Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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Smythe Les Vestes: The Story is in the Name

By Jennifer Braun

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Label reads: Smythe les Vestes. FRC 2012.02.001

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

Notes:

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

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

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

4. Ibid: 138.

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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

Lenczner, Andrea. Personal interview. 11 February 2016.

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

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

 

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

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

 


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Resource List for Canadian Fashion

This resource list was compiled with the hope that it would inspire fashion students and scholars to undertake research into Canada’s fashion history.

Eaton's black silk shirtwaist, c.1900 FRC2008.03.007

Black silk shirtwaist, Label: T.Eaton Co. Ltd., Toronto and Winnipeg, c.1900
FRC2008.03.007

For publications prior to 1984, Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross and Pamela Blackstock compiled a list for the journal Material Culture Review that is accessible here.

FRC_EveDresses_1998.01.002_A+B_F34_Web (1)

Select publications after 1984 are listed below:

Barnwell, S. (1984). Pattern diagrams for three Eighteenth-century Dresses in the Royal Ontario Museum. eds. Mary Holford. Toronto: ROM.

Bates, C. (2013). A Cultural History of the Nurse’s Uniform. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Bates, C. (2001). “Creative Ability and Business Sense: The Millinery Trade in Ontario”. In Framing Our Part: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century by S. Cook, L. McLean, and K. O’Rourke (eds.). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. p.348-358.

Beaudoin-Ross, J. (1992). Form and Fashion: Nineteenth-century Montreal Dress. Montreal: McCord Museum.

Careless, V. (1993). Responding to Fashion: The Clothing of the O’Reilly Family. Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum.

Cooper, C. (1997). Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General, 1876-1898. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions.

Dorosh, M. (1995). Cannuck: Clothing and Equipping the Canadian Soldier: 1939-1945. Missolua: Pictorial Histories Publishers.

Forest, J. (2013) “Dressing Funny: Humour in Canadian Fashion, Humour as an Element of Canadian Design Identity”. Costume Journal 43.1: 12-17.

Kim, A. (2013) “The Courturier and The Maple Leaf”. Costume Journal 43.1: 18-24.

MacKay, E. (2007). Beyond the Silhouette: Fashion and the Women of Historic Kingston. Kingston: Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

MacKay, E. (2013). “How Clothes Make the Seaman: Interpretation of 16th Century Basque Whaling Garments”. Costume Journal 43.2: 14-20.

Mida. I. (2013) “The Re-Collection of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection: Opening the Door to a Canadian Fashion Archive”. Costume Journal 43.2: 4-6

Palmer, A. (2001). Couture and Commerce: The Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Palmer, A. (ed). (2004). Fashion: A Canadian Perspective. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pine, J. (2013) On Finding Canada’s Fashionality or Does Canada Have a Fashion Identity? Costume Journal 43.1: 4-6.

Routh, C. (1993). In Style: 100 Years of Canadian Women’s Fashion. Toronto: Stoddart.

Sivil, A. (2013) The Fluidity of Gender in Denis Gagnon’s Spring/Summer 2013 Collection. Costume Journal 43.1: 7-11.

Sleedman, M. (1997). Angels of the Workplace: Women and the Construction of Gender Relations in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 1890-1940. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, R. (2003). A Common Thread: A History of Toronto’s Garment Industry. Toronto: Beth Tzedec Synagogue (Exhibition Pamphlet).

Townsend, E. (2013). “Exploring the Jewellery and Wardrobe Collections of Georgina and Eleanor Luxton: Fashionable Women Can be Fashionable Anywhere.” Costume Journal 43.2: 21-28.

Triemstra-Johnston, J. (2013). “The Language of the Plain Sewing Sampler”. Costume Journal 43.2: 7-13.

Wahl, K. and David, A.M. (2010). “Matthew Cuthbert Insists on Puffed Sleeves: Ambivalence Towards Fashion in Anne of Green Gables”, in Anne’s World: A New Century of Anne of Green Gables by I. Gammel and B. Lefebvre (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p.35-49.


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Of Hats and History

By Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator

Black sinamay cartwheel hat with asymmetrical brim with draped black mesh. Miss Jones by Stephen Jones FRC2009.01.608

Black sinamay cartwheel hat with asymmetrical brim with draped black mesh.
Miss Jones by Stephen Jones
FRC2009.01.608

Hats are one of the most visible means to signal power, class, status, belonging and/or conformity to modes of dress. After all, for centuries kings and queens wore crowns to signal their power and dynastic position and their servants would be required to remove their hat in their presence to demonstrate their subservience.  Hats can also convey emotional states (mourning) or marital status (bridal veils). Although hats, outside of ones worn as part of a uniform or religious affiliation, are now generally worn as optional accessories to convey personality or as a form of fashionable ornamentation, it was once considered unseemly for a refined gentleman or woman to appear in public without a hat. Like other dress artifacts, hats reflect the social and cultural attitudes of their period.

In terms of fashion history, we as Canadians often overlook the fact that the fashion for men’s hats created out of beaver felts was an important part of the history and the settlement of this country. Felt was made out of animal hairs and the highest quality hats were made out of beaver pelts. Felt hats were once called “beavers” and signaled that the wearer was rich.  The purchase of such a hat was a costly proposition because demand for beaver pelts greatly surpassed the supply. One of the oldest companies in the world, the Hudson’s Bay Company, was founded in 1670, exporting furs from Canada to meet European demand.

This quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes conveys the respect for the quality of Canadian furs:”Wear a good hat, the secret of your looks/Lies with the beaver in Canadian brooks.”

The beaver hat was in high demand until the 19th century when the silk topper became the mark of status.

FRC_Hats_1991.02.005_FRT_Web

Felted top hat with 3 cm black grosgrain hatband. Forest green silk brim lining and patent leather and cream silk crown lining. Late 19th c. Label: Christy’s London. FRC1995.02.005

The  Ryerson Fashion Research Collection has only one top hat (FRC1995.02.005). This Victorian top hat with 3 cm black grosgrain hatband is made of a felted animal hair. It has a forest green silk brim lining and patent leather and cream silk lining and has a label from Christy’s London. The crown is dented and the lining is coming apart inside the crown. The grosgrain is worn and browning, indicating that it was well-worn.  It is likely from the late 19th century and made of rabbit fur. The hat interior crown has the signature of the owner in pencil on the interior “H. Fitzgerald”.

Although the collection has very few men’s hats, we have more than 500 women’s hats, including many by milliner’s like Philip Treacy, Stephen Jones, Eric Javits and others. Our hat room is an aspiring milliner’s dream. Visit our Pinterest site to see a small sampling of our hat collection.

Further reading:

Folledore, Giulliano. Men’s Hats. Modena: Zanft Editions, 1989.

Hopkins, Susie. The Century of Hats. London: Aurum Press, 1999.

Jones, Stephen. Hats: An Anthology. London: V&A Publications, 2009.

Langley, Susan. Vintage Hats & Bonnets, 1770-1970. Paducah: Collector Books, 1998.

McDowell, Colin. Hats: Status, Style and Glamour. New York: Rizzoli, 1992.


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Tunic-style Evening Gown with Detachable Hood, c.1970 by Marilyn Brooks

By Ingrid Mida, Collection Co-ordinator.

FRC_EveDresses_1998.01.002_A+B_F34_Web

Burgundy velour tunic dress with long sleeves and matching detachable hood. Size 9/10, Label: Marilyn Brooks Made in Canada. FRC1998.01.002A+B

This rich toned burgundy velour tunic dress with long sleeves and matching detachable hood was designed by Marilyn Brooks in the early 1970s.  Highly fashionable for the period, but also washable, it would have been suitable as an evening gown. Hooded gowns were popular during this time, and Margaret Trudeau wore a hooded wedding dress that she designed herself for her wedding to then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1971 (link to image here).

Back of Marilyn Brooks Evening Gown c.1970 FRC1998.01.002A+B

Back of Marilyn Brooks Evening Gown c.1970
FRC1998.01.002A+B

Detail of detachable hood by Marilyn Brooks. FRC1998.01.002A+B

Detail of detachable hood by Marilyn Brooks. FRC1998.01.002A+B

The sheen of the fabric is undiminished and the ensemble is in perfect condition.  The shoulder yoke has horizontal tucks that are not readily visible in the photo. The dress closes at the back with a metal zipper. The label reads: “marilyn brooks, size 9/10, Made in/Fabrique au CANADA CA07455”.  Handwritten in script are the words “Betty Sonsfield 1970”.

Label Marilyn Brooks  FRC1998.01.002 A+B

Label Marilyn Brooks
FRC1998.01.002 A+B

Although Marilyn Brooks does not recall designing this specific dress, she wrote in an email to me on November 1, 2013 that: “The fabric was great and it was washable. Somehow I remember the fabric being made in Canada. It was important to always cut the fabric only one way. The feel of the hand going down….never up.” She also recalled that she had designed some medieval inspired gowns for the department store Simpson’s in the 1970s, but that this dress was not part of that series.

The Marilyn Brooks label was an important part of Canadian fashion history (note 1), providing fashionable and innovative designs for more than 40 years. The collection page on her website reads “The women who wore Marilyn’s designs ran the gamut from twenty onwards, but they were all creative, self-confident women with strong personalities who exude warmth and humour. These intelligent women were looking for ease with innovation and function with whimsy, at a price that immediately said good value! Marilyn’s clothes were known for versatility and easily stood up to the rigors of an active and travel oriented lifestyle.”

Marilyn is now retired from fashion and works as an artist. She is also working on her autobiography, and visited the Ryerson campus last fall to speak to students about her experiences as a designer. I recall feeling her warmth and good humour as she told the many anecdotes from her life.

The Ryerson Fashion Research Collection only has only one other garment from the Marilyn Brooks label, a liliac cotton two-piece top and skirt ensemble from the late 1970s and pre-1983 (FRC1983.04.21A+B). The top has a Peter Pan collar with machine embroidery in a floral pattern and a front button closure as well as a shoulder yoke with ruched detail and a drawstring waist. The skirt is gathered at the waist and buttons at the back. We would welcome donations of any other Marilyn Brooks garments in good condition.

Note 1: In the book “In Style: 100 Years of Canadian Fashion”, Caroline Routh mentions Marilyn Brooks as well as Claire Haddad, Pat McDonagh, Edith Strauss, and Winston as among the “important fashion designers in Toronto in the seventies” (152).