling up over each other in waves, while the other band depicted heads of grain and cut flowers reaching upwards and outwards, vine-like. Mother unrolled a few feet of cloth as I reached my fingers out to touch it. It was thin and smooth with a slight nap that was at the same time mildly scratchy.

“This is a fine worsted wool,” Mrs. Whitely informed us. “It should be good to keep little Frankie warm in the fall. And if you line it with cotton muslin, it will be comfortable.”

Mother agreed. She and Mrs. Whitely discussed the dress Mother was envisioning and Mrs. Whitely offered some pattern-making and construction advice. She then cut two and a half yards each of the Paisley wool and cotton muslin and a length of narrow cord, and found five small metal hooks for closure at the back. Mother had some cream coloured thread left at home from a dress she had made for me at the beginning of the summer, so, having all we needed, Mother paid Mrs. Whitely, and took my hand as we strode out the tinkling door of Mr. Whitely’s General Store.

Frankie dress resized

Paisley Dress front 2014.07.196A                                                              Photo by Pam Johnston

By Friday morning the dress was complete and it was time for the final fitting. Mother slipped the dress over my head, over my cotton bodice, drawers, and starched petticoats, closed the back with hooks and hand-stitched eyes, and spun me around to look in the mirror.

I squealed with delight, jumping and spinning to experience a transformed me in this new dress. I loved how the skirt puffed out over my petticoats, ending at just the right spot below my knees, and how it swished around my thighs when I spun. I could run and jump freely in the full skirt; the cotton lining felt soft on my neck and arms; the puffed sleeves made me feel like a butterfly with wings; and the high belted waist and pleated bodice made me feel like I belonged among the other girls my age (Severa 1995, 128). Then mother surprised me with another part of the outfit she had kept secret. She came from behind me and wrapped a matching collared cape, trimmed with black velvet ribbon, around my shoulders. Oh, how perfect!

dress and cape

Dress and Cape, Suddon-Cleaver Collection File Photo

After what seemed like only moments of dancing and spinning in my new outfit, Mother told me that was enough, and made me change back into my everyday clothes. This dress would be for special occasions and Sunday best only. The good news was there was a special occasion tomorrow night and I could wear my new dress for the first time. I would be transformed into a lovely flowering, butterfly-winged creature, frolicking about with cousins and friends.


Frankie’s mother saved the dress and cape to give Frankie when she was married. Frankie then dressed her first daughter in the dress, and it continued to be passed down from generation to generation until it was finally recognized as an important piece of material culture by the late Alan Suddon, a former fine arts librarian at the Toronto Reference Library, who added it to his collection. When Mr. Suddon passed on, Professor Emeritus Katherine Cleaver acquired his collection, and she later donated some of the collection to Ryerson.

Works Consulted:

Buck, Anne. Clothes and the Child: a handbook of children’s dress in England, 1500-1900. New York, NY: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1996. Print.

Buxton, Alexandra. Discovering 19th Century Fashion: A look at the changes in fashion through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Dress Collection. Cambridge, UK: Hobsons Publishing, 1989. Print.

Hiner, Susan. Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Print.

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Pam Johnston is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts (Fashion) programme at Ryerson University, focusing her research on Biblical references to clothes and dress in comparison with written histories of ecclesiastical influences on dress in the Western world. She has an Bachelor of Fine Art from NSCAD University with a major in Textiles and a minor in Fashion, and lived in Halifax for ten years prior to returning to her home province of Ontario to study at Ryerson.