Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

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A Handbag’s Tale

Editor’s Introduction: This post was a creative project by MA Fashion student Anna Pollice for a special topics class called “Fashion Beyond the Clothed Body” with Dr. Esther Berry. In this post, Anna writes the narrative of an object biography from the point of view of a handbag (and her imaginary owner Eleanor). This handbag is in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2014.07.600) and was a gift of the Suddon-Cleaver collection. 



I remember so clearly being put on display and supported by an upright Wadco easel. I was beautiful and I sparkled. I was the newest Whiting & Davis mesh bag on display at the jewellery shop and I think I cost about $2.25 at that time (Schwartz 88). It was 1925, just after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, that Whiting & Davis, a mesh handbag manufacturer,  embraced the Art Deco style. Although this look did not last long (as styles dramatically changed during the Great Depression), I loved my enamelled flat surface links, called Armour Mesh, patterned with pink geometric flowers, centred around a red point and encircled with two shades of green. The pattern regularly repeated all over me and only changed at my bottom edge. The edge was pinked and the floral design deviated ever so slightly with a smaller pink flower.


Some time has passed, but I still maintain many of those original qualities. I must admit that my ageing well is in part due to the excellent artistry and craftsmanship of Whiting & Davis. Founded in 1876, William H. Wade and Edward P. Davis manufactured jewellery. It was not until 1896 that Charles A. Whiting and Edward P. Davis purchased the company, changed the name and began to make mesh bags. Although my predecessors were handmade, in 1912 the world’s first automatic mesh machine was invented, and Whiting & Davis became the first company to use it, later patenting it (Schwartz 74). I was, of course, made by one of those machines. The company guaranteed my durability and strength allowing me to carry a minimum of 2.26 kg. or 5 lbs. (Schwartz 74)! Imagine that! What could a girl possibly need to carry?

Well, as petite as I was, I had the strength to carry a fair bit. My brass frame is 10 cm wide, and is embossed with a delicate pattern of small leaves and flowers. It is straight across the top and elegantly dips down on each end. My angles are clean and strong, and very modern. I am 21 cm long from the top of my rounded gold metal clasp to the bottom tip of my last flat link. My chain is a series of linked infinity symbols that measures 32 cm in length; just long enough to have me sway from a woman’s wrist while still making a stylish impact. My flat mesh looks like liquid gold and drapes beautifully. My flat mesh body is joined to my metal frame using an innovative process called hanging up (Schwartz 74), implementing a fine spiral wire without opening a single link (Schwartz 74) (Fig. 4). The Whiting & Davis Mesh Bags logo is impressed into the inside of my metal frame on the top left-hand side (Fig. 4), and I have no other label, although, indeed I say, my design and artistry speak for themselves. Continue reading

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One of my favourite things in the FRC = A 1920s Embroidered Evening Coat

by Ingrid Mida, Fashion Research Collection Co-ordinator

The Fashion Research Centre has been a flurry of activity in the last seven months after the acceptance of two major donations of almost 700 artifacts that have broadened the scope of the collection. I have been posting images on Twitter along the way as I have been the cataloguing and reboxing the items into archival storage.  Two recent articles include more information about these donations, including the Ryersonian and Ryerson Today.

One of my many favourites  (it is hard to single out only one) includes this exquisite evening coat from the 1920s has a label that reads “Holt Renfew & Co., Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, by Appointment of His Majesty King George V” (who reigned from 1910-1936).


The coat is made of black satin and is richly embroidered with green silk threads and finished with a collar and cuffs in mole. The lining is a muted grey green silk crepe with an inside pocket of shirred fabric. This coat was included as a line drawing illustration on page 64 in the book In Style: 100 Years of Canadian Fashion by Caroline Routh. Sadly this book is no longer in print but there are copies available in the University of Toronto library as well as the Toronto Public Library.

These types of evening coats were known as “clutch coats” because there were no visible means of fastening the coat closed. The narrow silhouette of the coat would have complimented the slim silhouettes of the flapper dresses of the 1920s. The FRC has several evening coats from this period, but this coat is by far the most sumptuous example.

Holt Renfrew is one of Canada’s oldest luxury retailers with a history that goes back to 1837. And it remains one of the few luxury retailers that is Canadian owned and operated. For me, this coat is without a doubt one of the most valuable objects in the FRC representing an important part of Canada’s fashion history, and as such it is now safely stored in its own archival box, preserving it for research for at least a few more decades to come.