Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

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Of Hats and History

By Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator

Black sinamay cartwheel hat with asymmetrical brim with draped black mesh. Miss Jones by Stephen Jones FRC2009.01.608

Black sinamay cartwheel hat with asymmetrical brim with draped black mesh.
Miss Jones by Stephen Jones

Hats are one of the most visible means to signal power, class, status, belonging and/or conformity to modes of dress. After all, for centuries kings and queens wore crowns to signal their power and dynastic position and their servants would be required to remove their hat in their presence to demonstrate their subservience.  Hats can also convey emotional states (mourning) or marital status (bridal veils). Although hats, outside of ones worn as part of a uniform or religious affiliation, are now generally worn as optional accessories to convey personality or as a form of fashionable ornamentation, it was once considered unseemly for a refined gentleman or woman to appear in public without a hat. Like other dress artifacts, hats reflect the social and cultural attitudes of their period.

In terms of fashion history, we as Canadians often overlook the fact that the fashion for men’s hats created out of beaver felts was an important part of the history and the settlement of this country. Felt was made out of animal hairs and the highest quality hats were made out of beaver pelts. Felt hats were once called “beavers” and signaled that the wearer was rich.  The purchase of such a hat was a costly proposition because demand for beaver pelts greatly surpassed the supply. One of the oldest companies in the world, the Hudson’s Bay Company, was founded in 1670, exporting furs from Canada to meet European demand.

This quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes conveys the respect for the quality of Canadian furs:”Wear a good hat, the secret of your looks/Lies with the beaver in Canadian brooks.”

The beaver hat was in high demand until the 19th century when the silk topper became the mark of status.


Felted top hat with 3 cm black grosgrain hatband. Forest green silk brim lining and patent leather and cream silk crown lining. Late 19th c. Label: Christy’s London. FRC1995.02.005

The  Ryerson Fashion Research Collection has only one top hat (FRC1995.02.005). This Victorian top hat with 3 cm black grosgrain hatband is made of a felted animal hair. It has a forest green silk brim lining and patent leather and cream silk lining and has a label from Christy’s London. The crown is dented and the lining is coming apart inside the crown. The grosgrain is worn and browning, indicating that it was well-worn.  It is likely from the late 19th century and made of rabbit fur. The hat interior crown has the signature of the owner in pencil on the interior “H. Fitzgerald”.

Although the collection has very few men’s hats, we have more than 500 women’s hats, including many by milliner’s like Philip Treacy, Stephen Jones, Eric Javits and others. Our hat room is an aspiring milliner’s dream. Visit our Pinterest site to see a small sampling of our hat collection.

Further reading:

Folledore, Giulliano. Men’s Hats. Modena: Zanft Editions, 1989.

Hopkins, Susie. The Century of Hats. London: Aurum Press, 1999.

Jones, Stephen. Hats: An Anthology. London: V&A Publications, 2009.

Langley, Susan. Vintage Hats & Bonnets, 1770-1970. Paducah: Collector Books, 1998.

McDowell, Colin. Hats: Status, Style and Glamour. New York: Rizzoli, 1992.

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A Made in Canada Success Story: Smythe Jackets

By Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator.


SMYTHE Les Vestes Label

In curating the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, I wanted to be sure to seek out Canadian design success stories and the first label that came to mind was Smythe les Vestes. Designed by Canadians Christie Smythe and Andrea Lenczner, this brand of beautifully tailored jackets has been a made-in-Canada success story since it was first launched in 2004. In fact, I can vividly remember buying a Smythe jacket from their first collection when it was launched at Holt Renfrew. This bolero-like jacket with 3/4 sleeves in a shade of robin’s egg blue continues to be one of my favourite jackets. Of course, I’m not the only Smythe fan. Her Royal Highness Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, wore a Smythe jacket when she came to Canada for the first time in the summer of 2011, at the Olympics, and again recently in her first appearance after giving birth to Prince George. Also worn by celebrities such as Blake Lively, Jessica Biel, Kirsten Bell, and Rachel McAdams, this label was named one of ten iconic Canadian products by Flare Magazine for the Collectors Edition: Icons from Summer 2013.


Black & white Houndstooth Blazer, SMYTHE Les Vestes F/W2012. FRC2012.02.001


Back of single-button black&white houndstooth jacket with leather elbow patches, SMYTHE Les Vestes, F/W2012. FRC2012.02.001

Last fall, I asked designers Christie Smythe and Andrea Lenczner if they would be willing to donate one or two jackets to the collection. They readily said yes and let me select anything from the F/W 2012 Collection. I chose a black & white houndstooth single-button jacket with leather elbow patches – a classic style that seems to survive the test of time. I also chose women’s version of a men’s tailcoat, which I keep on a rack to demonstrate the influence of menswear on womenswear, as well as the cyclical nature of fashion – something that journalist Nathalie Atkinson mentioned in her recent article about the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection called “Lanvin in the Library“.


Women’s Tailcoat, SMYTHE Les Vestes, F/W 2012. FRC2012.02.002


Side view of Women’s Tailcoat, SMYTHE Les Vestes, F/W 2012.

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Tunic-style Evening Gown with Detachable Hood, c.1970 by Marilyn Brooks

By Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator.


Burgundy velour tunic dress with long sleeves and matching detachable hood. Size 9/10, Label: Marilyn Brooks Made in Canada. FRC1998.01.002A+B

This rich toned burgundy velour tunic dress with long sleeves and matching detachable hood was designed by Marilyn Brooks in the early 1970s.  Highly fashionable for the period, but also washable, it would have been suitable as an evening gown. Hooded gowns were popular during this time, and Margaret Trudeau wore a hooded wedding dress that she designed herself for her wedding to then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1971 (link to image here).

Back of Marilyn Brooks Evening Gown c.1970 FRC1998.01.002A+B

Back of Marilyn Brooks Evening Gown c.1970

Detail of detachable hood by Marilyn Brooks. FRC1998.01.002A+B

Detail of detachable hood by Marilyn Brooks. FRC1998.01.002A+B

The sheen of the fabric is undiminished and the ensemble is in perfect condition.  The shoulder yoke has horizontal tucks that are not readily visible in the photo. The dress closes at the back with a metal zipper. The label reads: “marilyn brooks, size 9/10, Made in/Fabrique au CANADA CA07455”.  Handwritten in script are the words “Betty Sonsfield 1970”.

Label Marilyn Brooks  FRC1998.01.002 A+B

Label Marilyn Brooks
FRC1998.01.002 A+B

Although Marilyn Brooks does not recall designing this specific dress, she wrote in an email to me on November 1, 2013 that: “The fabric was great and it was washable. Somehow I remember the fabric being made in Canada. It was important to always cut the fabric only one way. The feel of the hand going down….never up.” She also recalled that she had designed some medieval inspired gowns for the department store Simpson’s in the 1970s, but that this dress was not part of that series.

The Marilyn Brooks label was an important part of Canadian fashion history (note 1), providing fashionable and innovative designs for more than 40 years. The collection page on her website reads “The women who wore Marilyn’s designs ran the gamut from twenty onwards, but they were all creative, self-confident women with strong personalities who exude warmth and humour. These intelligent women were looking for ease with innovation and function with whimsy, at a price that immediately said good value! Marilyn’s clothes were known for versatility and easily stood up to the rigors of an active and travel oriented lifestyle.”

Marilyn is now retired from fashion and works as an artist. She is also working on her autobiography, and visited the Ryerson campus last fall to speak to students about her experiences as a designer. I recall feeling her warmth and good humour as she told the many anecdotes from her life.

The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection only has only one other garment from the Marilyn Brooks label, a liliac cotton two-piece top and skirt ensemble from the late 1970s and pre-1983 (FRC1983.04.21A+B). The top has a Peter Pan collar with machine embroidery in a floral pattern and a front button closure as well as a shoulder yoke with ruched detail and a drawstring waist. The skirt is gathered at the waist and buttons at the back. We would welcome donations of any other Marilyn Brooks garments in good condition.

Note 1: In the book “In Style: 100 Years of Canadian Fashion”, Caroline Routh mentions Marilyn Brooks as well as Claire Haddad, Pat McDonagh, Edith Strauss, and Winston as among the “important fashion designers in Toronto in the seventies” (152).