Canada’s Fashion History Lurks in Cambridge

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At a recent fashion industry event, I was catching up with a writer friend of mine over a glass of wine when she dropped a bombshell.

“I just came from a Dior exhibit at the Fashion History Museum. Did you know we had a Fashion History Museum?”

Say what? I confessed I did not.

As she went on to explain her discovery of this little gem, we exchanged genuine shock and surprise that it even existed. If we – a seasoned journalist and a blogger – claim to have our fingers on the pulse of fashion in this country, how did neither of us know…

  1. Canada has a museum on the history of fashion.
  2. It’s located over an hour outside of Toronto.
  3. There’s a Dior exhibit on now.

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Located in a small heritage building downtown, the Fashion History Museum is a cheerful advocate of the role fashion plays in this country. In addition to its tiny homage to Dior, which includes designs made exclusively for Holt Renfrew, the museum features a hearty collection of Canadian fashion in celebration of Canada’s 150th. The opening statement for this exhibit, Fashioning Canada Since 1867: 150 Years of Canadian Style, could be our industry’s new mantra:

Canada is the only nation that can say fashion is the reason for its existence.

So unapologetic for Canadians, eh?

It takes under an hour to cover the entire museum, but admission will only cost you five bucks. If you’re going to be in the Kitchener or Guelph area this summer, plan a side trip to Cambridge for some Canadian culture that doesn’t include beer and hockey. The Dior exhibit closes July 9th.

International Fashion Exhibits

If vacation travels take you further afield – such as London, Paris or the Netherlands – check out FashionUnited’s round up of 2017’s must-see international exhibits. Take note of the dates, as some exhibits may have closed.

A Foot Fetish for the Ages

Bata exterior

The Bata Shoe Museum

“I want you all to close your eyes.” Sonja Bata, the 88-year-old founder of The Bata Shoe Museum is addressing a roomful of press. Canada’s fairy godmother of shoes wants us to imagine what stood on the very site of the Museum’s Bloor Street location over 20 years ago. “A gas station.” Hardly the state-of-the-art artifact storage and exhibit space here today.

Since its opening on May 6, 1995, The Bata Shoe Museum has become North America’s foremost shoe museum with one of the world’s finest collections. If what we put on our feet suggests our attitudes on life, then consider the history of shoes a fascinating sociological exploration. Footwear illustrates entire ways of life, providing insight on climate, religions, professions and attitudes to gender and social status of different cultures through the ages.

Yes, you can tell a lot about someone from their shoes. Over the past 20 years the Bata’s collection has grown to over 13,000 shoes and related items spanning 4,500 years of history.

And I thought I had a shoe fetish.

The Bata kicks off (shoe pun!) a yearlong anniversary celebration this week with a fundraising gala, a public celebration and a new exhibit Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels.

You read that right. Men. In. Heels. Used to be the boys loved wearing heels and no one minded. It’s only in the last few decades that Western culture has been unable to find masculinity in shoe height.

Persian, 17th century riding shoes

Persian, 17th century riding shoes © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator, explains how the research for this exhibit has been a remarkable exploration. “For me personally, it has been unraveling a long history of the high heel and proving that heels were first worn by men in the Near East for horseback riding, and that European men happily wore heels for the first 130 years of their use in Western fashion.”

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American, 20th Century Justin and Tony Lama boots
© 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

The Bata also features a number of permanent and rotating exhibits such as Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. Turns out the phrase “fashion victim” was not the result of some red carpet accident. People actually died in the 1800’s as a result of wearing shoes made with poison-laced dyes and highly flammable materials.

Those blisters from your new Jimmy Choos pale in comparison now, huh?

American, early 1970s © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

American, early 1970s
© 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Expect plenty more to come this year including an appearance by distinguished guest lecturer Dr. Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London at this year’s Founder’s Lecture on November 12th. The Museum’s second anniversary exhibition, True North: Traditions and Technologies of Arctic Survival, will open in February 2016.

I wonder where our relationship with shoes is going, now that sites like Shoes of Prey, which allows customers to design their own shoe, are in vogue again.

“Historically shoes were, to some degree, a collaboration between customer and shoemaker.”

“I am actually fascinated by this trend,” remarked Elizabeth. “Historically shoes were, to some degree, a collaboration between customer and shoemaker. Industrialization erased the presence of the indiviual maker, and customers were required to find footwear that suited them from the range of ready-made shoes. It is interesting to me that the trend towards shoe customization is in many ways reviving age old practice.”

For more on the Museum’s ongoing celebrations including a public event Saturday, May 9th, visit batashoemuseum.com. Stay tuned for pics and stories from the Bata’s Twentieth Anniversary Gala event in an upcoming profile on luxury event planners Candice & Alison.

Exterior shot of The Bata Shoe Museum courtesy of @izsarah.

A Fashionable Art Tour

As summer wanes to an end, it begs the question – what did you do?  Where did you go?  And how you will spend the next few weeks? The summer of 2013 was blessed with an endless array of fashion exhibits.   Major cultural institutions around the world put fashion front and center.  What’s your pleasure?  Designer retrospective?  High end costume jewelry?  Queer fashion?  If you happen to be in any of these cities before the end of September, you’re in luck. 

CHICAGO

Friends of mine recently stumbled upon the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at The Art Institute of Chicago.  This internationally acclaimed exhibit lets you stroll through late 1800’s when Paris was the style capitol of the world. 
 
The exhibit’s description expands on the state of affairs in Paris: “In the second half of the 19th century, the modern fashion industry was born: designers like Charles Frederick Worth were transforming how clothing was made and marketed, department stores were on the rise, and fashion magazines were beginning to proliferate.”
 
Luscious life-size figure paintings by Monet, Renoir or Tissot are juxtaposed alongside the period costumes, and in some cases the actual clothing, that inspired them.  Through September 29.
 

TORONTO
The Design Exchange states the Christian Louboutin exhibit celebrates “20 years of design, artistry and magic.”  And if you need to ask, what’s magic got to do with it?  Then you don’t know Loubs.  Undoubtedly, if you love shoes you remember your first pair of red soles.  I hit the opening night (wearing my pink Loubouties, right) back in June and loved it, so this particular show comes personally recommended.

You can check out photos from an event FGI Toronto hosted at the DX just after the exhibit’s opening, but time is ticking.  You only have until September 15 to see the master’s magic before poof! – it’s gone.  Fret not Toronto, there’s more star power coming: if you like the intersection of music and fashion, then mark your calendar; the AGO opens David Bowie is on September 25.


NEW YORK

There’s a reason why the Museum at FIT fancies itself the Most Fashionable Museum in New York City. Because it’s the most fashionable museum in New York City.  Right now you can take in RetroSpective, an exhibit exploring the historical connections to contemporary fashion.  See what influenced McQueen, Balenciaga and Schiaparelli (through November 16). 
 
If you time your trip right, you can also catch A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk (September 13 – January 4, 2014).  It is a remarkable undertaking to honor the contributions to fashion made by the LGBTQ community over 300 years.  FIT is the first museum to do so.  (Fashionable and socially conscious, go FIT!)
 
Meanwhile, for accessories fans, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design hosts the Collection of Barbara Berger.  Don’t know Barbara?  She is the daughter of an American diamond merchant and a hoarder of the most lovely kind.  Berger (still alive) has amassed one of the largest and finest collections of couture jewelry in the world.  Over 450 pieces of her 4,000 personal collection of “bijoux de couture” will be on display.  A portion of the exhibit closes September 22. 



LITTLE ROCK

photo by Getty Images
If you happen to find yourself in Little Rock, Arkansas — and who am I to suggest you wouldn’t? — by all means check out the Oscar de la Renta retrospective American Icon at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.  Born in the Dominican Republic, de la Renta moved to the States in the 1960’s where he quickly became a legend for his ready-to-wear designs.  He has been a favorite of Mrs. Clinton, particularly during her First Lady years.  Nothing personal Arkansas, but I pray this exhibit travels north for easier viewing.  Through December 1.


BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE…

LOS ANGELES
Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes (need we say more?!) is on at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Through September 8. 

SEATTLE
Also through September 8, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at the Seattle Art Museum.
 
LONDON (UK)
Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980’s explores the relationship between catwalk and clubwear and how experimental designers of the day like Betty Jackson, Wendy Dagworthy and John Galliano helped reinvent British fashion. Through February 2014 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
 
PARIS
The Mona Bismarck Center for Art and Culture features an exhibit curated by American Vogue contributing editor, Andre Leon Talley called The Little Black Dress.  Through September 22.