Here’s to the Happy Couple

By Grace A., Summer Student

As a student at the Oshawa Museum, you will inevitably fall into the “rabbit hole” of newspapers. To be fair- I was warned. Before working at the museum, I didn’t know that most cities maintained an archive of old publications, and anyone could go through them. There’s an endless number of pages. Newspapers are an ideal primary source for any historian trying to uncover societies of the past. While they can inform research for meaningful and critical historic projects, they are also great for getting your fill of drama. I think that anyone who binged Bridgerton will understand the allure of keeping tabs on the social elite. What everyone seemed to want to know:

  • the decorations at Mrs. Smith’s dinner party,
  • when Miss Susan Brown will be returning from visiting her friend in New York City,
  • and, most importantly, who’s getting hitched.

Except instead of Lady Whistledown, gossip spread through the women’s section of the newspaper where people would pay to have their announcement in the social notes column. They probably wouldn’t have considered it to be “gossip” in the 1920s. It was simply the most convenient way to let everyone know what you were up to. For those of us who study the past, the detail that went into social notes is critical to connecting communities. By far, the most popular notes were wedding announcements.

Toronto Star, June 19, 1925

This clipping is from the Toronto Star on Friday, June 19, 1925, celebrating the union of Hannah Engel and Max Ambrose. Hannah was the eldest daughter of the prominent Oshawa businessman, Hyman Engel. As mentioned in the announcement, the couple returned to Oshawa after getting married at the Bay Street Synagogue. However, it’s clear that the article focuses more on how the couple got married rather than where. The answer: in style.

The paper reported specifically how Hannah was “prettily gowned in white georgette with veil and coronet of orange blossoms, carrying a shower bouquet of Ophelia roses and lily of the valley.” Her bridesmaids were equally decorated with chiffon and roses.

Canadian Jewish Review, July 6, 1928.

In this announcement, the bride wore “a white satin period gown trimmed with Chantilly lace and rhinestones.” The focus on attire was meant to entice women readers; there was news for men (the hard-hitting stuff) and women’s news (dresses, flowers and guest lists). An unintended benefit of gendered news is that we can now get a glimpse at how Oshawa women leaned into wedding trends throughout the Roaring Twenties. The construction of womanhood changed with the times, allowing women to loosen their corsets – or forget them all together. Instead of elegance, women began to favour a style that exuded youthfulness and ease. Dresses got shorter and less form-fitting, a kind of rebellion.

These photographs commemorate the wedding of Gladys Muriel Mowbray and William Richard Agar in on November 20th, 1920. Gladys was the sister of Adelaide McLaughlin, Robert Samuel McLaughlin’s wife. Her dress was understated, a result of the austerity years which effected many people in Oshawa after the war. If Oshawa women were sporting dropped waistlines and bob haircuts, it was not until later. Again, this was likely a matter of cost. The latest fashions were still exclusive to those who could afford them. This changed towards the end of the 1920s, when ready-to-wear clothing became more accessible to working class women. The museum has Gladys’s dress in the collection, along with the necklace and shoes that she wore on the day.

As hemlines shifted, so did women’s perspective on marriage. While there was no alternative, many young women mourned the independence that they gained in the years prior to getting married. After earning their own wage and spending nights on the town, married life consisted of domestic responsibility. Their husband and children came first. This was difficult for girls who were coming of age in the 1920s, a time where the social scene was a place to redefine gender. Suddenly, going dancing with friends, to the movies, and to sporting events was once again out of reach.

If women in Oshawa had any thoughts about married life, you wouldn’t know it from reading the women’s columns of newspapers at the time. On the contrary, wedding announcements described a young woman who was excited about georgette fabric, Ophelia roses and building a home in Oshawa. And she probably was, for better or for worse.


Sources

Canadian Jewish Review (Toronto, ON), July 6, 1928.

Soland, Birgitte. Becoming Modern: Young Women and the Reconstruction of Womanhood in the 1920s. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Toronto Star (Toronto, ON), June 19, 1925.

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

Until April, our feature exhibit is called The Vintage Catwalk, looking at interesting fashions through the years.  Featured in this post are artefacts in our collection (that may or may not be on exhibition), and with St. Patrick’s Day later this month, the theme of the artefacts is green!

Be sure to visit the exhibition before it closes!

Note, the skirt appears to have repairs/changes through the years, especially notable when you look at the bottom hem.

Green hats, including one from Scouts Canada.

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From inside our 2017 feature exhibit Celebrating 60.  Our earliest donation included this green suit, owned by Premier Gordon Conant.

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Finally, our most notorious green textile – the arsenic green dress.  This dress, part of the collection of our exhibit partner The Costume People, was dyed with copper arsenite; the dye often proved fatal for the wearers and especially for the women who worked directly applying the dyes in the manufacture process.  Our summer student Lauren shared the story of these dresses in a post last summer.

Student Museum Musings – The Holt Renfrew Fox Stole

By Lauren R., Summer Student

While helping to create the The Vintage Catwalk exhibit, I had the unique experience to assist with the installation of three artefact cases, one of which was our ethics case. The case is a conversation point to inform and discuss the use of animal furs to make fashion wear in the past. The case also acts as a talking point for the impacts that furs had on the people who worked with them. One of the pieces included in the display is a 4-foot-long silver fox stole, circa 1905, face, feet and tail all still attached. One of the most interesting things about this piece though, aside from is striking colour and alarming size, is the tag that is stitched into the underside of it. It reads Holt Renfrew Co. Quebec, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg. In my opinion there are two fantastic facets to the pelt. The first is company that produced the piece. The second is the type of fur that was used to create the stole.

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The reason that the tag on the pelt is so interesting is because the company who produced it is still active today; this affords the visitors a link between the past and the present. The Holt Renfrew fashion house has a rich history. It was established in 1837 and began as a millinery shop. The company quickly gained recognition as they began providing product for renowned customers, one of which was Queen Victoria. A little less than a 100 years later, in 1930, the company was forging ties and creating exclusive deals with top fashion houses across Europe. In 1986 the company was brought under new ownership having been purchased by W. Galen Weston and the Hon. Hilary M. Weston, who are still in possession of the company today. Since then Holt Renfrew has been considered one of the top purveyors of luxury goods in Canada. The company has flagship stores in Toronto, Quebec and Vancouver. This once tiny millinery company now has sales that exceed $1 million a year and is managed by a group known as Selfridges Group Limited.

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As mentioned before, not only is the stole’s manufacturer of interest, the fur used to make the stole has a rich history. As mentioned before the stole is made from an animal known as the silver fox; this is a variation of the red fox breed (Vulpes vulpes).  More accurately, it is the melanistic version of the animal. This mutation of the red fox has a coat colour that varies from a deep bluish grey to an ash grey.  They also have darker black markings than their red counterparts. In addition, the silver fox is more cautious than their red cousins. It is estimated that 8% of Canada’s red fox population consists of the grey fox variant.

Due to their rarity and striking colouring, the silver fox has been hunted through history as a material for luxury good making. Silver fox fur products have been worn by nobles in Russia, China and Western Europe. The furs were once considered so valuable by New English fur-traders that the price of one silver fox pelt could be equivalent to that of 40 beaver furs. The value of the pelt also depends on the weights of the pelt (often more than one pound, the price increases with the weight).  The colouring of the fur can affect the price as well.

Since the fur business was so lucrative, it is no surprise that people soon began breeding foxes for their coats. The earliest fox-farm appeared in Prince Edward Island in 1895 and was started by Sir Charles Daton and Robert Oulton after they had found a pair of orphaned foxes and ‘adopted’ them. The industry was soon booming, and by 1913 there were 277 fox-farms in PEI, and the number soon grew to 448 by 1923. By the 1920s, the fox stole had become incredibly popular and when purchasing one, a person could expect to pay between $350 – $1000. There was also the option to buy shares in breeding pairs or to purchase the breeding pair. A pair of breeding foxes could cost between $18,000 and $35,000.

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The area of fox-farming eventually expanded into Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario and some parts of the prairies. Today the fur-farming industry contributes $78 million to Canada’s economy annually. In addition to this, 75% of the furs produced in Canada come from fur-farming. Canada has an international reputation for producing quality fur products, providing pine martin, mink, raccoon, fox and lynx to the fashion industry. Today the two most popular types of fur are mink (a classic staple in the fashion world) and fox (a fur that changes popularity with the fashion tastes of the time). While the fox stole talked about here is one piece, some of the mink stoles can be two pieces long; a full-length fox coat can take between 10 – 24 foxes to make, and a full-length mink coat can take 60 minks to produce.

Though the use of furs for fashion purposes is now the source of much ethical debate, I believe it is still important to address the history with an informed eye.  Looking at both the glamorous and the grotesque helps us to understand where we as a collective have come from and to inform our actions and decisions for the future, to aid us in learning, growing, becoming better.

The Deadly Dress and Other Fun Fashion Facts

By Lauren R., 2019 Summer Student

When arriving back at the Oshawa Museum this summer, I entered into the midst of construction of our newest exhibit, The Vintage Catwalk. Surrounded by a dizzying array of patterns and colours, one artefact easily stood out in my vision. Morbidly fascinated, I stared at the Emerald Green ball grown only a few feet from me. It was vibrant, captivating, beautiful and oh so deadly. I knew what it was in an instant as the vibrant colour betrayed its poisonous nature to me – a killer dress or, as some would call it, an arsenic dress. Many of you will know, if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m a lover of the macabre artefacts that grace the Museum’s exhibit space, so it should be no surprise when I present this one to you as well.

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The history of fashion has been riddled with dangerous and deadly materials, dyes and procedures. There were aniline dyed socks that caused swelling in the wearer’s feet and lesions and bladder cancer in the men who made them. Celluloid combs that were used to decorate hair could explode when heated. Lead make-up caused ladies’ wrists to deteriorate until they could not raise their hands. And Hatters suffered from paranoia, trembling, cardiorespiratory problems and early death caused by mercury poisoning – the very substance used to give the lasting shine and smooth texture to fur hats.

But nothing in this hazardous history was as dangerous as the brilliant green dyes that bathed Victorian London. One variation of the pigment was created in 1814 in the German town of Schweinfurt by the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company. Brilliant and jewel-like, the chemists dubbed their new creation ‘emerald green.’ Along with this shade there were many others being made, ranging in a variety of green hues, all of which used arsenic as their base.

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Due to the recent introduction of gaslight into homes, party goers and home owners were scouring for bright fabrics to stand out at events and in the house. While the candle light of the past hid the drab colour that came from natural dyes, gaslight only made the material look more miserable. The population flocked to the new and stunning green shades on the market; where there were once muddled browns and muted yellows now were shinning and jewel like hues to enchanted the eye. Soon arsenic products infested homes all over Britain. Wallpaper, carpets, clothing, shoes, gloves, accessory boxes, and fake flower wreaths were all brushed with the toxic substance. More importantly still, the dye was brushing off on people. It was a brush of death for many.

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The wallpaper in nurseries and bedrooms could lead to the death of the inhabitants as the gaslight atomized the arsenic into the air. Those who wore the green-tinted dresses and accessories experienced hair loss, nausea, green-tinted hands and blisters, all from the slow absorption of the arsenic through their sweating skin leaching the toxic dyes from the unsealed fabric into a person’s skin. While these side-effects seem atrocious, they were nothing to what the workers in the fabric factories faced. Things like anemia, headaches, sores, scabs, discolored hands and nails, nausea and lesions (to name a few) plagued the people who made them and transformed them into consumable goods.

In the 1860s, at the height of its popularity, there was a sudden revolt against the use of the colouring agent when a 19-year-old factory worker in London died horrifically from arsenic poisoning. This event sent the public into a fear frenzy. Soon countries like Scandinavia, Germany and France (who had been doing their own investigations of the products) banned the substance outright. Britain placed restrictions on the use of arsenic in products but in the end, there was no formal ban, and the true change came from informed consumers.

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The legacy of arsenic can still be seen in the arsenic-phobic attitude that is prevalent in fashion houses like Chanel. It is said that Coco Chanel’s infamous black and white colour palette was influenced by an aversion to ‘natural colours,’ like green. To this day some seamstresses in the Chanel fashion house believe that green is a colour of ‘bad luck.’

While these fascinating fashion fixtures are fabulous to behold one must always remember their fatal nature. Arsenic can still be found in artefacts today, though in much smaller amounts than when they were made, like the dress we have on display, or the dress owned by the Ryerson school of fashion, which was displayed at the Bata Shoe Museum as part of their Fashion Victims exhibition.

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Bata Shoe Museum Fashion Victims Exhibition, 2015

Dressing for Display

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Mounting a historic dress can be challenging, even for the experienced dress curators and conservators.  Inappropriate handling is one of the main causes of damage to museum objects.  Handling should be kept to a minimum; the risk of damage occurring can be reduced by good preparation before, during, and after the historic dress has been mounted.

The condition and structure of the historic dress should be carefully analyzed to determine if it has any structural weaknesses, previous damage, or fragile surfaces.  The condition of the dress will inform how to safely display the piece, or even if it can be displayed at all.  Ensure to consider its stability against environmental conditions and mounts while on exhibit.

A properly dressed mannequin is important for both the visitor experience at a museum and the artefact/garment itself.   The correct style of mount should be chosen, whether it is two dimensional or three dimensional.  For our display at the Oshawa Museum, we have chosen three dimensional mounts using mannequins in various shapes and sizes to create the correct silhouette.  It is important to remember when working with mannequins and dressing historic garments that it is not the same as dressing a store mannequin.  At a store, the mannequin is automatically the correct silhouette and the garment is new and can withstand the stress and handling.

When mounting historic garments, a mannequin should be chosen that is significantly smaller than the garment.  First, carefully measure the garment and ensure to take the time to measure properly.  Measure the entire bodice of a garment, not just straight across the chest.  Carefully measure all the way across the inside of the garment, following the curve of any space created for the bust.

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Areas to measure on the mannequin and the historic dress.  The second photo indicates the measurement of the entire bodice, not just straight across.

 

Once the proper mannequin has been selected, it is time to start building out the mannequin so the historic dress is well supported throughout.  Supplies to build out mannequins include white cotton sheet, pantyhose, quilt batting, cotton twill tape, flexible fabric measuring tape, scissors, and straight pins.  A well-dressed mannequin should go unnoticed by visitors.  This means the visitor will focus on the historic dress itself and not on how it is displayed.  A poorly mounted mannequin can distract the visitor from focusing on the garment and its story.

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When simply placed on a mannequin, this 1860s dress is neither supported nor provides a true representation of its silhouette.

 

The final stage is to ensure the proper silhouette is created.  This primarily comes into consideration with women’s and children’s clothing during certain periods.   Through the addition of appropriate under structure, the garment will be fully supported.  This is completed through the use of petticoats (antique or reproduction) from different time periods, for example, small pillows for bustles, and fabric tulle or netting can be used to create a 1950s crinoline or a 1830s full skirt.

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By using petticoats to fill out the skirt and acid free tissue paper to stuff the sleeves, the garment presents a truer illustration of 1860s fashion.

 

Be sure to watch our social media channels for a glimpse behind the scenes in the upcoming weeks as we prepare for our upcoming exhibition, The Vintage Catwalk!

Image for OMA site