Fashion historian Ivan Sayers has been collecting clothing for more than 50 years and has thousands of pieces dating from the 18th century to the modern day. His next fashion show, Building Fashion: 100 years of Architecture and Attire, is to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Vancouver’s Heritage Hall. We met him to talk fashion, history, women’s rights, and collecting. — Aileen Lalor
What’s going to be happening at the Architecture and Attire fashion show?
We’ll be pairing Vancouver buildings with clothing from the same era and talking about how they’re connected aesthetically. We’re going to start about 1910 with little white summer dresses that were actually supposed to look like the little white summer dresses of 1810. Then Art Deco clothing and Art Deco architecture, modernism, abstract art and tile work on some of the buildings downtown. We’re going Trump Tower—you’ll have to wait and see what I say about that!
How did your career in fashion begin?
I always wanted to work in museums. I had my first museum in the garage when I was 14—writing little labels for things I got at the junk shops or at the city dump. The sort of things that kids find fascinating. My mother had made costumes for the local amateur theatre group and both my parents did amateur theatre, so there were costumes around and my mother was always doing research. That’s where the fashion came in, though I make no pretence at expertise. History is my thing—fashion is simply the medium in which I choose to explore it. It’s all part of culture and the human experience. How did we get here, and where are we going?
What do you find particularly fascinating about fashion history?
The detective work. One wedding dress I have was made in Winnipeg in about 1931. Fabulous dress—three trains on the back, all 10 feet long, quite plain, but beautiful. When I first show people the dress they simply talk about how lovely it is. Then I tell the story: She was married in the early 1930s. Big wedding, six bridesmaids. Shortly after the wedding she decided to go shopping in St Paul’s Minneapolis. Changed her mind, drove back, stopped by to see one of the bridesmaids and her husband was there. Think of her disappointment—especially in the early ’30s when if a marriage fell apart, it was the wife’s fault. The story is the difference between a dress and an artifact.
What can clothing telling us about society?
Everything! For example, there are the effects of war. Traditionally, women were used as the incentive to get men into the armed services. Before WWI, women’s image was mature and womanly as a reflection of social attitudes about the importance of the mature man, far enough into a career to support a wife and family in a responsible way. But as soon as WWI begins, women start to look girlish because the important man is the young soldier. He needs to be catered to because he’s the one that’s going to go to war. So to get him fired up, he has to have the incentive of protecting his girlfriend. Women tried to look young and innocent, vulnerable and in need of protection, which makes him look big, tall and strong.
Then look at the dresses after WWI, when women had the vote and some credibility. A woman doesn’t have to depend on her physique anymore so it disappears. The very early flapper dresses are way too big. You don’t see any figure. The sexually provocative part comes from the fact that the body is hidden and becomes mysterious. The fabrics are soft so you’re aware of the movement of the body within the dress. So if a man is interested he has to pay attention.
What has made Vancouver fashion the way it is?
Canadians generally like to be safe—current but not outrageous—and are proud of their modesty, especially in comparison to Americans. Certainly in my youth, American taste was considered to be on the vulgar side. In the States they have a larger population so the buyers can afford to be more adventurous. Here they have to be mainstream because it’s going to be a smaller market so they bring things that are middle of the road—fashionable, but not odd.
In other countries, there’s more sunshine and people are more tanned. Bright colours that look good there look garish here. Being on the ocean has an effect—there’s a sense of connection to the world. And of course we’re relatively close to Japan and China so have always had access to good silks, Chinese embroideries and affordable, quality fabrics.
Are any current designers doing collectable work?
I don’t pay much attention to contemporary designers, but I do find Comme des Garcons interesting because it’s peculiar. I’ve heard from so many people how wonderful the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, London was—his talent was remarkably broad. But to me, the most interesting thing about that exhibition is that as it was coming to a close, there was so much demand that they kept the V&A museum open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was clothing! It wasn’t Michelangelo or the gold of King Tut. It was a bunch of dresses by a man who wore plaid shirts and blue jeans!
Building Fashion: 100 Years of Architecture and Attire, is at Heritage Hall on Sunday June 12th. Tickets, priced at $25 each, are available here.
Fashion photography courtesy of Gerhard von Rosen, www.gaiapix.com