Visitors to the Museum of Vancouver’s latest costume exhibit are welcomed by two mannequins: one salutes in a World War II–era Canadian Women’s Army Corps uniform while the other poses demurely in a poodle skirt and sweater set, complete with rabbit-fur pompons.
“It’s the perfect introduction to the exhibit,” says co-curator Ivan Sayers, who has taken precious time from securing more than 80 garments and setting up displays for the show called From Rationing to Ravishing: the Transformation of Women’s Fashion in the 1940s and 1950s, on the eve of its September 18 opening. “On the one hand you have the masculine and practical uniform of war; on the other, the feminine girlishness of the post-war, prefeminism days. The crux of the exhibit is that swing of the pendulum.”
For Sayers, clothing is a record of history and one more reliable than those kept in books. People who write history invariably have a point of view. Clothing is of the time itself.
“Nothing is more personal than what we choose to put on our bodies,” says Sayers. “Clothing is a manifestation of who we are—or perhaps more accurately, who we want people to think we are. Clothing picks up our smell. It lives the life we do as we are living it. As a historical document, it is priceless.”
Chronologically, From Rationing to Ravishing follows directly on the gilded kitten heels of Sayers’s and fellow costume historian Claus Jahnke’s 2012 collaboration, the successful Art Deco Chic exhibit. But thematically, the two shows could not be further apart. Whereas Art Deco Chic celebrated high life and a newfound feminine freedom, From Rationing to Ravishing traces a time of deprivation and darkness that nonetheless granted some women more liberty than they had ever known—as evidenced by a work coat from Montreal’s Switlik parachute factory and a white Boeing jumpsuit worn to make war material.
As soon as the war ended, however, that factory freedom was taken away and traditional gender roles calcified under the layers of shiny tulle and taffeta of Dior’s “New Look”.
The spectre of war makes Jahnke’s particular area of interest in German and Austrian clothing a more prominent part of the exhibit. One navy crêpe dress sports an ADEFA tag, which guaranteed patriotic German women that no non-Aryan hands had touched a single seam of their garment. Another mannequin wears a simple grey jacket made after the war by the woman who designed Eva Braun’s black silk wedding dress.
But the horrors of the period are not limited to the Axis powers. A small, pin-striped skirt suit from Tip Top Tailors belonged to a Japanese-Canadian woman and was completed, according to the bill of sale, just before the last of the deportation trains left the West Coast for the internment camps of Alberta.
However, the exhibit’s sombre wartime elements gradually melt into the fierce, almost enforced frivolity of the 1950s. By comparison, sleek evening gowns and coquettish cocktail dresses by Dior, Balenciaga, and Schiaparelli seem almost comical in their cheerfulness. But even with the ostentation and frippery, social and political themes manage to shine through.
The post-war portion of the exhibit includes a day dress from the trousseau of Miss Germany, the first German winner of the Miss Europe competition since Hitler had banned beauty contests in the 1930s. “Women were to be at home having children,” says Sayers of Hitler’s motives. “A proper German woman was making babies for the Reich, not looking pretty on a world stage.”
Sayers’s only regret is that the exhibit has one giant gaping hole. “I don’t have a Chanel,” he says while palming an empty bottle of that couture house’s iconic Chanel No 5 perfume. “And to put on a show like this about this period without a Chanel has been a challenge.”
However, one gets the sense that Sayers’s attitude can be summed up with a ubiquitous wartime slogan: “Make Do and Mend.” He puts down the bottle and gets back to securing the sequins on a white Dior silk-chiffon evening gown, the most valuable garment on display.
“What’s the point of having all this if you don’t share it?” he says. “Otherwise, you’re not collecting it, you’re hoarding!”
From Rationing to Ravishing: the Transformation of Women’s Fashion in the 1940s and 1950s, opens Thursday (September 18) at the Museum of Vancouver.