and I quote

march 2015

click for permalink March 4, 2015

Last weekend I went over to the Museum of Vancouver to catch an exhibition and the last in a series of retrospective fashion shows they've staged since September. The exhibition looks at the changing face of women's fashion from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s in North America.

It's called: From Rationing to Ravishing: The Transformation of Women's Clothing in the 1940s and 1950s, "an exhibition featuring rare examples of haute couture and Vancouver-made clothing and accessories that reflect how WWII changed society. During the war, fashion designers emphasized manliness. In peacetime, a womanly silhouette returned. Then, in the 1950s, girlishness became the rage. Presenting more than 80 garments from the collections of guest curators Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke and the vaults of the Museum of Vancouver." (Click to enlarge photos, courtesy of Shaw TV.)

[Dresses from the late 1930s, Museum of Vancouver]

Hurrying across the parking lot to the museum from my bus stop on 4th Avenue, I realized I'd forgotten my camera and I almost turned back. But I'd brought a sketchbook and pencils, so I figured I'd make an assignment out of it. I arrived just a few minutes late and the auditorium was packed. A handful of photographers were stationed around the room and models lined the hall outside waiting to take their turn on stage. The audience was mostly made up of women, ranging in age from adolescent to 80-something. There were plenty of individual empty seats around the edges of the room but I wasn't about to squeeze past an entire row of tightly packed-in women with their coats and bags on the floor in the middle of the man's presentation, to which the crowd was already obviously riveted. So I spent the first half of the show until the intermission leaning against the back wall, holding my notebook in my left hand and drawing with the other, and apologizing every time a model or photographer brushed by me.

(The funny thing is that until writing that last sentence just now, I hadn't made the connection between my incredibly un-ergonomic drawing posture on Saturday and waking up Sunday with my neck so sore I could barely turn my head to the left. Five days later it still hurts, but I finally got in to see Kate at Serenity Massage on Thursday, which definitely helped 'cause Kate is awesome.)

[Outfits from the mid-1940s, Museum of Vancouver]

The show was both entertaining and enlightening—a confluence of several of my favorite themes. The MC, fashion historian Ivan Sayers, showed outfits from his own by all indications, extraordinary personal collection, covering a span of 20 years in just over two hours. After the intermission, I snagged a third row seat next to the wall and continued drawing in a much more sensible position. Just enough time was spent describing the content and context of each outfit that I was able to draw a brief sketch and jot down the year, color and some distinguishing features like the fabric or accessories. The photos here are still frames from a Shaw TV promo on MOV's website, and they're all from the exhibit upstairs. I haven't found any photos from the fashion show posted online yet.

[Dresses from the late 1940s, Museum of Vancouver.]

But it was super-interesting, thanks in large part to the charm and wit of Ivan Sayers, to say nothing of his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history. Far from a dry charting of collar widths and hem lengths across the decades, his presentation was peppered with little anecdotes about specific items. Each piece of clothing was a snapshot of a particular point in history; an object of design, e.g., the lean, masculine silhouettes of the war years were designed to reflect the social and political ideals of the time. They were produced under economic restrictions and limited textile selection resulting from the war. Then there was the history of the individual items; every dress, handbag and pair of shoes had once belonged to a woman with a story of her own, and Sayers was apparently privy to all of them. He relayed these tales with the perfect blend of intimacy and authority; equal parts society page reporter, history professor and town gossip—a sartorial Simon Schama.

[Dresses from the 1950s, Museum of Vancouver.]

Near the end of the show, a young woman made her way down the aisle in a yellow cardigan and plaid skirt. As soon as the audience caught a glimpse of her knee-high socks and spiral-bound notebook under one arm—much to my confusion—half the room erupted in applause. Sayers waited for them to settle down as the model took her place on stage in front of him. "I put this one in just for you guys," he told the crowd, who responded with an uproar of giggles which splintered into isolated pockets of excited murmuring as personal revelations bubbled up all over the room. (It was amazing how well he knew his audience!) Briefly (and for many of them, quite unnecessarily), he described the schoolgirl's "uniform" which apparently quite a few members of the audience had worn themselves as teenagers in the 1950s. Before he ushered the model offstage, he reached for the notebook she'd been carrying under her arm. She was about to hand it to him but instead of taking it, he pressed it to her chest and picked up her other arm to wrap it around the first until she was holding it firmly in front of her like a shield. He nodded and she made her way back down the aisle. "I think you'll all agree, that's how young ladies carried their school books," he announced, to whoops of approving laughter and applause. "Boys, of course, carried theirs under one arm..." He arched an eyebrow and added, "Or they learned to, at any rate, if they wanted to avoid a beating."

[Outfits from the 1950s, Museum of Vancouver]

When I got home, I wondered if there were any other shows of Ivan Sayers available out there, and sure enough, he has tons of interesting videos on YouTube. Here's a selection of other people's photos from the MOV exhibit and various other events that took place during this installation, and you can see my drawings from the fashion show here, along with my illegible notes scribbled about each of the outfits. A note about the paper: in addition to my horrendous posture while drawing most of these, the notebook I was using has this artisanal paper that's textured with little bits of, like, barley and nuts or something, which makes for a challenging surface for drawing and an almost impossible one for erasing. Anyway.