CE&C Renovation Experiment: Five – Capsule Wardrobe I

“One of the striking differences between a well dressed American woman and a well dressed Parisienne is the size of their wardrobes. The Americans would probably be astonished by the very limited number of garments hanging in the Frenchwoman’s closet, but she would also be bound to observe that each one is of excellent quality, expensive…. [The Parisienne] wears them over and over again, discarding them only when they are worn out or outmoded… her goal is to possess a single perfect ensemble for each different occasion in her life rather than a wide choice of clothes to suit every passing mood.”

  • Genevieve Antoine Dariaux

As do most “mid-century modern women” I have a love hate relationship with clothes; however, my relationship is much more complex than most.

My Grandfather was a well-known clothing designer and manufacturer of high-end women’s suits and coats. His factory was located in Toronto’s schmatta district on Spadina Avenue for over 50 years. As a young child I would be taken to the factory when my Mother would go in to do the bookkeeping. To keep me busy I would be given scraps of material and fashion magazines to cut up and make pictures with.

The factory’s walls were lined with stacks of bolts of high-end fabric, and rolls upon rolls of multi-colored thread. The air hummed with the songs sung by dozens of sewing machines, and the combined voices of women chattering in an English-Yiddish-Italian pidgin. I can still remember the heady and complex smell of freshly cut British and Italian sourced wools, cottons and silks, body odor and steam from the clothes pressers. I remember the cutters standing at large tables hand cutting the fabric, loudly discussing some design socio-drama with my Grandfather amid the clatter and hum of lots of machines who’s functions I will never now know. People always rolling heavy steel racks full of finished product wrapped in plastic making a grating sound while the metal wheels rolled over the uneven concrete floor.

I remember watching, through my pre-pubescent eyes, the beautiful models rapidly changing into garments behind a small curtain for photo shoots; being patted on my head by world famous designers and clients who would come to consult with my Grandfather; and, my Grandfather, a pussycat in his personal life, firmly but justly commanding his troops.

Because I was my Grandfather’s Granddaughter, every season, and there were four, we would go to childern’s clothing manufacturers in the garment district, or Eaton’s, Simpson’s, Holt Renfrew, and for very special items to Creeds where a new wardrobe would be picked out for me. My previous season’s wardrobe would be passed on to our family’s cleaning lady.

Each season’s wardrobe would be what is called today a capsule wardrobe consisting of: a “party” dress, three skirts/pants/shorts (depending on season), four short sleeve tops, two blouses, turtleneck/heavy shirt, a sweater, a coat/jacket a pair of walking shoes and a pair of running shoes. But their shelf-life in my closet was fleeting.

The only choice I had as a child in what I wore was that each year my Grandfather would let me pick the wool fabric (although it had to be a heavy fabric) and a real fur collar which he would then design and make into a winter “princess coat” for me. Sometimes the color and the fur collar may not have been the best color pairing, but he always let me decide and would indulge my taste. Each coat was a true labor of love. I was very lucky.

When I was a teenager, my Grandfather retired. The factory shut down along with most of the other factories in the garment district, as jobs kept moving south and then to the far-east. My Mother and uncle started a chain of women’s clothing stores in malls around town. My Grandfather took on the role of alterationist until he was well into his 80s.

Malls became my new weekend playground. And the seasonal wardrobes continued to enter and leave my closet. It was the same story for all the females in my family. Each woman of course had her own style, but the clothes, even if they looked remarkably the same from year to year, were always new.

At the same time the “peace and love” hippie subculture was having a large impact on fashion design. As a tail-end baby boomer I wanted to adopt what was then the mass-produced hippy aesthetic in all things. Music, language, thinking, and of course fashion. Jeans, originally the uniform of the labourer, had gone mainstream as the tribal garb of the hippie movement. When I was finally allowed to buy my first pair of jeans in the mid-70s, I had my first love affair with a garment – and was given a taste of fashion freedom.

With money I saved from my allowance, which was heavily subsidized by a very over indulgent and loving Grandmother, I would scavenge the vintage stores in search of glamorous Art Deco shirts (mostly white silk) and accessories. I would pair my vintage finds with my ever-fading and disintegrating jeans. I also bought a few vintage 1950s Parisian dresses that worked on my Mae West-like hourglass figure, which lacked the straight and androgynous Twiggy lines that were the decadal ideal.

Karen Carpenter starved herself to death in the name of fashion.

I developed my own sense of style which was somewhere between mass-produced hippy, art deco simplicity and high-end 1950s Paris. The essence of this personal style I still retain today.

“Fashion helps you project who you are to the world.”


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