Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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

By Annika Waddell 

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Thierry Mugler hand-painted pumps, 1994.01.030 A+B

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

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

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

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Detail of pumps 1994.01.030 A+B

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

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Detail of pumps 1994.01.030 A+B

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

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FRC1994.01.030 A+B

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

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Label of pumps 1994.01.030 A+B

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

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

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Wedding slippers c.1890

By Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator.

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Cream satin wedding slippers, c.1889-1890.
FRC1987.04.001 A+B

Dress artifacts often have complex histories. When an artifact is accepted into a collection and time permits, a detailed history is obtained from the donor and included in the object record. This type of information is invaluable to future researchers, providing contextual information and a social history for the artifact that is otherwise very difficult to obtain. Ideally each donation would be accompanied by photos of the item being worn, information on where it was purchased, how much it cost, where and when it was worn. When this type of information is recorded, it can materially affect the relative importance and value of the item within a collection.

One of my favourite artifacts in the collection is this beautiful pair of cream satin wedding slippers with a one-inch Louis heel that date back to 1889-1890. These slippers are in perfect condition with only the barest hint of a scuff on the bottom of the soles, indicating that they were worn at least once, and then were carefully stored away as a memory of the day. Like many shoes of the period, there was no left or right for the pair; shoes were supposed to be rotated to ensure even wear.

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Close-up detail of the satin bow on the wedding slipper c.1889-1890. FRC1987.04.001 A

The donor, Ruth D. wrote a letter that is on file that gives the history of these slippers.

These were wedding slippers of Mary Lawson of Caledon who wed Edward Dowling (a telegraph operator) of Bolton in either 1889 or 1890. There is no record of where the marriage took place – either Bolton or Caledon. Miss Lawson had a sister who lived in Buffalo so the slippers may have been purchased there. For the wedding, Miss Lawson wore a pale grey, long satin dress.

These shoes are important artifacts because of their social history. The fact that they were worn with a pale grey, long satin dress is also interesting. Although it was not unusual to wear a wedding dress that was not white, cream slippers would more typically have been worn with a cream wedding dress. How I wish I had a photo of the wedding couple!

To see other examples of wedding slippers of this type, online collections with similar shoes include:

Costume Institute at the Met:

1880 cream leather wedding slippers: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/112828?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=Wedding+slippers+1890&pos=13

1894 cream silk and leather wedding slippers: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/113196?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=Wedding+slippers+1890&pos=15

Oakland Museum:

1887 cream satin wedding slippers: http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/h4623138

The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection only has a small number of select shoes in the collection, since students and faculty have relatively easy access to the vast collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, which is nearby. Nevertheless, artifacts such as this lovely pair of wedding slippers that have a social history have been retained in the Collection.

For further reading on 19th-century dress: 

Beaudoin-Ross, Jacquelin. Form and Fashion: Nineteenth-Century Montreal Dress. Montréal, Québec: Musée McCord d’histoire canadienne, 1992. Print.

Beaujot, Ariel. Victorian Fashion Accessories. London: Berg, 2012. Print.

Blum, Stella, ed. Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazaar 1867-1898. New York: Dover Publications, 1974. Print.

Brett, Katharine B. Modesty to Mod: Dress and Underdress in Canada 1780-1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Print.

—. Women’s Costume in Ontario, 1867-1907. Ed. Royal Ontario Museum. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, University of Toronto, 1966. Print.

Perrot, Philippe. Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.

This project was made possible by a grant from the Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.