Founded in 1992, the Society for the Museum of Original Costume (SMOC) is a registered charitable organization that collects historic fashion, traditional costume, and textiles with the ultimate goal of creating a permanent museum to display them. Its calendar of activities include presenting historic fashion shows, providing education programs to various institutions, and providing resource materials for media and other museums.
Style by Fire was in attendance at SMOC’s latest presentation on January 19 at the majestic Hycroft Manor in Shaughnessy, entitled “Tales & Treasures from the SMOC Collection”. Hosted by the venerable fashion historian Ivan Sayers, the audience was treated to a fascinating and humorous review of some of the highlights of recent additions to the SMOC collection. Full of snide asides and gossipy tidbits, Sayers had a distinctly dry and caustic sense of humour which made him an entertaining storyteller.
Before carrying on, I should confess that I’m not very knowledgeable about fashion style and trends prior to the 1940’s and this was my first time at a historic fashion talk. As such, there were moments when I was lost somewhere along the way as Sayers breezed through 19th century fashion with the ease of an expert passionate about his favourite subject matter.
The selection of historic dresses on display ranged from the early 1800’s to the 1940’s. Sayers spoke about the predominant fashion trends and backstory surrounding each dress, supplemented by a slideshow of fashion illustrations. What follows is a very general overview of the main fashion trends covered.
1820’s to 1850’s
By the early 19th century, the classically influenced Empire/Regency styles had given way to re-adopting the characteristics seen earlier in the 18th century, including full skirts and visible corseting of the waist. The waistline moved down from just underneath the breast to the more natural waistline, while skirts became fuller and conical in shape. Sleeves began to increase in size as well.
Over the next two decades, the general silhouette of women’s dresses continued to widen, with shoulders moving outwards and sloping down, while the circumference of the skirt became increasingly exaggerated. These shapes were meant to make the waist look as small as possible, signifying femininity and petiteness. Sleeves continued to enlarge over most of the arm.
At this time, the skirt became detached from the bodice, allowing for greater flexibility in outfits. A number of different bodices could then be made for one skirt, depending on the occasion, ranging from daytime to formal evening. The separated skirt also allowed for greater ability for it to jut out from the body, leading the way to the transition from a conical to bell shaped skirt.
1860’s to 1880’s
The 1860’s began with skirts being at their fullest, propped up underneath with crinolines and hoops. Gradually over the next couple of decades, the shape of skirt moved from being bell shaped to a narrower silhouette with the bulk of the fabric moving to the back of the dress, creating a bustle. In this way, a woman’s best angle to be seen moved from being her front and back in the first half of the 19th century to her profile. Sleeves deflated and began trimming down closer to the arm.
It was at this time that a woman’s expected range of activities expanded from being merely a delicate flower transported everywhere to a more active one. The notion of a woman going out for a walk became the norm. As such, she required a walking costume, an example of which is shown below. Albeit white in colour, it was easy to wash and would have been worn when strolling the boardwalk of a beach.
As sporting became more acceptable for women, the walking costume needed to be modified to accommodate a woman’s stride. As a result, the overskirt was often pinned back to reveal the petticoat in order that she not trip over her hem. This trend then began to be incorporated into regular dresses, giving rise to the polonaise skirt with three layers of skirt, as shown below.
The 1920’s saw the significant introduction of fashion into the modern era, with the abandonment of restrictive clothing of years past and the move towards more comfortable attire, including short skirts and pants. This was a reflection of the end of World War I and the onset of a prosperous era in the US characterized by The Roaring Twenties. The sportswear worn by women became incorporated into everyday attire in the form of a tubular dress with pleats, gathers, or slits to allow for motion. The most prominent manifestation of this trend was the flapper dress which was functional and flattened the bust line.
Proper attire for wealthy women still continued to follow decorum depending on activity; for example, they were expected to change from a morning dress to an afternoon one. The afternoon or ‘tea gown’ was less form fitting than the evening gown and featured long flowing sleeves and sashes or bows at the waist.
LORE MARIA WIENER
The last outfit on display was a special one, created by the celebrated local fashion designer Lore Maria Wiener. A German native, Wiener began apprenticing as a dressmaker at age sixteen. In 1939 she moved with her Jewish father to Shanghai to escape the Nazi occupation of her homeland. There she met her husband and together they opened a successful dressmaking shop, catering mainly to clientele from the French Embassy.
Her stay in Shanghai was cut short due to continued political upheaval and together with husband, she moved to Vancouver, Canada. They were lent the start-up capital to open a new dressmaking studio designed by a young Arthur Erickson. With Wiener doing the designing and her husband taking care of the business side, the studio flourished for forty years. Specializing in custom designed clothes based on her clients’ wishes, she started out as a one-woman operation and grew to a team of twelve staff.
Her attention to detail and immaculate construction, resulting in elegant pieces that never went out of style kept her clients returning for more. SMOC’s ensemble was no exception, with the oriental-influenced embroidery and pleated detailing on the skirt, inspired by her stay in Shanghai no doubt.
Words + Photos by Aurora Chan