Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

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Analysis of a Frock Coat by Rei Kawakubo Part II

by Jordan Nguyen 


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.


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.


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). 

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An analysis of a woman’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Part 1

By Jordan Nguyen

The following object analysis will focus on a black women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo dating from the early 1990s (FRC2006.01.023). Upon first glance, the garment appears ordinary and minimalistic in its design. The lengthened overcoat bears no features which demand imperative attention, and it seems undistinguishable from current times. It is only upon further examination that one takes note of the subtle details and design choices utilized by the designer. Exploration will reveal Kawakubo’s trademarks in fashion creation, her conceptual approach, and her values which link to her sense of self. Placing the garment in its historical context will also trace back to the major impact Kawakubo created in the fashion industry at the time of her arrival in Paris – 1981 – and her continuing influence in design. Japanese design aesthetics, gender neutrality, and feminist interpretations will be discussed.

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This analysis has been divided into two posts. The first post will focus on the aesthetics and construction of the garment (the description phase of object-based analysis as per Checklist 1 of The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion.

The frock coat is made of a black wool fabric with an incorporated gold metallic polyester weave. Kawakubo is noted for creating innovative textiles that combine natural and artificial fibres as well as for using modified production methods (Kawamura 134). A raised diagonal grain is evident in the textile which creates a visual glimmering effect. The fabric is of a heavier weight and holds a crisp edge. The coat’s exceptional condition may be attributed to the durability of the wool blend as it shows very few signs of wear. As a whole, the garment appears to have maintained its potent black colour. Kawakubo’s design features a two-piece lapel collar, slightly-flared straight sleeves, a welt pocket on the left breast, two flapped pockets on each side of the coat, a back cut-out, and a four-button front closure.

The coat contains several labels: a “Rei Kawakubo” label, a label for “COMME des GARÇONS CO.,LTD.” – the name under which Kawakubo’s brand was marketed; a tag indicating size medium marked “M”; contents and care tags, and a Ryerson FRC label. The text on the contents label has visibly faded. It contains both English and French, and its backside also includes Japanese text. Visual symbols are evident which indicate care instructions. It can be noted that although the fabric features a blend of wool and polyester, the tag states that the garment is made of 100% wool. The coat is in pristine condition.

Additional design components are observed on the coat. The collar’s left lapel contains an unpierced buttonhole without a corresponding button on the right lapel. The sleeves contain fake plackets which emerge from one of the seams of the sleeves and appears as flaps containing two buttons. Upon lifting the flaps of the side pockets, a button is evident which secures the interior of the pocket closed.

In examining the interior of the coat, the back neck facing contains a band feature above the brand label allowing for it to be hooked on to a hanger. The entire garment is lined in black polyester fabric including the pockets and the sleeves. The center back seam of the lining features a back pleat; this pleat allowance accommodates for freedom of movement in the shoulder area (Bane 300). Hand stitching has been used to clean finish the hem of the garment as well as to secure the lining to the sleeve armholes. In all other areas, machine-stitching has been implemented for efficiency, consistency, and durability.

It is in the examination of the construction and tailoring of the garment that we see traces of the innovative essence of Rei Kawakubo. Merging traditional techniques and Japanese avant-garde aesthetics, the garment creates an innovative boxy and oversized silhouette while maintaining a semi-fitted form. The tailoring of the torso is executed with princess lines – “shaped seams which serve the function of darts” (Bane 103). Following the curves of the body, the seams run from the armhole to the hem of the coat. Towards the bottom, the princess lines fold into the flare points of the garment and transition into a less fitted silhouette.

Complexity is evident in the manner in which the seams coincide with design elements on the coat. The rounded seams of the princess lines are interrupted by a welt pocket on the left breast as well as the flap pockets on the sides. The side seams of the garment also end after they approach the flap pockets from the armhole. This indicates that Kawakubo’s design contains many more pattern panels than a traditional overcoat. An additional panel next to the side seams continues the front of the garment to a partial amount on the back before it ends and makes way for perhaps the most interesting feature of the garment – the back cut-out. Creating a long rectangular void, it is clean finished with a yoke and creates the appearance of two panels on the sides of the garment which extend to the front body of the tailcoat.

In considering the sleeves, instead of a singular seam connecting to the side seam of the coat, two seams appear on both sides of where one would normally appear. This innovative construction method allows for shaping in the sleeve’s silhouette. The interior lining of the coat reveals the different pieces and panels of the garment based on the seam delineations. Its assembly would have required careful planning in the order of operations when sewn in order to ensure that all of the raw seams would be hidden. Finishings have been applied neatly in consideration of the complex structure of the garment which is disguised in its black entirety.

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. F

ukai, 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.

Part II will be posted later this week and continue the analysis.

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). 

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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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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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.


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.”

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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.

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A Dissection of a Wool Jacket by Christian Dior for Holt Renfew

By Millie Yates

Dior Jacket Front 2013.99.007

Wool Jacket by Christian Dior for Holt Renfrew, Front FRC 2013.99.007

It is impossible not be intrigued by the deceptively simple design of this garment. Though it appears uncomplicated, the process of creating its perfect drape and elegant angles required mastery. Such is the beauty of couture.  This wool tweed cropped jacket with ¾ sleeves was designed by Christian Dior for Holt Renfrew and is from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2013.99.007).  Initially the jacket was dated as originating from 1958-1963, but further research has revealed that there is a high probability that it is from 1955-1956 and that there was once a matching dress or skirt.

There are many subtle and complex details to be noticed. For example, the front and back of the jacket are cut on the bias, which results in a soft chevron effect. The sleeves are cut as part of the body of the jacket with a seam that follows the shoulder line. There is a diamond-shaped gusset under each underarm. In couture tradition, there are bound buttonholes on the front of the jacket and three metal weights concealed in the lining towards the hem of the jacket to help it hang properly.

The jacket is very angular in shape, with sharp straight edges along the hem, collar, pockets and sleeves. The collar of the jacket is flat and wide. There are three large textured round buttons at the front that hold the jacket closed. These buttons are very large at 2 inches (10 cm) across and appear to be made of plastic. Two 5-inch (13 cm) wide tailored pockets sit on either side of the centre front, towards the bottom of the jacket. The pockets are lined but would have limited functionality due to their very shallow depth. The selvedge is not visible in the garment, because the jacket is fully lined with facings at the neckline and centre front. The gusset under the arm appears in both the shell and the lining of the jacket. There are no reinforcements to the jacket, in terms of boning, padding, or wire. This garment was made with a combination of machine and hand stitching. The care taken with construction is apparent, and this affirms the quality and cost associated with a Dior garment.

Collar and button detail FRC2013.99.007

Collar and button detail FRC2013.99.007

The fabric of the jacket gives it the appearance that it would be very warm. The wool tweed has been matched with a silk satin lining. The outer shell of tweed has a number of colours in its pattern, with brown and a greyish green being the most prominent as well as some flecks of white. The silk satin lining is reddish brown.

The garment has a label at the neckline that reads: “Christian Dior Original in Canada Exclusive with Holt Renfrew and Co. Limited.” It was in 1951 that Christian Dior and Holt Renfrew made an agreement for exclusive Canadian reproduction rights (Palmer 117). The label does not indicate the season or exact year that the jacket was made. There are no care labels, name tags or size labels within the garment. There is no information on the owner as the jacket was donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection anonymously.

This jacket is a truly beautiful piece. Constructed to sit lightly on the body, it is boxy but would not overwhelm the frame. The design of the jacket is both clever and subtle: a perfect marriage between couture quality and everyday versatility. It is a classic jacket: something proper to wear in a professional setting or for formal occasions. Though a serious piece of clothing, its cropped length, big buttons and the 3/4 length sleeves of the jacket present as anything but austere and boring.

Dior Jacket, FRC2013.99.007

Dior Jacket, FRC2013.99.007

Studying this garment requires some historical context, which is most easily provided by considering comparable garments. There are several other Dior pieces in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, but the most directly comparable examples can be found in the collection of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  An online search reveals that there are 797 garments by Christian Dior in the collection of the Costume Institute. From this sample, the general patterns and trends in Dior’s early designs are apparent. Dior is most known for The New Look, which date from his first collection in February 1947 and the silhouette features a padded bust and hips, sloping shoulders, and a dramatically nipped-in waist. As the 1950s move along, the shape of Dior’s jackets change too. Collars are wider, sleeve lengths are often shorter and the slim waist is often integrated into the matching skirt or dress: many of Dior’s jackets from the late 1950s are cropped and boxy, much like this particular garment from the FRC.

One of the most similar dress artifacts in the collection of the Costume Institute is not a suit jacket but a coat. The coat is dated to 1956, almost ten years after Dior’s first collection (Met Accession Number: 2002.262). Like the FRC jacket, its design is a bit of a contrast against his earlier designs. The jacket is 44 inches (112 cm) long at the centre back, and has a sack-like shape. The shoulders are unpadded like the FRC jacket, and the sleeves are not set in at the shoulder, but appear to be almost kimono-style. Similarly the FRC jacket does not have traditional set-in sleeves. The 1956 Dior coat also has three wide, round brown buttons as a closure. Beyond the obvious similarities in shape, one of the most important and exciting resemblances is the fabric: the wool used for both the coat and the jacket appears to be a very similar (if not the same) greyish-brown tweed. This similarity makes it highly likely that the FRC garment was produced in the same year, as a similar-looking self fabric suggests that the two garments are from the same collection. Like the FRC jacket, the design of this coat appears all at once very simple yet also masterfully conceived: this is the beauty of a Dior garment.

Another comparable artifact found in collection of the Costume Institute Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was the “Virevolte” dress and matching jacket from the Fall/Winter 1955 collection (Met Accession number 2009.300.443a–d). Like the FRC garment, this ensemble is made of a very similar looking brownish-grey wool tweed. The jacket is a little shorter than the FRC garment: at centre back it measures 17 1/2 inches (44.5 cm) whereas the FRC jacket selected is approximately 21 ½ inches (54.5 cm). The “Virevolte” outfit features a cropped wool tweed jacket with set-in sleeves and a built-up collar, with a matching wool tweed dress to go underneath. Beyond the obvious similarities in fabric and cut, what is most interesting about the “Virevolte” ensemble is the dress underneath. It is reasonable to assume that the garment from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection would have at one point been accompanied by a matching dress or skirt. The “Virevolte” gives a good idea of the garment that might been worn with the jacket from the FRC. It, too, is beautifully designed and it features short sleeves constructed in a similar fashion to the sleeves on the Dior jacket from the FRC. The sleeves are cut with the front panels and widen under the arms with a gusset insert. There are two darts that bring in the waist on the front of the dress, and these darts widen into two box pleats down the skirt of the dress. A thin brown leather belt cinches the waist and matches the buttons down the bodice of the dress. The curatorial notes provided with this artifact read: “No matter which silhouette (Christian Dior) chose, the slim sheath or the bouffant skirt, the narrow waist recurs in nearly every garment.” It seems probable that the skirt or dress that accompanied the jacket from the FRC might have been quite fitted at the waist to contrast the little jacket’s boxy shape. In seeing the photographs of this ensemble on a dress form, it becomes a lot easier to see how the garment from the Fashion Research Collection might have looked as a complete outfit. After seeing “Virevolte” one could imagine that it would have been a very trim, smart look.

After a thorough analysis and comparison to similar garments, many mysteries still surround this garment. Who purchased this jacket? Who wore it? What secrets lie inside the garment, beyond the silk-satin lining? Though one can only speculate at the answers to these questions, this garment offers the opportunity to study the masterful construction of Dior.. The House of Dior is known to guard the secrets of  the design and construction of their pieces. Each clue gathered in a close study of such pieces is a step towards understanding the ever-intriguing Christian Dior’s work.


Bruna, Denis. Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette. New Haven: Yale UP, 2015. Print.

Cawthorne, Nigel. The New Look: The Dior Revolution. Edison, N.J.: Wellfleet, 1996. Print.

Dior, Christian. Dior by Dior: The Autobiography of Christian Dior. London: V & A Pub., 2007. Print.

Giroud, Francoise, and Sacha Van Dorssen. Dior: Christian Dior, 1905-1957. New York: Rizzoli, 1987. Print.

Palmer, Alexandra. “Couture, Fashion Shows and Marketing.” Couture & Commerce: The Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s. Vancouver: UBC, 2001. 117. Print.

Palmer, Alexandra. Dior: A New Look, a New Enterprise (1947-57). London: V & A, 2009. Print.

Parkins, Ilya. ” Christian Dior: Nostalgia and the Economy of Feminine Beauty.” The Berg Fashion Library. The Berg Fashion Library, 2012. Web. 28 Jul. 2015.

Pochna, Marie France. Dior. New York: Assouline, 2008. Print.

Pujalet-Plaà, Eric. “New Look.” The Berg Fashion Library. The Berg Fashion Library, 2005. Web. 29 Jul. 2015.

Nudelman, Zoya. The Art of Couture Sewing. New York: Fairchild, 2009. Print.


Notes on Comparable Garments in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection:

1) Green and cream tweed wool jacket and skirt suit by Maggy Reeves FRC 1998.06.007 A+B

A similar garment from the Fashion Research Collection is a Maggy Reeves tweed jacket and matching skirt. Like the Dior garment, the jacket is made of a woollen material with a silk lining. There are many similarities in cut, too: the Reeves jacket has a flat collar, button closure and a slightly cropped length. The bold look of the large round buttons, the soft cut of the collar and the matching skirt nipped in tightly at the waist compare well to the Dior jacket, too. One major similarity between the Reeves jacket and Dior jacket is the flawless job of concealing darts and seams. Both garments appear to be only one piece due to a delicate balancing of the tweed fabric.

2) Citron yellow cropped jacket with sleeveless dress by Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner FRC 1986.01.001 A+B

At first glance it does not appear that the Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner jacket and matching dress have much in common with the Dior garment: the Bill Blass ensemble is a citron yellow colour with a pale blue lining. Its fabric is a brocade silk, and appears to be a formal outfit. Though quite different in colour and fabric, in many ways, the cut and design of the Bill Blass ensemble resembles that of the FRC Dior jacket. Like thee garment, this jacket does not have traditional set-in sleeves: its centre front and centre back panels were cut in a T-shape. With the Blass jacket, there is a side panel that continues and becomes the bottom-half of the sleeve, resulting in princess seams along centre front and centre back that curve into the sleeve seam where the armhole should be. Like the Dior jacket, the yellow jacket also has a gusset under the arm.

3) Yellow Boucle wool belted coat “143C Dior SANFRAN” by Christian Dior for Holt Renfrew FRC 1997.04.044

In a beautiful saffron yellow, this coat has a striking fitted waist and an a-line skirt. A wide belt with a fabric-covered buckle secures the middle. Like the Dior jacket, this coat has many couture quality details. For example, both garments have bound buttonholes. Both garments also have a subtle topstitching done along each edge of the garment: pockets, centre front, sleeve hem and jacket hem. This garment is closer in cut to Dior’s iconic New Look silhouette: with its belt and darting, it cuts an hourglass figure. If the Dior jacket had a matching skirt or dress to accompany it, it might be possible to compare the shape of the entire outfit to the shape of the yellow coat. Like the Dior jacket, the coat is lined with a matching silk fabric. Both garments are made of very fine materials.

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A Close Look at a Lady’s Velveteen Jacket from the 1880s

By Jessica Oakes

I have chosen to study a lady’s late-nineteenth century purple velveteen jacket from the Ryerson Research Collection (FRC2014.07.198). This garment is described in the catalogue as follows: “Purple velveteen military-style womenswear bodice/jacket with standing collar, tails and overskirt sections, double-breasted with brass moulded buttons up front” and was dated to the 1880s. This jacket was likely worn with a matching or coordinating skirt which has been repurposed or lost.

Purple velveteen jacket FRC2014.07.198 Photo by Jessica Oakes

Purple velveteen jacket FRC2014.07.198
Photo by Jessica Oakes

One of the most striking features of this jacket is that it was designed to be worn over a bustle, which emphasized the back side of the woman wearing it. The bustle was fashionable during two periods in the later part of the nineteenth century. It was first popular during  1869-1876 and fell out of fashion for a brief time to return in popularity from about 1883-1890. Without a bustle the jacket has a lot of extra room in the rear and looks rather deflated without a bustle to fill it out. I compared several sizes of bustles from the Ryerson Collection and estimated that a bustle of around five inches would have been worn to fill in the back.

Detail of bustle back of jacket FRC2014.07.198 Photo by Jessica Oakes

Detail of bustle back of jacket FRC2014.07.198
Photo by Jessica Oakes

This fitted jacket has a double row of twelve ¾-inch bronze-gold buttons that suggest military influence. The flat shank buttons have an engraved design of foliage. The front panel of the jacket is attached only by the buttons that are sewn through both the panel and the jacket front. The front panel has a center seam down the front, peaks about ¼-inch above the neckline and tapers down to hip level.

Detail of buttons FRC2014.07.198 Photo by Jessica Oakes

Detail of buttons FRC2014.07.198
Photo by Jessica Oakes

The jacket fabric is either a cotton or silk velveteen, and is assumed to be cotton since that would be a less expensive option. Without a fiber test it is difficult to determine the fibre content with certainty, but cotton is a logical choice since there is other evidence that the maker was thrifty. The external shell is magenta velveteen (roughly hex colour #540052). The jacket lining is a plain weave cotton in camel brown (roughly hex colour #C19A6B). The lining extends from the bodice to the hips up but the sleeves are unlined. The edges have been clipped to reduce fray. The front panel and collar have a different facing that appears to be a faded black lining made of a textile that feels more like silk than cotton. The lining was sewn into the seams like a second shell layer, then strips of black fabric were hand sewn with a whip stitch onto the outer edges of the seam allowance to create a boning case. These casings are found at the center back, side seam and side dart.  The unlined lower hem was finished with a 2 inch turned under hem with little tucks to help such a wide rolling hem curve around the paniers and bustle overskirt.

Jacket Lining FRC2014.07.198 Photo by Jessica Oakes

Jacket Lining FRC2014.07.198 Photo by Jessica Oakes

This garment was made for a woman that was very petite. When dressed on a child’s mannequin, it does up quite snugly around the bust and hips leaving about 2 to 3 inches of gaping at the waist.

The jacket exhibits some damage including areas where the velveteen nap has been worn away such as the underarms, seam/hem edges, cuffs, and sleeve caps/shoulders. The most severe damage is the collar where the top edge has frayed and come apart to reveal the thick woven interfacing sandwiched inside. The boning inserts from inside the jacket lining are empty and one button is missing from the jacket front.

Detail of damage on collar FRC2014.07.198  Photo by Jessica Oakes

Detail of damage on collar FRC2014.07.198
Photo by Jessica Oakes

There are no labels in the jacket, and it is likely that the jacket was homemade, as was common at the time. Nonetheless, the jacket illustrates a complexity of construction. The sleeves are constructed with two main pieces in an arm-scythe shape with a thinner inner sleeve and a larger outer sleeve. There are two triangular gores, one long and one short, on the inside of the sleeve which may indicate that the maker was being economical in her cutting of the fabric.  Another sign of thriftiness is the visible selvedge used in the center front as well as in the top portions of the over-skirt (measuring a 20 inch fabric width). This suggests that the maker took care to cut the fabric as efficiently as possible.

As I looked closer at the construction of the garment, it quickly became apparent that some of the details I thought were simple were much more complicated than expected. The jacket includes double front darts under the breasts, the outer ones being higher than the inner ones. Where I expected to see a side seam there is a dart from the armhole down to about hip height. The actual side seam is farther back where four pleats from the front and two from the back create two shorter side drapes and a large, long back drape. The back also has two princess seams, the outermost is the side seam ending at hip height with the hem and the innermost ends in a dart around hip height as well, both connect to the armhole. The side seam also lines up with the back underarm seam.

Sketch of sleeve detail FRC2014.07.198 By Jessica Oakes

Sketch of sleeve detail FRC2014.07.198
By Jessica Oakes

The shoulder seams are set quite farther back than expected, making the back neckline section rather short. The shoulder seams are also 6 inches long which suggest a dropped-shoulder look since most shoulder seams are 4 inches long which makes 6 inches especially long since this was such a petite woman. I suspect this is to allow movement and create a softer shoulder silhouette. The collar of the jacket appears to have a built up neckline before the mandarin collar section. The front of it sits an inch apart instead of overlapping. Inside the collar is a thick-yarned, woven interfacing.

The pleats at the side seam are 2 inches deep, the front ones being 1 ¼ inches apart and the back ones being 2 inches apart, both with the hem being 2 ¼ inches below the lowest pleats which match up front and back. The lining even gets caught up in the front pleats at the side seam. There is also a center back seam that has a complex box pleat, which looks like a complex triple pleat. This box pleat is hand stitched to the lining on the inside and took a while to deconstruct as each pleat is tucked into each other.

Sketch of jacket by Jessica Oakes

Sketch of jacket by Jessica Oakes

When I look at this garment, I think it would likely have been very constricting to wear, especially on top of a shift, a corset, a bustle, and petticoat. Although I cannot imagine wearing a bustle or corset, the shape of the garment would still work well with my figure since I am an hourglass silhouette. I would think the texture of the velveteen would be very nice to feel and would make it a very warm jacket, and thus likely worn in fall or winter in order to not be overwhelmingly hot. I love the colour and silhouette of this jacket. I also think that the design is so exceedingly lovely. The drop shoulder and shaped sleeves would be interesting to wear and possibly very comfortable.

This garment revealed many surprises that have inspired me to learn more.


Edited by Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator