Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


Leave a comment

Analysis of a Frock Coat by Rei Kawakubo Part II

by Jordan Nguyen 

frc_coats_2006-01-023_bck_web

Women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Commes des Garcons, ca.1990  FRC2006.01.023

In Part I of this analysis, I considered the construction of the frock coat. Part II will offer reflection and interpretation of this garment in terms of Rei Kawakubo’s continuing influence in design. Japanese design aesthetics, gender neutrality, and feminist interpretations.

As Kawakubo was never trained as a designer, she was able to envision fashion from an unrestricted perspective and was able to “break the mold of conventions that define a fine quality garment” (Kawamura 134). Her unconventional approach to design required collaboration between herself and her seamstresses who were taught how to sew together complicated pattern pieces and garments (Kawamura 133). This conflicted with traditional standards of construction but nonetheless contributed to the designer’s creative design process which challenged her workers. While western styles embraced form-fitting silhouettes that accentuated the contours of the body, Japanese aesthetics rejected this (Kawamura, 137). Kawakubo traces one of her fundamental influences to kimonos which are “geared towards a contourless body” (Kawamura 137). The oversized silhouette of the garment conceals the body in modesty rather than displaying sexuality. This value is evidently seen applied to the length of the frock coat which ends at the knee as well as the narrow depth of the collar.

Western theory suggests that fashion changes in women’s dress occur as a result of “shifting erogenous zones” which entails women to uncover different parts of the body selectively in order to attract men” (Tortora et al. 5). The kimono acts adversely, showcasing femininity in an understated demeanor. Kawakubo states that she “designs for strong women who attract men with their minds rather than their bodies” (English 73). With a greater interest in reconstructing proportion, space, and volume (English 76), Kawakubo sought to question the Western fashion formality.

FRC_Coats_2006.01.023_B34_Web

Women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Commes des Garcons. C. 1990.             FRC 2006.01.023

Certain features of the coat design suggest a concurrent theme in Kawakubo’s work: gender neutrality. The designer’s applied concept of a frock coat to womenswear blatantly rejects the extravagantly feminine and body-conscious fashions of the decade. Kawakubo translated the style into a statement womenswear piece that demonstrates the fluidity of gender as well as challenges gender-specified fashion. The monochromatic colour of the tailcoat presents the 1990s woman in a new light that defies stereotypical perceptions of women in fashion. The placement of the cut-out suggests a certain sensuality to the garment but also serves as a paradox to the rest of the garment which embodies a formal and dominant presence. The design was viewed as impractical and unconventional, but the designer had different goals in mind, ones that would launch a new avant-garde view of fashion on the restricted and traditional 1980s Paris stage.

FRC_Coats_2006.01.023_FRT_Web

Women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Commes des Garcons. C. 1990.             FRC 2006.01.023

The boxy and oversized silhouette of the tailcoat induced radical criticism in response to the masculine figuration it created which was not embraced in the period. The tailcoat features large shoulder pads which broaden the dimension of the garment (See Figure 16). Its front closure is “buttoned from left to right, comme des garçons” (Fukai et al. 161), which conflicts with traditional closures on women’s clothing. Kawakubo’s work was seen as a form of anti-fashion when it was introduced to the Paris runways, and the concepts of minimalism, intended imperfection in design, spontaneity, reconstruction, and deconstruction in design seemed foreign and inaccessible. The spaciousness of the garment was also an unfamiliar aspect in comparison to other fashions of the period. Kawakubo considered the functional quality of the garment and created a fit that would accommodate for movement and ease. This consideration is linked to the practical importance of kimonos in which they were worn to live in. Their genderless appearance and equated elements of design are associated with the unisex nature of Kawakubo’s designs. The designer once mentioned, “it is the space between the fabric and the body that is most important” (English 72). Her directives and influences in fashion were much different than those of other designers who presented at Paris fashion week. Kawakubo’s approach to womenswear blurred the lines of gender and sexuality in an industry that was quick to mark gender difference (Entwistle 135), and denote what constituted as high-fashion.

The issues that the Japanese feminist movement brought to attention factored into the influences that Kawakubo used to redefine women through her visual conceptions. The movement sought for emancipation and equality between genders in terms of education and employment. Efforts were made to advance women’s studies as well as counter the sexism apparent in the mass media (English 69). From changing “women’s consciousness of themselves as women…to seeking visible changes in social institutions” (English 69), feminism was calling for reform in societal perceptions and regulations. In her designs, Kawakubo commented on the Western representation of the body and its concept of sartorial beauty. Fashion’s seemingly superficial image was confronted by the psychologically complex creations of the Japanese designer who implemented meaning and narrative into her work. Kawakubo uses fashion as a means to propel women into states of independence, dignity and strength.

The designer claimed, “fashion design is not about revealing or accentuating the shape of a woman’ body, its purpose is to allow a person to be what they are” (Kawamura 137). The black frock coat extends beyond a fashionable garment in the way that it reflects these powerful qualities in a woman of fashion. This is a matter of enclothed cognition in which clothing influences the way people feel and act in reponse to the “symbolic meaning of the dress and the physical experience of wearing that dress item” (Johnson et al. 28). This intuitive approach of implementing meaning into fashion was seen as avant-garde. A term commonly associated with the designer, Kawakubo’s work complied with its three qualities in definition: work such that “redefines artistic conventions, utilizes new artistic tools and techniques, and refines the nature of the art object” (Kawamura 130). In the innovative design and construction of the garment, its use of an experimentally produced gold-polyester-wool-fused textile, along with its mindful and historical associations, Kawakubo’s tailcoat can be classified as an avant-garde garment from the 1990s.

Upon my analysis of the garment in the Ryerson FRC, the tailcoat seemed to evoke a sense of mystery. I felt a tension between hard austerity and delicate fragility while examining the design. It was an emotional response and led me to research about the designer’s background and historical influences which contributed to its creation.

Kawakubo was born on October 11, 1942 in the post-war period. It was a time when Japan was beginning to emerge beyond the destruction of its country. Due to the colonization by Americans, many Japanese traditions of life were discarded. Instead of opting to modernize traditional Japanese dress, natives were forced to adapt to more Western ideals of fashion. Kawakubo’s work incorporates stylistic influences from traditional Japanese fashion with efforts to “re-instill a respect for traditional cultural traits” (English 69). Such can be noted in the silhouette of select designs which replicate or are based on the kimono. The tailcoat embodies this quality in its boxy, loose-fitting, and flared figure.

The modern appearance of Rei Kawakubo’s black tailcoat from the 1990’s to the current era is no coincidence. The designer captured the zeitgeist, “spirit of the times” (Tortora et al. 7) much earlier than other designers could have foretold. Oversized and boxy silhouettes have seemed to become a global trend and is celebrated widely today as an alternative look to stereotypically feminine fashion styles. Kawakubo paved the way for further experimentation with gender-neutral dress and creativity in design. Her shows continue to shock fashion press, and her designs leave fashion experts puzzled and perplexed. In continuing to reinvent the future of fashion at the age of 74, Kawakubo states, “we must break away from conventional forms of dress for the new woman of today” (Mears, 100). Her influence in the world of fashion is undeniable and just as the black tailcoat created a radical impact in the early 1980s, her innovative creations continue to challenge the conventions of beauty and design.

Works Cited

Bane, Allyne. Tailoring. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print

English, Bonnie. “Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo”. London: Berg, 2011. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000. Print.

Fukai, Akiko, Catherine Ince, and Rie Nii. Future Beauty. London: Merrell, 2010. Print.

Garber, Megan. “Why Women’s Shirt Buttons are on the Left and Men’s are on the Right”. The Atlantic. N.p., 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.

Johnson, Kim, Sharron J Lennon, and Nancy Rudd. “Dress, Body and Self: Research In The Social Psychology Of Dress”. Fashion and Textiles 1.1 (2014): 1-24. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.

Kawamura, Yuniya. The Japanese Revolution In Paris Fashion. Oxford [England]: Berg, 2004. Print.

Mears, Patricia. “Exhibiting Asia: The Global Impact of Japanese Fashion In Museums And Galleries”. http://www.tandfonline.com/. N.p., 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective. 1st ed. York [Ontario]: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print.

Pamela Roskin. “Kawakubo, Rei.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Tortora, Phyllis G and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume. New York, NY: Fairchild Publications, 2010. Print.

This post was written by Jordan Nguyen for FSN302 and has been edited by Ingrid Mida, Acting Curator FRC. This coat was also featured in the case study of a Man’s Evening Suit in The Dress Detective (see Figure 9.17 p.155-157). 


Leave a comment

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.

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_FRT_Web

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?

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_RGT_Web

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.

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_Det_11_Web

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.

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_Det_8_Web

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.

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_BCK_Web

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.

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_B34_Web

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.

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_Det_2_Web

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.

FRC_Coats_2012.02.001_LBL_Web

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.

 


Leave a comment

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

By Annika Waddell 

FRC_Shoes_1994.01.030_A+B_FRT_Web

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.

FRC_Shoes_1994.01.030_A+B_Det_3_Web

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.

FRC_Shoes_1994.01.030_A+B_Det_1_Web

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.

FRC_Shoes_1994.01.030_A+B_B34_Web.jpg

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.

FRC_Shoes_1994.01.030_A+B_LBL_Web.jpg

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.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

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).

FRC 2015.05.001_left side three quarter view_oweb

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).

FRC 2015.05.002A_left side three quarter view_oweb

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.

Continue reading


1 Comment

A Bed Jacket by Mercy: A Tale of Copyright Infringement

By Jennifer Braun

FRC 2015.06.001_right side three quarter view_oweb

Jacket by Mercy, Spring 2008 FRC2015.06.001

The bed jacket, a lightweight coat made to be worn while sitting or reclining in bed, originated in the nineteenth century and was especially popular during the early to mid-20th century (note 1). This type of garment served as a source of inspiration for Canadian designers Richard Lyle and Jennifer Halchuk of the label Mercy (note 2). Their rendition of the bed jacket for spring 2008 –produced in a delicate floral print – was not meant to be worn for warmth in bed, but rather to be worn as a garment of fashion. This jacket is now part of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2015.06.001) and what is especially notable about it is that it became the subject of an international case of copyright infringement.

The infamous Mercy jacket is tea-stained beige cotton voile featuring a vintage red rose print. Lyle and Halchuk sourced the fabric from textile design company Ascher Studio (note 3); the fabric was tea-dyed and custom quilted for the jacket. The lightweight, loose-fitting jacket is waist length with rounded edges at the bottom front, an elastic hem, and an interior drawstring in the back. The ¾ balloon sleeves have elbow dart detailing. An asymmetrical frayed beige silk sash hangs along the front of the jacket and creates a set bow on the right side. Halchuk developed the pattern from scratch and came up with the idea while working on a MAC Cosmetics campaign Danse. Mercy’s Spring 2008 collection featured other garments in the same fabric including dresses and tops. Halchuk reported that the entire collection did well, but the jacket was especially popular. At the time, the Mercy jacket retailed for about $300.

Canadian journalist Nathalie Atkinson noticed a similar jacket in the March 2009 issue of Teen Vogue, where the jacket had been credited to Diane von Furstenberg’s Spring 2009 collection. The jacket also was worn by Jessica Alba on the March 2009 cover of Elle.

jessica-alba-elle-us-march09-subscribers-cover

Although Atkinson recognized that issues of copyright in fashion were systemic, she thought this case was particularly problematic since von Furstenberg was president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America at the time, as well as an active spokesperson on fashion design copyright protection.

In a personal interview with Atkinson in November 2015 (note 4), she revealed to me that a key factor in her decision to pursue this story was because of von Furstenberg’s status: “She was at the time canvasing for this, so it was like caught with the hand in the cookie jar and so it was more the idea – it wasn’t like, I’m going to be the mouth piece for Richard and Jennifer at Mercy to pursue this. It was very much – this is an interesting test to case, to sort of look at these issues…”.

Atkinson observed the small details and design gestures of the Mercy jacket and noticed the similarities in the von Furstenberg copy. “There’s a finger print that a designer has,” Atkinson explained: “[Mercy is] not only a brand that I had covered, but they’re something that I wore, so that sleeve shape in particular, and the way there were like three – I think there were like three stitches to bring the elbow in to give it a balloon […] it was something that I recognized.”

Continue reading


Leave a comment

Inside a Dolce & Gabbana Fur Coat

by Millie Yates

This Dolce & Gabbana fur coat from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2009.01.226 A+B) is a breath of fresh air amongst the functional but drab black coats often seen in the long Canadian winter.

Gray suede long wrap skirt and matching fur and floral painted leather jacket with tie belt. By Dolce and Gabbana. C. 1990-2000. FRC 2009.01.227/FRC 2009.01.226 A+B

Gray suede long wrap skirt with Dolce and Gabbana fur and floral painted leather jacket with tie belt. C. 1990-2008. FRC 2009.01.227/FRC 2009.01.226 A+B

The thick, luxurious fur used in this garment has beautiful gradations in colour, shifting from light to dark on the sleeve, to a deep gray on the front. The fur is long and lustrous, and incredibly smooth to the touch. In consultation with a furrier, the fur has been identified as long-haired rabbit. Rabbit fur is distinguishable by its flat, smooth look and medium-length guard hairs (note 1). It is also known as a good “imitator” because depending on how rabbit is treated, it can resemble other varieties of fur. Rabbit is naturally brown and white, though it is often dyed in processing. Interestingly, rabbit is commonly used as both lining and self, which means that this garment could be worn inside-out. Rabbit fur is not a particularly strong or hardwearing textile, and generally speaking it is more affordable than other kinds of fur. This makes it a somewhat unusual choice for a designer label like Dolce & Gabbana. Four large snaps close the garment, concealed on the inside and then concealed on the outside under the hair of the fur. The snaps run about midway down the jacket, and there is a small slit between the first row of buttons and the second. This slit allows the wearer to button only the bottom row of snaps, allowing the floral leather pattern to be visible when the collar is folded over.

Gray suede long wrap skirt and matching fur and floral painted leather jacket with tie belt. By Dolce and Gabbana. C. 1990-2000. FRC 2009.01.227/FRC 2009.01.226 A+B

Detail of rabbit fur jacket with tie belt. By Dolce and Gabbana. C.1990-2008. FRC 2009.01.227/FRC 2009.01.226 A+B

The hand-painted leather on the inside of the coat is what makes this garment truly remarkable. The painted floral pattern is based on a background of warm beige, and the colours that appear in the floral pattern are red, yellow, grass green, bright pink, black and gray. The flowers themselves are yellow and pink, while the stems are green. Soft, fluid brushstrokes of gray fill the areas without flowers. Though the paint used is not watercolour, the technique used to paint the garment seems to imitate the medium. The floral pattern in each coat would subtly differ, making this piece one-of-a-kind.

Gray suede long wrap skirt and matching fur and floral painted leather jacket with tie belt. By Dolce and Gabbana. C. 1990-2000. FRC 2009.01.227/FRC 2009.01.226 A+B

Hand painted jacket by Dolce and Gabbana. C.1990-2008, FRC 2009.01.226 A

There are belt loops on the inside of the garment, which seemed unusual at first. There is a belt that accompanies the garment, made of the same fur as the jacket and stitched onto an inner panel of the same painted leather as the garment. There are no belt loops on the exterior of the garment. This coat is in fact reversible. The wearer could choose the fur side as the right side of the garment, or turn it inside out to reveal the floral pattern, cinching the waist with the contrasting fur belt.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

The Enduring Fedora

By Millie Yates

The fedora hat was named after a character in the Sardou play in which it first appeared in 1882 (“Fedora”). How fitting that a hat designed for the stage should be re-interpreted by a theatrical millinery designer like Philip Treacy. Traditionally the fedora was a hat worn by men, but later in the 20th century the fedora was fashioned for women in brighter colours and with an upturned brim for an air of femininity (Peck, “The History of the Fedora”). The object I have chosen to study is a woman’s gray felted fedora by Philip Treacy (FRC 2009.01.402). The beauty of this hat lies in its inexplicable delicacy. A warm, woollen hat such as this (in an oversized shape, no less) should by definition appear bulky. Yet the talented Treacy has made such a hat look as light as air.

Gray fedora felted wool hat with two brown clipper feathers. By Phillip Treacy. C. Post 2000. FRC 2009.01.402

Gray fedora felted wool hat with two brown clipper feathers. By Phillip Treacy. FRC 2009.01.402, Gift of Kathleen Kubas.

The first thing to be noticed about this hat is its beautiful soft curves. The round, gently sloping brim is 4’’ (10.16 cm) deep around the hat, with a 1/4’’ (0.635 cm) of topstitching folded up and over the brim towards the sideband of the hat. Based on the appearance of the stitches, it was most likely done by machine. The brim bends upwards gradually towards the back and right side of the hat, peaking at 2 1/4’’ inches (5.715 cm) at the right back of the brim.

The sideband of the hat was blocked in a fedora-style, though the shape has been exaggerated in a number of ways. At its highest point, the sideband of the hat sits at 6’’ (15.24 cm). This peak is on the opposite side of the peak of the hat’s brim, creating a balance within the accessory. The sideband is slightly dented in a number of areas, most notably at left centre-front, right centre-front and left centre-back. These dents look intentional and there are no apparent signs that they were created by the wearer.

The crown of the hat is one of its most interesting attributes. Blocked on a teardrop-shaped hat block, the crown is built up 1 1/4’’ (3.175 cm) along the sides and then sharply dips into the teardrop shape.  All of Treacy’s blocks are handmade by Lorenzo Ré in Paris (Davies 126). The point of the teardrop points slightly off-centre, creating a pretty asymmetry that would frame the face of the wearer. Asymmetry is not uncommon in millinery, as angles that parallel those of the face tend to appear too harsh and geometric when worn (Dreher 12).

A beautiful blue-gray  band curves around where the brim meets the sideband at 3 1/2’’ wide (8.89 cm) for the majority of its length. This appears to be a dyed replica of a Cobra snakeskin. Like the crown of the hat, the band of skin is slightly off-centre. It narrows considerably towards the front left side, where the skin overlaps and is secured with a skin-covered button. The skin folds in three places where it narrows towards the left centre front of the hat, creating an interesting texture with the skin. Tucked between where the skin overlaps are two clipper feathers that lean on a low angle towards the left side of the hat. The feathers are mostly brown and white, and these two colours pick up on the lighter nap of the wool and the darker scales of the skin. At their widest point they are about 2 3/4’’ wide (6.985) but narrow dramatically to a fine point at their tips. The feathers extend approximately 8-9’’ (20.32-22.86 cm) from the hat. The feathers contribute significantly to the delicate air of the hat, giving it lightness and a touch of whimsy.

Gray fedora felted wool hat with two brown clipper feathers. By Phillip Treacy. C. Post 2000. FRC 2009.01.402

Detail of band on gray fedora felted wool hat with two brown clipper feathers by Phillip Treacy. FRC 2009.01.402

The wool of the hat has a long luxurious nap that has been brushed in a counter-clockwise direction. It is made from rabbit wool. The colour of the wool is a blue-gray. Its texture is soft and plush, and one could imagine that this would be a very warm hat. This hat was most likely intended for wear in a cooler climate or season. The felt is thick, and would be too hot for the summer.

The inside of the hat is lined with a blue silk satin with a gold piping at the crown. A stretchy Petersham ribbon circles the head size collar. Treacy’s logo is stamped where the lining touches the crown, and in a label at the centre-back of the hat. There is a content label that reads “100% Poils de Lapin” which is French for “100% rabbit hair”.

The hat is in very good condition. The only apparent damage is one small, circular dent on the right sideband just above the skin band. Felted hats may not be worn during humid or wet weather, because they are heat-set and moisture can cause the blocked shape to wilt. The edges and curves of the hat are still very sharp, and the feathers do not appear to be bent or distorted in any way.

A number of sensory reactions occurred to me when viewing and handling this hat. The first was my reaction to the texture. The softness of the hat is felt before even touching the hat’s plush surface. The thickness of the felt looks compressible, as though if it were squeezed it would bounce back. The juxtaposition of the soft rabbit hair next to the scaly, sleek snakeskin is eye-catching. It is interesting that Treacy has used entirely natural fiber and skins in his design: from the rabbit felt, to the ostrich feathers, to the snakeskin and even the silk lining.

Gray fedora felted wool hat with two brown clipper feathers. By Phillip Treacy. C. Post 2000. FRC 2009.01.402

Gray fedora felted wool hat with two brown clipper feathers. By Phillip Treacy. C.  FRC 2009.01.402

The balance of shapes and weight within the form of the hat is another hallmark of Treacy’s work. He always works in front of a mirror when creating his forms because to him, mirrors tell the absolute truth about a design. He has said: “If something is off, I need to be able to see it, and then I can spot millimetres from miles away…I believe in that millimetre” (Davies 38).

Drawing of Philip Treacy hat detail FRC 2009.01.402 by Millie Yates Drawing of Philip Treacy hat FRC 2009.01.402 by Millie Yates

Drawing of Philip Treacy hat detail by Millie Yates FRC 2009.01.402

This hat was worn by Kathleen Kubas who loved wearing hats and was known as ‘The Hat Lady’ in Toronto. After she passed away, her family donated over 300 hats to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. Her hat collection included other top millinery labels like Stephen Jones, Oscar de la Renta, Bentley Tomlin, and Eric Javits.

Light brown felted Breton trimmed with Mongolian sheep fur, resulting in a halo-like effect. By Oscar de la Renta. C. Post 2000. FRC 2009.01.703

Light brown felted Breton trimmed with Mongolian sheep fur, resulting in a halo-like effect. By Oscar de la Renta. ca. Post 2000 – 2008. FRC 2009.01.703, Gift of Kathleen Kubas.

 

Black Mad-hatter women's hat with silk flowers and fur-like feathers. By Philip Treacy. C. Post 2000. FRC 2009.01.512

Black Mad-hatter women’s hat with silk flowers and fur-like feathers. By Philip Treacy. ca. Post 2000-2008. FRC 2009.01.512. Gift of Kathleen Kubas

 

Black velvet beret. Black veil with chenille spotted and black rhinestone details. Veil is full face with two long trains. By Kokin New York. C. Post 2000. FRC 2009.01.488

Black velvet beret. Black veil with chenille spotted and black rhinestone details. Veil is full face with two long trains. By Kokin New York. ca. Post 2000. FRC 2009.01.488. Gift of Kathleen Kubas.

Her affinity for the fedora style of hat is evidenced by a number of other hats in this style made in different colours and materials like a pink satin fedora (FRC 2009.01.03) and a cheetah-print rabbit wool felt hat (FRC 2009.01.405), also by Treacy . The cheetah-print hat in particular bears a striking resemblance to the gray fedora. Its crown is blocked in a similar tear-drop shape, its sideband is circled by trim and its brim turns up towards the back of the hat. It even shares the same navy-blue lining! The pink satin fedora provides an interesting contrast. Made entirely of a hot-pint satin, this hat is smaller in size than the felt has but shares the upturned brim towards the back of the hat. Its brim is circled with topstitching every 3/16’’ (0.47625 cm). Its lining is equally as bold as its exterior, with a vibrant butterfly pattern in black, pink, orange, blue and green. The classic fedora is an enduring shape in Treacy’s work, fashioned differently from collection to collection. At one time, hats were an essential part of everyday dress. This change in fashion has meant that contemporary milliners like Philip Treacy can treat their designs as exciting challenges and opportunities for new innovations.

The majority of Philip Treacy’s designs today retail upwards of $1000, and his couture pieces often sell for much more. Treacy’s work is favoured by royalty and popular-culture royalty alike. He has designed for Grace Jones, Lady Gaga, Camilla Bowles and created 36 hats for the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate. Born in Ireland, Treacy studied at London’s Royal College of Art and graduated in 1990. His eye-catching designs quickly rose the young designer to fame. Though he is primarily known for his namesake line, Treacy also designs for many established couture houses in Europe, such as Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and Alexander McQueen. In the millinery world of today, Treacy’s name is ubiquitous.

Drawing of Philip Treacy hat FRC 2009.01.402 by Millie Yates

Drawing of Philip Treacy hat by Millie Yates FRC 2009.01.402

The colour palette of the hat is elegant and natural, but it is its design that is most intriguing. Treacy does not create ordinary hats; it is the sharp shaping, smooth curves and dramatic feathers in this particular design that command attention. It is this touch of originality imbued in even his most classic pieces that makes Treacy’s work so remarkable.

References

Davies, Kevin, and Philip Treacy. Philip Treacy by Kevin Davies. Berlin: Phaidon, 2013. Print.

Dreher, Denise. From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking. Minneapolis, MN: Madhatter, 1981. Print.

“Fedora.” The Berg Fashion Library. The Berg Fashion Library, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2015. <http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bdfh/bdfh-div13290.xml&gt;.

Hopkins, Susie. “Milliners.” The Berg Fashion Library. The Berg Fashion Library, 2005. Web. 4 Nov. 2015. <http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bazf/bazf00399.xml&gt;.

Peck, Jamie. “The History of the Fedora.” Broadly RSS. N.p., 01 Aug. 2015. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.

Phillips, Tom. Women & Hats: Vintage People on Photo Postcards. Oxford: U of Oxford, 2010. Print.

Philip Treacy Website. http://www.philiptreacy.co.uk/

Philip Treacy Millinery. Perf. Philip Treacy. Victoria and Albert Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/p/video-philip-treacy-millinery&gt;.