Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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Mary Hamilton’s Wedding Dress: A Study of a 1930’s Gown

Wedding dresses are often only worn once and then carefully stored away as a material memory of a significant event” (note 1).

This is true of  a fashionable 1930s satin wedding dress and headpiece that was worn by Mary Hamilton (1908-2000) at her Toronto wedding in 1936. Mary’s dress and headpiece as well as related ephemera were recently donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection by her daughter, Mary Walton-Ball.

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Newspaper clippings of Mollie Hamilton from June 6, 1931 and February 1, 1930 (left to right). Publication unknown.

Mary Hamilton, known as Mollie, was born into a prosperous Toronto family in 1908. The Hamiltons were in the steel business and made many contributions to the city’s industry. Mollie studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and sang in Healey Willan’s choir, as well as the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church choir. In 1935, Mollie was offered a position with a stage company and performed live before the main show at the Imperial Theatre. In addition to these endeavours, she sang on a radio show called the “Blue Coal Hour”.

On June 27, 1936, Mollie married Dr. Horace Gifford (Lou) Walton-Ball. The reception was held in the garden of their home at three in the afternoon (note 2). The couple went on to have two children; David in 1939 and Mary in 1945. Mollie contributed to her community as a volunteer at the Toronto Western Hospital gift shop (note 3). Throughout her life, Mollie travelled across Europe and North America. Mollie, in her 92nd year, passed away on July 4, 2000. She was described as “feisty with a quick sense of humour” and “elegant, articulate, and graceful” (note 4).

The words elegant and graceful describe 1930s fashion just as fittingly as they do Mollie’s personality and demeanor. According to the book The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashion, dress styles from this period were, “eclectic, but the strongest trends were slim-fitting draped styles inspired by classic or medieval dress” (note 5). Mollie Hamilton’s wedding dress fulfills all of this criteria, making it an embodiment of a fashionable 1930s bridal gown.

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A photo of Mollie on her wedding day; June 27, 1936.

The dress is made of a creamy white bias cut satin (FRC2015.09.001). It has no labels, so there is no indication of where or by whom it was made. Mollie’s daughter Mary suggested that the garment was likely custom-made by a dressmaker in Toronto (note 6). The bodice features gathers on either side of the point created by the empire waist seam. Those gathers are repeated along the neckline, which is topped by a border of silk rosettes with beaded centers. The sleeves of the dress are adorned with beaded smocking on the shoulders and along the cuffs at the wrists. There are snaps at the base of the wrist to allow the hand of the wearer to pass through this snug closure.
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Sketch of the wedding dress sleeve, rosette, and bodice by Hannah Dobbie, 2016.

The gown’s skirt begins at the empire waist and continues in a gradual flare. The skirt’s already long length is extended by a train of 41 inches (104 cm). The train begins at either side of centre front, growing in size as it reaches the centre back of the garment. The flare created is dramatic; to ensure that the fabric fell with the desired effect when worn, small weights were sewn into each side of the hem.

This dress was machine-stitched, with the beadwork being sewn by hand. The dress is unlined and does not have any pockets. The selvedge of the fabric can be seen in one of the seams between the train and the skirt. There is no form of reinforcement and there has not been any finishing process on the fabric. Four self-covered buttons arranged vertically down centre back with a hook and eye closure above them serve as this garment’s only form of closure.

The dress is in good condition. It shows little to no fading and only very slight signs of wear. Some beads have fallen off and there are some small stains on the under side of the train where it would have dragged on the ground. There do not seem to be any signs of alteration or intentional removal of embellishments.

When worn, this fabric would feel smooth, cool, light, and luxurious on the skin. A faint swooshing of the satin would be heard when parts of the dress rubbed against each other. The garment’s construction is relatively simple, but the intricate details and beadwork create an impression of understated beauty.

According to a study of vintage evening wear by DeLong and Petersen, dresses in the 1930s were characterized “by slim-fitting elegant shapes and vertical lines that created the image of a womanly curvaceous body, with surfaces defined by fluid fabrics and enhanced by fitted shapes” (note 7). Mrs. Walton-Ball’s wedding dress was a very of-the-moment, stylish piece that, 80 years later, still looks fashionable. This garment evokes a sense of glamour, elegance, and femininity — characteristics that Mollie Walton-Ball herself exemplified.

Notes:

Note 1: Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim. 2015. “Case Study of a Lanvin Wedding Gown” in The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury, 160.

Note 2: Handwritten letter written by Mollie Walton-Ball in April, 1968.

Note 3: Funeral program for Mollie Hamilton dated August 8, 2000.

Note 4: Ibid.

Note 5: Edwina Ehrman, The Wedding Dress (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), 117.

Note 6: Email correspondence with Mary Walton-Ball dated October 6, 2016.

Note 7: M. DeLong and K. Petersen, “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection,” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2005): 99-112.

References:

Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress. London: V & A Publishing, 2011.

DeLong, M. R. and K. Petersen. “Analysis and Characterization of 1930s Evening Dresses in A University Museum Collection.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 22, no. 3 (2004): 99-112.

Mida, Ingrid and Kim, Alexandra. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Research. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.


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Embellished Silk Crepe Evening Jacket, late 1930s

by Ingrid Mida and Kristina McMullin

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Black silk faille beaded evening jacket FRC1988.02.020A

This black silk crepe evening jacket (FRC188.02.20A) has long sleeves, padded shoulders and a keyhole neckline with a three inch cream band around the neckline. The jacket is heavily embellished with blue, gray, and silver sequins and beads in leaf motifs. There is no label. It was donated to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection by Shelagh Stewart in 1988 along with a dress, which is missing from the collection.

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Close up of beading FRC1988.02.020A

The following description and analysis was written by fashion student Kristina McMullin and was revised and edited by Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida.

Description

The long-sleeved beaded evening jacket sits just above  the natural waist and has a keyhole front opening with a closure of two hook and eyes at the neckline. The waistline has a U-shaped edge, meaning the bottom of the jacket curves up to create the U-shape, then back down to the waistline. The bottom of the jacket has the same shape as the keyhole neckline; the two curves reflect one another. The sleeves each have keyhole openings at the top of the arm in a similar shape to the keyhole opening in the front; they are approximately 4.5 inches long and 3 inches wide. The sleeve openings would fall from the shoulder to above the elbow. The sleeve openings have the same three-inch cream band around them. The bottoms of the sleeves have an opening with 3 snaps on them. The jacket has shoulder and waist darts in both the front and back to a create shape for the wearer. The elbows have seams to allow the wearer to move their arms, specifically elbows, freely. The jacket is fully lined in the cream silk crepe. Around the both neckline and the armholes, there is beading and sequin detailing. The beads and sequins are in a blue colour family – icy bright blue, to deep navy blue, as well as white and grey. The beading is in an abstracted leaf pattern, with many leaves and vines to create depth around the openings of the garment.

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Close up of keyhole neckline, black evening jacket FRC1988.02.020A

Reflection

The beading tells a story about the jacket and its owner, since the beading is all hand done, and is still perfectly intact, eighty years after it was created. This shows that this jacket was well crafted, and was likely worn very little. What makes this jacket interesting and unique is that it has several paradoxes; it has a weightless quality about it, due to the light nature of the silk, however it is weighted down with a pair of weights in the back, at the base of the two back darts, to lay it flat on the wearer. It has an inherently timeless quality about it, while still remaining true to the 1930’s aesthetic.

This jacket also contains unspoken messages about the enduring nature of fashion and art. Even though the 1930s was a time of poverty and despair for many people as a result of the Great Depression, artists and designers were still creating beautiful objects.  It speaks to human nature that the designer of this silk crepe jacket chose to embellish it with lavish hand beading and reiterates that if you have the ability to look beautiful, you will, no matter what is going on in the surrounding world. When I look at this jacket, I am both inspired and disturbed. I am inspired because of its inherit beauty, and the craftsmanship behind it. However, I am disturbed that during a time when fashion should have been considered most trivial, it was a highlight for some people.

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Side view of evening jacket FRC1988.02.020A

The beauty of this jacket also offers an argument against fast fashion. Fast fashion clothing we consume today lasts a season or two at best, and yet this jacket has withstood the span of time, both stylistically and in its construction. This jacket is in perfect condition; there are no runs in the silk crepe, and no noticeable missing sequins or beads. This jacket would be considered couture quality, due to the hand made techniques, the attention to detail and the fact that the construction has held up over time. There are slights signs of wear on the inside lining, some colour imperfections and signs of fabric disintegration. This is expected, as crème is a colour that shows imperfections and silk is a delicate fabric. The signs of wear are minimal and relatively invisible. With the condition of this jacket, it can be surmised that it was not worn a lot.

Speculation

It can be speculated that the wearer of this garment was very wealthy and would likely have had help around the house, since this jacket is all one piece with no full opening and the wearer may have needed assistance in getting it on. It can also be speculated that this jacket would have been worn over top of a dress. The keyhole opening is too low and wide to be worn without another garment underneath, and the wearer would have had another silk crepe piece, most likely a long black sheath dress, very popular in the 1930s. In the absence of a label, it is likely that this jacket would have been a one of a kind piece.

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Sleeve detail of black beaded evening jacket FRC1988.02.020A

Curator’s Notes by Ingrid Mida

This garment was donated in 1988 and records indicate that there was also a black sleeveless cocktail dress accepted into the collection at that time. Unfortunately, the matching dress (FRC1988.02.020B) has gone missing and is assumed lost. Nevertheless, the beauty of the beadwork on this garment is characteristic of the romantic and glamourous looks of the 1930s. During this period of economic crisis and political instability, Hollywood offered an escapist fantasy, and those that could afford it emulated the dress silhouettes of the stars of Hollywood, adopting bias cuts that clung to the body as well as romantic and feminine silhouettes. These looks continued into the early 1940s and a similar style of jacket with sequin detailing around a keyhole neckline can been found on page 132 of Vogue March 1, 1940 by Capri. Fashion does not always change to correspond with the end of the decade, making the exact dating of garments without provenance information a challenge. Even though the matching dress is missing, this evening jacket offers the opportunity to study the artistry of sequin and beaded embellishments, and consider how the zeitgeist of the times becomes embodied in the garments of a period.