Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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Smythe Les Vestes: The Story is in the Name

By Jennifer Braun

Designer Elsa Schiaparelli once wrote; “A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn.” According to this statement, a one-button women’s blazer which now resides in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC) has had a dejected biography and a short-lived one at best. From the manufacturer straight to the FRC, the blazer adorned with a houndstooth pattern and caramel leather elbow patches has never been worn or owned by a particular individual. Instead, it has been stored in the archives since its production in 2012 in order for students and researchers alike to study its craftsmanship and the unique history of a Canadian company – Smythe les Vestes – who found success through its popularity.

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Black and white tweed jacket with leather patches on elbows, double vent back, single button closure, patch pockets, notched lapel. Label reads: Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

Designed and manufactured in Toronto, this fitted blazer was coveted by FRC Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida with good reason. As fan of the brand from its launch in 2004, she asked the designers at Smythe to donate something to the collection in 2012 and chose this jacket as well as another piece from the same collection – a black wool tuxedo style womenswear jacket FRC2012.02.002 (Note 1).

The fine tailoring and quality that went into creating this jacket are evident at first glance. Sold for the price of $695 and stamped with the celebrity approval of the likes of Kate Middleton, January Jones, Charlize Theron, Blake Lively and more – who would expect anything less?

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Side view of black and white tweed jacket with leather patches on elbows, double vent back, single button closure, patch pockets, notched lapel.      Label reads: Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

The piece currently housed in the FRC was a part of Smythe’s pre-fall 2012 collection and was one of three one-button variations that made-up the season’s line. The blazer has a classic cut and is fastened at the waist with one brown button. Three same-coloured surgeon cuffs also adorn its slightly cropped sleeves. On the front of the jacket, to the right and to the left, two diagonally-cut flap pockets can be found.

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Detail of jacket’s leather patches on elbows  Smythe les Vestes.                     FRC 2012.02.001

This timeless staple – the jacket – is the pillar of Smythe’s success. The company was founded in 2004 by lifelong friends Christie Smythe and Andrea Lenczner when they discovered a gap in the market to perfect and bring the women’s blazer outside of the office. At the time, 200-dollar statement jeans were having a moment and women needed a third piece to finish off this easy-going look. They believed a jacket was the solution. Evidently, women everywhere agreed. More than 10 years later, Smythe can be found on the racks of high-end retailers like Holt Renfrew, Barney’s New York, Bloomingdales and more.

At its inception, Smythe was the only company who specialized in the one garment category. Before their introduction, shoppers bought tailored jackets as part of a full suit and not a separate. By specializing, they were able to perfect this garment type and reach mass appeal.

Their first collection was sold at Holt Renfrew and was an instant success. Their first shipment included a one-button blazer which become the brand’s foundation. “The one-button blazer was one of the pillars of our very first collection and we really built our brand on that silhouette,” Lenczner explained to me in a personal phone interview.

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Button detail on black and white tweed jacket with leather patches on elbows, Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

The one-button blazer did not come about without several fittings and challenges, however. Besides a bra, a jacket is the most complicated garment in terms of construction and pattern work. “Part of our challenge was that we really wanted to establish our own fit,” Lenczner says. To explain further, she said:

We were frustrated that we would see this amazing jacket or blazer on a mannequin and then we would go into the store and discover that the whole back of the mannequin was pinned […] So we really challenged our pattern makers to break those rules and to really heavily tailor our garments so that the fit that we saw and wanted for so many years is actually what they received.

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Back of black and white tweed jacket with leather patches on elbows,       Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

They worked with several different pattern makers and went through 20 to 30 different drafts before getting the right fit. The process ended up taking about six months.

The Smythe jacket which now resides in the FRC was modelled off of that first one-button blazer. There have been slight modifications since they first introduced it, such as a minor modification of the lapel width and the sleeve length. Like the first version, the FRC’s rendition also has a double-back vent and a typical menswear inspired print.

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Black and white tweed jacket with leather patches on elbows, double vent back, single button closure, patch pockets, notched lapel.                            Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

Adopted from men’s fashion, the tailored jacket for women was not always deemed an appropriate choice for the opposite sex, however. According to Diana Crane, upper-class women first adopted suit jackets as early as the seventeenth century to be worn as part of their riding habits and for walking in the countryside. By the nineteenth century, it was still considered an ‘alternative style’ of dress for women along with ties, men’s hats, waistcoats and men’s shirts. The fashionable style originated in England, and was apparently later adopted by the French. And though by the nineteenth century the suit jacket was considered “the symbol of the emancipated woman”, it was still not appropriate to be worn with trousers (Note 2). Instead in the 1860s and 1870s, women wore tailored but skirted suits modelled after masculine styles (Note 3).

By the 1930s, the ‘mannish trend’ swept all forms of women’s apparel. The heightened popularity of men’s inspired women’s wear was due to women entering the workforce during World War I. Marketti and Angstman explain: “Women adopted tailored clothing to convey a message of ability and professionalism and as a means of communicating the social change of women entering the workforce.” In addition to working, more women participated in sports like cycling and hiking. Women’s magazines such as Vogue declared suits an indispensable and “essential garment.” Popular culture and Hollywood stars helped create an environment in the 1930s where masculine clothing for women was accepted, including the adoption of tailored jackets (Note 3).

The 1970s and 1980s saw a new dress-for-success craze. According to Patricia Cunningham, by 1978, women comprised 41 percent of the work force and the fashion industry took note. Once again, suits and the tailored jacket was reinforced as a sign of power. Women’s magazines and books like John Molloy’s 1977 The Women’s Dress for Success Book promoted the importance of maintaining an appearance of authority in the workplace. The suit jacket was a common clothing item that was promoted as a garment that would help women achieve such a look.

Ironically, in 2004, after decades of media effort to put women in suits and limiting power dressing to the board room, Smythe hit a gold mine when they decided to take the suit jacket out of the workplace and into a contemporary, fashionable world.

Still, just like the fashions of the 1930s that advised women to choose “clothes that would appear neither offensively ‘mannish’ nor dangerously feminine” as a way to “appear professional and avoid unwanted attention” (Note 4), the Smythe jacket also offers both feminine and masculine details. “We love that mix of our fit is really feminine, it’s very tailored to the body, and we love the juxtaposition between a tailored really feminine fit with a menswear driven fabric,” Lenczner explains.

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Detail of black and white tweed jacket, Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

The houndstooth pattern chosen for this particular jacket appears many times throughout their collections, as well as other typical men-inspired textiles like herringbone, Donegal tweed and pinstripe.

Their pre-fall 2012 collection as well as previous collections are often inspired by fabrics as opposed to a particular theme. “We’re very lifestyle driven so when we design every collection, we come from a lifestyle point-of-view as well as we are inspired by textiles.”

Following the dress-for-success craze of the 1970s, in our culture, blazers and other suit-like jackets are often considered to denote professionalism, seriousness of purpose and formality (Note 5).

For the Smythe designers, the one-button blazer has come to represent something similar:

I think to us it represents confidence [..] Our customer, she’s driven by fashion, she is very conscious of value, you know, she’s not into fast fashion, she is conscious of her body and she wants to show her body off and a customer who likes to show her figure is interested in our line because of the tailoring and because of the fit.

In 2011, Smythe begun introducing other garment types like blouses, pants, and dresses. “There came a time where we just wanted to flex our design muscles and have fun, and introduce new categories, and show people that we can do other things,” Lenczner says.

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Label reads: Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

Still, it is the jacket that continues to define the Smythe brand and is reflected in the name of the company since Les vestes translated from the French means ‘the jackets’. This garment type is the brand’s DNA and is what makes Smythe a truly sought-after name, coveted by celebrities and fashion research collections alike.

Notes:

1. See an earlier post on this blog dated November 8, 2013 called “A Made in Canada Success Story: Smythe Jackets.” 

2. See Diana Crane, “Clothing Behavior as Non-Verbal Resistance: Marginal Women and Alternative Dress in the Nineteenth Century.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 3.2 (1999): 241-45.

3. See Sara Marcketti and Emily Thomsen Angstman. “The Trend for Mannish Suits in the 1930s.” Dress 39.2 (2013): 135-52.

4. Ibid: 138.

5. Monica M. Moore and Gwyneth I. Williams. “No Jacket Required: Academic Women and the   Problem of the Blazer.” Fashion, Style & Popular Culture 1.3 (2014):  360.

Works Cited:

Atkinson, Nathalie. “Full Mettle Jackets; Tired of the Hunt, the Duo Behind Smythe Figured it would be Easier to make their Own Outerwear than to Try to Find it in Stores.” National  Post, September 12,  2009.

Cunningham, Patricia A, “Dressing for Success: The Re-Suiting of Corporate America in the 1970s.” The Berg Fashion Library, 2005. Accessed: 6 Mar. 2016.

Crane, Diana. “Clothing Behavior as Non-Verbal Resistance: Marginal Women and Alternative   Dress in the Nineteenth Century.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture  3.2 (1999): 241-68.

Lenczner, Andrea. Personal interview. 11 February 2016.

Marcketti, Sara B., and Emily Thomsen Angstman. “The Trend for Mannish Suits in the 1930s.” Dress 39.2 (2013): 135-52.

Moore, Monica M., and Gwyneth I. Williams. “No Jacket Required: Academic Women and the   Problem of the Blazer.” Fashion, Style & Popular Culture 1.3 (2014): 359-76.

 

Jennifer Braun is a freelance fashion writer from Montreal, currently completing her first year in the MA Fashion program at Ryerson University. When she isn’t writing about the fashion scene, she’s watching Sex and the City or planning her next big story. Follow her on Twitter @justbejealous.

This article was edited and posted by Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida.

 


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Mulhallen’s Muglers: The biography of a pair of hand-painted pumps

By Annika Waddell 

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Thierry Mugler hand-painted pumps, 1994.01.030 A+B

Amid the assemblage of shoes found within the Ryerson Research Collection is one unassuming white shoebox (FRC1994.01.030 A+B), pulled delicately from a shelf by the collection’s coordinator, and author of The Dress Detective, Ingrid Mida. The name “Thierry Mugler” is written in black sharpie along the box’s edge. Taking the box in my hands, I wonder if the shoes will embody the aura of Mugler’s 80’s femme fatale, and if the former owner of the footwear might have some shared characteristics. Thierry Mugler, or Manfred as he goes by now, is more often recognized in recent decades for his perfumes that include the likes of Angel and Womanity .  But his early notoriety stemmed from his 80’s power suits and skin hugging dresses as well as his 90’s sci-fi-inspired metallics —looks seemingly predestined for a strong female character. Remaining faithful to his former female ideal, a similar style emerged almost 15 years later in his designs for Beyonce’s 2009 I AM tour, aiming to present the ‘duality of woman and warrior’ (note 1).

As evidenced in Mugler’s collections, fashion items are often accompanied by a pre-ordained persona, available for short-term adoption by the consumer. In The Cultural Biography of Things, Igor Kopytoff discusses how the commoditization of an object will always be usurped by the culture in which they find themselves and the owner of said object, “The counterforces [to commoditization] are culture and the individual, with their drive to discriminate, classify, compare and sacralize,” (note 2). However, I would argue that even before an item becomes a commodity, when a design is merely a kernel in the minds eye of a designer, the commodity has already been touched by the individual and by culture. As an observer, I can only speculate from the shoes and their label that they were made in Europe in collaboration with a shoe designer; purchased, owned, and worn for a brief period by a single owner. This would mean that the shoes had two very distinct biographies, or what Kopytoff would have further deemed “private singularisation” (note 3)– that of the design phase and that in which it becomes commodity by an owner.

It is here that I wonder: does the pre-appointed biography or personality of a garment imposed by a designer ever intersect with the identity of the consumer? Further, artifacts or items within a collection (such as the shoes I am observing) challenge the lifespan of what Kopytoff calls “terminal commodities” (note 4 ), raising their importance through the very act of preservation. Giving them public access further encourages identity-making in which to be interpreted and reinterpreted. I find myself at the latter stage, speculating and attempting to unravel a biography for a pair of shoes I have only just met.

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Detail of pumps 1994.01.030 A+B

When I lifted the lid off of the box, two medium-heeled seafoam green shoes were lying inside, top and tail.  Across the very soft green leather was a series of hand-painted vine flowers in a reddish-brown. What struck me about the painted flowers was that they did not appear expertly or daintily applied. Instead, they were painted freehand: playful and not too self-conscious. The lush green leather was gorgeous to the touch, with fine creases along the toe line and only slight wearing around the toe box.

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Detail of pumps 1994.01.030 A+B

Contrary to the intact surface of the shoe, the sole showed signs of being well-loved. The three-inch heel indicated that its wearer was a pronator. When I placed the heels side-by-side on the surface of the desk, the pronation became more evident on the right foot as the right heel dipped towards the left with a mind of its own.

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FRC1994.01.030 A+B

The wearer, with her probable high arches, managed to avoid too much erosion on the inner label, a shiny blue rectangular weave with the name Thierry Mugler written in an 80’s cursive type. The label also read, “Made in Italy” and to the right, “Paris”. To the bottom is the name of the collaborator “Linea Lidia”. The box indicated clearly that these shoes were from a time between the years 1980 and 1985. There are many unknowns about these shoes– from the inspiration drawn between Mugler and his collaborator Linea Lidia, the number of shoes made, who the painter of the flowers was and whether any of them would have anticipated the fate of their work in Fashion Research Collection.

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Label of pumps 1994.01.030 A+B

Of all the decades to resurface, no one suspected a visit from the 80’s, but its resurgence proved that the nostalgia was genuine and, in so doing, solidified the past as artifact. Given that the shoes that I was fawning over were the ‘real deal’, the question was, who had the privilege of wearing these *ahem totally bitchin’ heels?

I envisioned the owner.  Perhaps she stood at a gallery or cocktail bar, in her hand a Sea Breeze, Singapore Sling or some 80’s equivalent of exotically named drinks.  From the knee down, the hem of her fitted skirt or dress grazing, in 80’s fashion, just below the knee. Her left (and more level shoe) would carry most of her weight while her right leg would rest, casually bent at the knee, the painted flower vines more clearly exposed on the exterior right of the shoe. At size 5 1/2 and narrow in shape, the owner of these shoes was light on her feet. I imagined her weaving through city crowds with stealth and a speedy clacking of the heels, her narrow calves transporting her through the busy streets of a city perhaps more outrageous than Toronto.

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Portrait of a Little Black Dress

by Gabrielle Trach

There is a garment in many women’s closets that is so ubiquitous that it has a nickname: the “Little Black Dress,” or “LBD” to those who prefer sartorial shorthand. The fashion designer Coco Chanel claimed to have invented the term “little black dress” in the 1920s, though many designers of the time were working on a similar design concept (note 1). The little black dress is an evening or cocktail dress with a simple, yet elegant cut that is both effortless and timeless. Karl Lagerfeld  once said: “One is never over-dressed or under-dressed with a Little Black Dress.”

The LBD is a truly versatile garment that suits any occasion, since it can be dressed up with accessories or worn unadorned. It also does not become dated or out of style after a few years and can become a wardrobe workhorse. This is an apt description for a black crêpe cocktail dress by Pauline Trigère that now belongs to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2015.05.001).

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Black crepe cocktail dress by Paulene Trigere FRC2015.05.001, Gift of Marian Fowler

Picture a simple yet elegant black cocktail dress. It has a jewel collar, elbow-length sleeves, and a hem that lands just above the knee. The dress fits close to the body through the sleeves and bodice, gradually flowing away from the body into an A-line skirt. This dress sounds like any little black dress, but what makes the Trigère dress memorable is evident in the subtle design elements and tailoring – which include multiple, inch-wide panels that run vertically throughout the dress, gradually widening down the length of the skirt to a width of five inches at the hem. These panels also run the length of the sleeves, starting at two inches wide, tapering to one inch at the cuffs. These meticulous details of design and construction are what make this little black dress classically elegant, just like its former owner.

This LBD is one of several  Trigère pieces that previously belonged to Marian Fowler, a Toronto author and fashion aficionado, before she donated it to the FRC. Fowler earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto, taught at York University, and was the recipient of the Canadian Biography Award (note 2). She wrote seven works of non-fiction, including The Way She Looks Tonight: Five Women of Style; Hope: Adventure of a Diamond; and In a Gilded Cage: From Heiress to Duchess. Fowler has also written for The Globe and Mail, The Beaver, and City and Country Home (note 3).

After discussing her wardrobe and fashion philosophy with me in an oral history interview that took place at her home in Toronto in November 2015, it became clear that this LBD is exemplary of Fowler’s overall taste and appreciation of timeless, expertly tailored, classic pieces. Fowler admitted that she was drawn to Trigère’s garments because of the designer’s attention to tailoring and quality: “… of all the American designers … certainly my favourite was Pauline Trigère, because she knew how to cut.”

Pauline Trigère (1912–2002) was a French-born American designer, known for her ready-to-wear designs, which were always tailored with precision, as well as her personal taste and style. After Trigère’s death in 2002, the New York Times reported that: “she was noted for not only her designing skills, but also her tailoring and such touches as constructing dresses with no obvious seams” (note 4). Trigère also made a clear distinction between fashion and style (note 5): Fashion is what people tell you to wear …… Style is what comes from your own inner thing.”

Fowler has an affinity for garments by Trigère and also donated another Trigère piece to the FRC – a cherry red knit day dress with square neckline, centre front seam, back zipper, raglan sleeves and angular pockets set into side seams lined in red silk with a matching open hip-length flared jacket, partially lined in red silk (FRC2015.05.002 A+B).

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Cherry red knit dress with matching jacket (not shown) by Paulene Trigere FRC2015.05.002A Gift of Marian Fowler

The distinction between fashion and style asserted by Trigère is evident in Fowler’s personal wardrobe and her story. Fowler recounted that as a young woman, she was aware of the very prescriptive rules of fashion: matching shoes and handbags; hemline lengths being dictated each season; no wearing white after Labour Day, and only wearing navy-coloured clothing in the spring.

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