Sequin as Spectacle?: My Grandmother’s Sequinned Gown

Grandma, can you show me your favourite outfit?”

She and I stand there silently in the middle of my grandparents’ bedroom. I can tell she is thinking by the way her eyes remain fixed on mine. Then, with her index finger raised to the sky, my grandmother turns toward the doors of her shiny black armoire—the one with the floor length mirror that I as a young girl would watch her rotate in front of as she dressed for the day.

My grandmother has been a style icon of mine since childhood. I think it’s because of her unapologetic sense of fashion. Even at 82-years-old she isn’t shy to pair a cheetah-print sweater (tasteful, of course) with denim jeans and her signature gold hoop earrings. Glam is her thing. Some of my earliest memories include sitting at the kitchen table of my grandmother’s home while she painted my nails—always a bright red. Have you ever seen a four-year-old with red painted nails? Not incredibly common.

My grandmother’s sequinned dress from Mario Rossi, circa 1994.

I move toward her as she flips through her collection of dresses—some new pieces, but mostly old. As my grandmother separates each piece by the hanger she analyzes them, sometimes smoothing her hand over them as though she is admiring each dress for the first time. Or perhaps she is reflecting on some old memories. This must be a difficult choice for her, I think. All of the dresses are stunning and hold sentimental value. I recognize many of them from old photographs of birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms, and weddings, but one dress in particular catches my attention. When she pulls it out, I get excited.

“I wore this to your mom’s wedding,” my grandmother says.

The label of my grandmother’s dress that reads “Magnifique.”
Up-close detail of the beading, silk rose appiiqué, and sequins.

She holds up the all black evening gown, adorned from top to bottom with beads, silk rose appliqué, and a plethora of sequins that scream “Look out, people! Mother of the bride coming through.” Up close, the beads form an outline of leaves emerging from each silk rose. At the back, a slit runs up the middle of the dress allowing room for comfortable movement with a touch of flair. The shoulders are padded, leaving the half sleeves to drape down elegantly. There is practically no wear on the dress, save for some wrinkles on the lining and loose thread that once held beads to the hem, most likely forgotten on the dance floor. The label sewn onto the lining reads “Magnifique,” a brand once carried by Mario Rossi, the now defunct dress and accessories boutique where my grandmother purchased the gown over two decades ago. Holding the gown myself, I can feel the weight of its details. The sequins, by far the defining feature of the dress, are rough against my fingertips. Catching the light of the room, they sparkle.

For my grandmother, the sequinned gown, like all cherished possessions giving meaning and continuity to one’s life (Prentice 993), will forever remain a fond memory of her daughter’s wedding; for me, it is a gorgeous reminder of not only my grandmother’s striking style, but also her charismatic personality. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the few glitzy pieces that hang in her armoire. Today, sequinned dresses are usually appreciated for their excess and spectacle—stores filled with New Year’s Eve party dresses during the holidays comes to mind; however, the sequin dress has a long cultural history in women’s fashion that reveals how this trend, like all ‘things’ as Igor Kopytoff posits, possesses a social life and biography of its own, in relation to its wearers (68).

Chanel’s 1920 black sequinned shimmy dress, Women’s Wear Daily, 1967.

In October of 1967, an article was published by Women’s Wear Daily titled “Sequins are Always in Style.” The article details dresses featured in a $50,000 display at the Metropolitan Museum of Costume Art. In all the dresses from over two and a half centuries, the most predominantly featured were composed of sequins. Of these, none, according to the author Eugenia Sheppard, made more of a spectacle than Chanel’s 1920 black sequinned shimmy dress (pictured left) (1967). It was a dress of such impact that “no frozen-faced mannequin [could] destroy,” she writes, perhaps for its lush use of sequin detail that no doubt shimmered under the electric lighting at clubs and dance balls of the time.

Dancer Anna Pavlova in sequinned ballet dress for Swan Lake, 1922.

The 1920’s marked the dawn of the New Woman. Not only were women able to work and vote, but also express their promiscuity and intellect through loosely structured, embellished dresses that simultaneously set their limbs free and added excitement to their attire (Nesmith 2017). Flappers, like the one depicted by the Chanel mannequin, characterized the period with their shorter skirts, shorter hair, more comfortable undergarments, faces of makeup, and smoking and drinking habits (Freedman 378). During this time, Lev Bakst, costume designer for the Ballet Ruses, designed a decadent sequin-covered dress trimmed with feathers for ballet dancer Anna Pavlova in her revered role as the Dying Swan in Swan Lake (pictured right). The feathered sleeves and skirt are reminiscent of a swan’s feathers while the sequins point to their elegance. In this way, the flapper’s dress, as a representation of women’s newfound agency during the time, and Pavlova’s costume, as a material reflection of her swan character, allowed for a corporeal experience whereby the women, through wearing these garments, were able to embody their clothing and its symbolic and culturally constructed meaning (Negrin “Maurice Merleau-Ponty”).

Drapo Vodou (prayer flag), Haitian sequin art (Rivers 102).

The use of sequin detail on dresses was passed down from the use of small reflective pieces of metal in popular Plimouth waistcoats of the 17th century worn by women of the court—a trend which continued into the 19th century with the use of metal pieces for dresses, bonnets, and other jackets (Spivack 2012). According to the Women’s Wear Daily article, women’s sequinned ball gowns were a common outfit in the Victorian era as well, and regarded as a symbol of wealth and prestige (Sheppard 1967). That said, the discovery of gold sequin-like disks sewn onto the burial garments of King Tutankhamen (1341 B.C.-1323 B.C.) in 1922 is what led to an exponential growth in sequin dresses during the time. It is presumed these disks were sewn onto his garments in order to ensure the king was both financially and sartorially prepared for the afterlife. In fact, the etymology of the word sequin derives from the Arabic word sikka, meaning ‘coin’ (Spivack 2012). In Egypt, India, and Peru, sequined clothes were considered “ostentatious displays of wealth,” and their sheen doubled as protection from evil spirits (Spivack 2012). Similarly, in Morocco, Anatolia, and Haiti, sequins have been used to ward off the evil eye (Rivers The Shining Cloth) . In Morocco, sequins (muzun) were sown onto small looped strings that dangled off of items like saddle-bags (ssmatt) and woolen cloaks (hendira), providing them with a sparkle that simultaneously protected wearers from harm (Rivers 95). In Turkey, the clothing of bridal couples and young girls, considered especially vulnerable to the evil eye, are trimmed with sequins in order to protect their fertility while doubling to provide a celebratory appearance (Rivers 98). The glinting light of sequins used in Haitian clothing and sequin art (pictured above) are meant to “evoke the energies” of the Vodou deities that act as mysterious governing forces of the world, summoning them to heal and protect its people (Rivers 102).

Leather war dress with Chinese coins and English brass buttons, 17th or 18th century (From Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History via Bard Graduate Center).

The association between wealth and clothing continued to thrive in the 18th century. Gold and other precious metals were sewn onto clothing, which was considered an indication of status, as well as a means of preventing theft and providing spiritual guidance. One of the first sequin dresses was that of the leather war dress (pictured left), on which coins and buttons were sewn (Spivack 2012). This ‘sequin’ dress became a corporeal experience much in the same way the flapper dress was for women of the 1920’s. Through wearing this sequinned attire, the wearer subsequently adopted its visual radiance and culturally constructed function.

With the invention of electroplate gelatin in the 1930’s, the metal disk sequins of the 1920’s were replaced by gelatin sequins (Spivack 2012). If wet or too warm, the sequins would melt, leaving marks on women’s dresses where the warm, clammy hand of a dance partner would melt away at the decoration. This material posed an issue until it was replaced by vinyl plastic, which is the material used for sequin garments today (Spivack 2012); these come in a variety of finishes such as fluorescent, variegated, and laser foil, and some are cupped to reflect more light like the sequins that make up my grandmother’s dress (Spivack 2012). That said, the signs of wear from gelatine sequins have become a source of material culture analysis. On a dim note, celluloid sequins, also used during the ’20s and ’30s, were the cause of a number of deadly fires. As Alison Matthews David notes in Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, the rise in popularity of celluloid subsequently led to the production of “cheaper, less chemically stable compositions” that burned at the mere proximity to fire (194).

Actress Kristen Bell in black sequinned gown by Jenny Packham, Golden Globes 2018.

Sequins have been a spectacle on the red carpet for decades—think Barbara Streisand’s sequinned pant-suit at the 1969 Oscars, and Cher’s famed sequinned ensemble and matching feathered headdress by Bob Mackie in 1986. This year at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, sequins provided a decorative and celebratory touch to the black dresses worn by some of Hollywood’s leading women in support of the Me Too Movement. Actresses like Kerry Washington (in Prabal Gurung), Octavia Spencer (in Tadashi Shoji), Margot Robbie (in Gucci), and the first ever host of the show, Kristen Bell (in Jenny Packham, pictured right) all wore black gowns with sequin detail to the event. While sequins were not a mandatory component of the Me Too dress code, their sparkle brought attention to these black dresses, thereby adding to the importance of the campaign. As Igor Kopytoff claims, the production of commodities is a cultural and cognitive process, meaning commodities must not only be produced for material purposes as ‘things,’ but also culturally marked as a certain kind of thing (The Cultural Biography of Things 83). In this regard, the sequinned gowns worn by these celebrities become more than sequinned gowns. The act of standing in solidarity with victims of sexual assault while wearing these garments attaches new meaning to them and, by extension, the history of the sequinned gown, its place in women’s fashion, and its relation to society at large.

My grandmother and grandfather making an entrance at the reception of my parents’ wedding, Oct 29th, 1994.

Thus, the sequinned dress continues to have a significant impact on the history of women’s fashion. In this way, the sequin dress serves as part of a cherished collective memory that deserves to be recognized as such, despite the emphasis on spectacle that tends to overshadow it.

Before I leave my grandmother, I thank her for showing me the dress. Her response is warming: “You know, one day it’ll be yours.”

Note: The “Checklist for Observation” from Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim’s The Dress Detective was consulted in order to form the sartorial description of my grandmother’s dress.

Discussion Question • Does knowing the history of a garment allow us to appreciate it more, or do our personal tastes ultimately take over?



Works Cited

Freedman, Estelle B. “The New Woman: Changing Views of Women in the 1920s.” The Journal of American History, vol. 61, no. 2, 1974, pp. 372–393. JSTOR,

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 65-91.

Matthews David, Alison. Fashion Victims: the Dangers of Dress Past and Present. Boomsbury Visual Arts. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective a Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Nesmith, Meghan. “A History of Sequins from King Tut’s Tomb to Your New Years Eve Outfit.” Racked, 28 Apr. 2017,

Prentice, Deborah. “Psychological Correspondence of Possessions, Attitudes, and Values.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53.6 (1987): 993-1003.Web.

Rivers, Victoria Z. The Shining Cloth: Dress & Adornment That Glitters. Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Rocamora, Agnes, and Anneke Smelik, editors. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Corporeal Experience of Fashion.” Thinking through Fashion: a Guide to Key Theorists, by Llewellyn Negrin, I.B. Tauris, 2016, pp. 115–131.

Sheppard, Eugenia. “Inside Fashion.” Women’s Wear Daily, vol. 115, no. 206, Oct 24, 1967, pp. 6, ProQuest,

Spivack, Emily. “A History of Sequins from King Tut to the King of Pop.”, Smithsonian Institution, 28 Dec. 2012,

A Material Conversation

Upon entering the Ryerson Research Collection, I witnessed an interaction between two lonely garments. Here is what was said:

A: Hi friend!

B: Hey! How’s it going?

A: Oh my gosh, great! I haven’t been out of my box in a while.

B: Getting some fresh air… kinda. We are still in this windowless room. I did get my first tag early today though.

A: That is exciting. I’m sorry if this sounds rude but what exactly are you?

B: I’m not totally sure. I know I was once an animal.

A: Me too.

B: So we were are both skin… I mean leather. I was a cow.

A: I don’t remember what I was. I must be getting old… I am called a moccasin though.

B: I don’t know what I’m called. When were you created?

A: I was created in the 1954, in Canada

B: I was made in Canada too, in 1991. I actually don’t think I’ve been far away from this place ever.

A: I came from Saskatchewan. I know that because of the tag someone stitched into my inside. I was made by Woodland Cree, so that probably means I am from Central or Northern Saskatchewan, but was sold to someone and brought here. Do you know who made you?

B: Yes, he was a Ryerson Fashion design student named Todd Lynn. I was one of the things created for his graduating project.

A: So you were handmade?

B: No, I seem to be completely machine sewn. Were you handmade?

A: Yes, you can really tell when you look inside me. My seams are visible. They aren’t all perfect even and I have a few loose threads here and there. Overall, I think I’m ageing quite nicely.

B: Definitely! You are a real stunner!

A: Aw shucks.

B: Have you been worn?

A: A bit, I have some dirt and wear on my bottoms, but it doesn’t seem like very much. Have you been worn?

B: Yes… but I don’t have any proof like you. I am pretty pristine… except for my front is collapsing in a little. I do have a tag: “DRY CLEAN ONLY” So, better be careful with me!

A: I’m not the one who is going to wear you. I actually don’t think we will ever me worn again. What else is on your tags?

B: I’m a size 8.

A: Me too, but I go on feet.

B: That’s a funny coincidence. I have a name on my collar, it says RED – like a butcher shop.  Sounds menacing. Do you think I’m menacing?

A: Maybe, you kinda remind me of a turtle. Which isn’t very scary. I don’t really understand what you are though.

B: I am built to cover a body.

A: Same as me.

B: I am soft and smooth.

A: I am soft and lumpy.

B: I’m definitely not called a moccasin?

A: Definitely not.

B: I glide across skin, cause I’m soooo smooth.

A: Whereas I’m a little grippy and textured, almost like I’m trying to hold the skin in place.

B: I rest on top of skin, because I am heavy, structured, and thick.

A: I caress skin and melt into it, if someone wore me enough I would almost become a part of them. Except for my hard top where my beads rest. They are heavy but surprisingly sturdy.

B: I caress skin as well because my straps twist into and around curves. Like you, one area of me is a hard top layer. They are almost shield-like, but they are kinda collapsing in because my insides are plastic.

A: Are you protecting something?

B: No, I am just calling attention my assets. I think they make me look powerful. See! How about you?

A: My beads are meaningful and symbolic.

B: My straps and stitching actually create a similar triangular pattern.

A: Yes, they do!

B: I smell rich and dusty, like a bookshelf of old bound books.

A: I smell earthy and sweet, like a forest after rain.

B: I bet we taste similar…

A: Probably not a good idea to eat us though.

B: I make a bit of noise. When skin slides over me there is a ‘shhh’ sound and when I move my buckle clacks and my straps thump together.

A: I am quiet. My soles are soft so I tread very gently wherever I go.

B: I am not gentle.

A: No, you are not gentle. I would call you rugged, but certainly not practical.

B: But so are you.

A: It’s possible to be both. But you are something, you make a statement… You don’t cover much skin. I think you have a female body too…

B: I can’t calm these tits!

A: No way!

B: I do seem to have a body of my own. You have structured shoulders, big boobies, straps like ribs, a spine, and a very convenient crotch opening.

A: You’re right! Let’s call you a body suit.

B: I like it.

A: Looks like I’m heading back into my box. It was nice to meet you Bodysuit! Goodbye.

B: You too Moccasins. I hope I get to see you again.


A Material Conversation

When presented with two examples of amazing leather work, I couldn’t pick just one. When examining the garments presented to me I had a strong reaction to their weight, smell, and texture. Based off these reactions I decided the take note of my personal phenomenological experiences. Using phenomenology and embodiment, this imaginary conversation between two garments reveal how two things that appear totally different actually have a lot in common.  “It is often taken for granted within Western cultures that our sense of bodily awareness is primarily structured through five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision” (Blackman, 84) therefore while I did my object analysis I took special care noting all sensory reactions (except taste, obviously). I also took note of my surroundings based of “the belief that everything is always encountered in a context and by a Being with a particular set of concerns, needs and expectations” (Thompson, 2005:6).

I developed the narrative of a historical garment and a contemporary garment, both made from a similar material and with the same level of intricate detail, having a conversation about who/what they are. The narrative develops an “exterior corporeality” revealing the relationship between dress and embodiment (Davies, 65), as well as giving the objects’ identity. Van Doorm speaks of how leather specifically has a relationship between memory and materiality, as it takes on the wearer’s body and takes on the historical space related to memories, pleasures, ceremonies, and communities (96). I also think it is important to acknowledge that leather was once a living body, and by wearing leather you are attaching another body to yours. Both the moccasin and the bodysuit have a strong connection to the earth and felt alive, which I why I selected them over the many other leather objects in the Ryerson Research Collection. With wear, I believe both garments would form to the human body, becoming unique to the individual wearer. The materiality of leather also gives the garment life beyond the wearer, as I believe both pieces have been used as decorative objects more than they have been used as garments.

The moccasins (2017.05.009 AB) speak of how they tread lightly on the world, while the body suit (2017.08.001) speaks of how powerful it looks – both of the comments relate to modes of bodily demeanour. This demonstrates the phenomenological impact and haptic experience (Negrin, 115), and reveals the greatest difference between the two garments. It is easy to attached personality to objects when they seem to tell so much about themselves through all the senses and “recognizing that “story as methodology is decolonizing research” (Sperlich & Brogden, 7) can help reframe the interpretation of historical garments. I hope my quick illustrations develop a surprising interpretation of two garments which possess a great deal of gravitas, can also have a good time small talking while being observed in an archive.


Images of the two garments depicted in the illustrations:


View Todd Lynn’s current work here:

Works Cited 

Blackman, Lisa. The Body: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008, pp. 83-103.

Davies, Cath. “What lies beneath: Fabric and embodiment in Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In.” Film, Fashion & Consumption, vol. 6, no. 1, pp.65-79.

Franklin, Alex. “Phenomenal dress! A personal phenomenology of clothing.” Clothing Cultures, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 83-91.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, New York, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2015.

Negrin, Llewellyn. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Corporeal Experience of Fashion.” In Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, edited by Agnes Rocamora and Anneke Smelik, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2016, pp. 115-131.

Sperlich, Tobias & Lace Marie Brogden. “”Finding” Payepot’s Moccasins: Disrupting Colonial Narratives of Place.” Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 7-17.

Thompson, M.G. (2005), ‘Phenomenology of intersubjectivity: A historical overview of the concept and its clinical implications’, in J. Mills (ed.), Intersubjectivity and Relational Theory in Psychoanalysis, London: Jason Aronson, pp. 1–36.

Van Doorn, Neils. “The fabric of our memories: Leather, kinship, and queer material history.” Memory Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 85-98. 2016.

Who Wears Hats Anymore?

Who wears hats anymore?

Bygone are the days of women and men wearing extravagant hats; or so it may seem. Hats inspired by the victory of La Belle Poule and popularized by Marie Antoinette in the 1700s (shown right) would be considered outrageous walking down a street in 2018.  Even simple hats such as the pillbox popularized by Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s (show below right) appear to be out of period movie.  Does that mean then that no one is wearing hats anymore?


What was once a common part of everyone’s outfit (both male and female) has now been relegated to something most commonly worn only to baseball games or to survive harsh winters.  The exception would be in Great Britain, where it appears that millinery is surviving but only really for the upper classes.  Born at a time when millinery was still the norm, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926) is keeping the accessory alive through her and her family’s fashion choices. Notable British milliner, Philip Treacy credits the Queen for “[keeping] hats alive in the imagination of people all over the world” (qtd. in Greenstreet “Q&A: Philip Treacy). Often those in the Royal family and those going to events hosted by the Royal family are expected to wear a hat.  Often it is even explicit within the dress code whether a hat should be worn (as seen on the Royal Ascot website).  It is worth noting that hats are only required for the “Royal, Queen Anne, and Village Enclosures” not the “Windsor Enclosure,” which one can assume is where tickets are the cheapest and not filled with the upper classes (Royal Ascot website).  Consequently, we often associate hats with Her Majesty’s garden parties at Buckingham Palace, royal weddings, and the Royal Ascot—all places for the upper classes.

Queen Elizabeth II. 08 May 2007.,_May_8,_2007_edit.jpg
Royal Ascot 2017: Ascot Hats that Make the Cut. 21 June 2017. Elle UK.










Does this mean then that no one wears hats unless they are at royal events, at a sports game, or in the cold? 

Kathleen Lonergan Kubas: Obituary. 29 Nov. 2008. Toronto Star.

The answer to that is not an easy one since one rarely sees someone wearing a “fashionable” hat (opposed to a practical hat such as a winter toque or a police hat) today yet the millinery industry is still alive.  One of the people keeping millinery alive in the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century was undoubtedly Kathleen Kubas (born 1938)—affectionately known as Toronto’s “Hat Lady” until her death in 2008 (“Kubas Obituary” Toronto Star).  Fortunately, her extensive millinery collection of over 300 hats lives on within Ryerson’s Fashion Research Collection.  Her collection featured a wide variety of hats purchased throughout her lifetime of living in Toronto including some even from the early 2000s.  These hats were designed by a variety of milliners including some Canadian and some from top “designer” milliners such as Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy (Mida “The Kathleen Kubas Collection”).

In closely investigating several of the hats using Mida and Kim’s methodology put forward in The Dress Detective, it was clear that these were in fact worn objects and not just a collection.  Although initially, they may all seem to be in pristine condition; the fronts of the sweat bands (an inner band running the circumference of the hat) in most of the hats have stains or the remains of makeup from her forehead.  This may be an obvious sign of wear, but with such a large collection it indicates that Kubas was regularly wearing all of her hats.  This wear can be seen in the images below.



Why did people like Kathleen Kubas wore high-end millinery (and other continue) when hats have fallen out of the norm, especially in a place like Toronto?

The decline of the hat came alongside a slow change in social order following World War II that saw more women entering the workplace, a place not demanding a hat (Debo 27).  Eventually it was just upper class left not working and still wearing hats, such as the Royal Family.  Therefore, mainly high end milliners remained and could thrive, making the hat a luxury item, like those created by Stephen Jones or Philip Treacy.  If the hat today then is a luxury item worn by women, then one might assume that Thorstein Veblen’s theories on conspicuous consumption would apply.  Veblen theorized that fashion is used as a tool to show off one’s wealth or one’s place in society.  He wrote “it has in the course of economic development become the office of the woman to consume vicariously for the head of the household; and her apparel is contrived with this object in view” (Veblen 344).  If hats have high price tags attached, then all upper class women today should be wearing hats to show off their wealth. As previously examined the Royal Family and women attending the Royal Ascot are prime examples of this; however it does seem to fit all women with wealth.  For example, the millinery department that once existed within Holt Renfrew (BAK “Holt Renfrew & Company LTD.”), a Canadian high-end department store where Kubas purchased many of her hats, is no longer there, suggesting that luxury female consumers in Toronto are not purchasing millinery to the same extent that they once were. Veblen’s theory appears to be a semi-legitimate argument for wearing hats; however it does not seem to fully capture why people still wear hats in the twenty-first century.

Although Kubas was clearly able to afford designer hats, such as those produced by Jones or Treacy, her occupation as a grade 1 school teacher (as indicated in her obituary) does not necessarily give her the same economic position that Veblen was writing about. Following Riello’s methodology of material culture, he wrote that by studying the object we are not looking at the object itself nor theories, but we are looking at the different meanings that objects can take on (Riello 6).  The hat itself can be studied as a work of art, but as earlier indicated, it gives us a larger picture of who Kathleen Kubas was.  As a former model and actress, Ms. Kubas remained a creative individual expressing herself through the garments that she wore.  Studying the hat with this methodology provides an alternative narrative that people other than the Royal family wore hats throughout the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.  Likewise, Bethan Bide wrote: “Worn over a long long period of time, these garments speak of lingering and changing experiences rather than representing the brevity of a passing fashion trend or a single occasion of wear” (Bide 453).  Similar to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Kubas would have begun wearing hats at a young age when they were still fairly popular among the middle and upper classes.  They study of her hats prove the fact that women like Kubas continued to wear these objects even though they had fallen out of mainstream fashion.  They were a part of a complex system that made up the individual wearer’s identity.


Who then, is wearing millinery still today, and why?

To answer this question, one truly has to look at the hats themselves.  Looking at an example of a black straw, women’s “top hat” (FRC 2009.01.12) from Kathleen Kubas collection at the FRC designed by one of the top milliners of today, Philip Treacy, one can see it is a statement hat.  This object is variation of a top hat since it breaks many of the traditional rules for this style.  It is made out of straw not felt; it is made for a female head not a male head; it is asymmetrical in the shape and size of the brim as well as the crown of the hat; it has a slight tear drop shaped crown referencing a fedora style; and it features a large assemblage of feathers on one side.  Treacy masterfully updated the tradition of a top hat in this contemporary hat.

Philip Treacy. Black straw womenswear top hat. FRC2009.01.695


Although filled with these unusual nuances that make the hat unique, it is truly the large bouquet of black feathers that attract the viewer’s eye to it.  It is a collection of small plumage feathers with long stripped feathers giving the bouquet a sense of drama and extravagance.  The stripped feathers twirl and extend in what seems to be a variety of directions, though upon close examination, it is clear that they are precisely placed within the bouquet (pictured below).


Philip Treacy. Black straw womenswear top hat. FRC2009.01.695


When one views this hat within the Kathleen Kubas collection, it does not feel out of place even though it may be slightly eccentric.  All of her hats have this element of whimsy and theatricality, quite often through the use of feathers or flowers against shapes that are simple yet slightly unique. When viewed within the oeuvre of Philip Treacy, this hat does not stand out as being extravagantly eccentric.  His hats truly often balance this line of simplicity and tradition with slightly nuanced variations (such as the shape of the brim or the colour) with crazy eccentricities and unique features.  Although this hat was made over ten years ago, in his current AW17 collection of hats, similar hats can be found today such as hat OC368 (pictured below right).

Kubas’ examples of Philip Treacy’s hats definitely fit within the “safe” or “ordinary” realm of his work.  In fact, what Treacy is more known for is his completely over the top hats that truly act as pieces of art or sculpture.  As a notable British millinery, Treacy has obviously designed hats for every member of the Royal Family, but noteworthy hats include the one worn by Camilla Parker Bowles at her wedding to HRH the Prince of Wales or the one worn by Princess Beatrice at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (both pictured below).


Hats such as these are undeniably large statements.  There are no practical benefits to wearing one of these hats.  As for the case with the FRC’s Treacy top hat, an interior tag reminds wearers not to wear the hat in the rain because of the delicate nature of the feathers and shape of the straw.  Instead, these hats are pure decoration and ornamentation.  They are works of art for the head.  They reflect a certain type of wearer—one who can afford this luxury item and is not afraid to stand out on the street.  In her celebration of life ceremony, Kubas’ friends wrote “hats reflected her personality — extravagant, yet elegant and fashionable” (qtd. in Mida “The Kathleen Kubas Collection”).  The hat in the twenty-first century is the highest accent of fashion.  It tops off any fashionable look while still giving an indication of one’s taste and status.  Geert Bruloot, a long time collector of Stephen Jones’ millinery, said “We collect fine art purely for ourselves…. Collecting Stephen Jones hats comes from an entirely different perspective, to show them, to share them with others” (qtd. in Debo 27).  Similar sentiments could be expressed about Treacy and his millinery.  Twenty-first century milliners have become fashion artists.  Ellen Goldstein, accessories professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, claims her millinery students work to “create a sculptural piece of art” (Zelevansky “Hats off to Modern Milliners”).

The twenty-first century hat has evolved.  These hats are art, but art for the street.  While hats may be continued to be exclusively attached to women from the Royal family or from upper classes, studying hats from Kathleen Kubas’ collection prove that other women still continued to wear hats.  These women were not only fashionable but also purveyors of artistic fashion.  That is why some women still chose to cover their head with a hat.

Grace Jones. London. 1998. .



Works Cited

BAK.  “Holt Renfrew & Company, Ltd.”  The Department Store Museum. Apr 2011. Accessed 23 Feb 2018.

Bide, Bethan.  “Signs of Wear: Encountering Memory in the Worn Materiality of a Museum Fashion Collection.”  Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture.  2017. 21:4, pp. 449-476.

Davies, Kevin.  Philip Treacy.  Phaidon, 2013.

Debo, Kaat.  “Stephen Jones & the Accent of Fashion.” Stephen Jones & The Accent of Fashion.  Lanoo Publishers, 2010.

Greenstreet, Rosanna.  “Q&A: Philip Treacy.” The Guardian. 16 Aug 2014. Accessed 14 Feb 2018

Hats.  March 1968.  Vol. 92 No. 6.  FRC 2014.99.168.

Holt Renfrew.  “About Us: Our History.” Accessed 25 Feb 2018

“Kathleen Lonergan Kubas: Obituary.”  Toronto Star.  29 Nov 2008. Accessed 08 Feb 2018.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim.  The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Analysis in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Mida, Ingrid. “The Kathleen Kubas Collection.”  Ryerson Fashion Research Collection.  9 Sept 2013.  Accessed 08 Feb 2018.

“Philip Treacy for Camilla Parker Bowles.” YouTube, uploaded by Victoria and Albert Museum, 13 Dec 2016,

Philip Treacy London. Accessed 08 Feb 2018.

Riello, Giorgio.  “The Object of Fashion: Methodological Approaches to the History of Fashion.”  Journal of Aesthetics and Culture.  Vol. 3.  2011, pp. 1-9.

Royal Ascot.  “Style Guide.” Accessed 25 Feb 2018.

Veblen, Thorstein. “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.” Fashion Theory: A Reader edited by Malcolm Barnard, Routledge, 2007, pp. 339-346.

Zelevansky, Ellen.  “Hats off to Modern Milliners.” T Magazine. 28 April 2015. Accessed 14 Feb 2018.

Needlepoint Purses

The term “fashion” could mean a myriad of different things to different people. Some may abide by its rules as if they are divine commandments, while some may condemn it altogether, on grounds of frivolity and wastefulness. That being said, there are some objects belonging to the controversial realm of fashion, that almost all women—and some men—have carried, out of either necessity, choice, or sheer sense of exhibitionism—one such example being the handbag. Consequently, many of us hardly need to think, before reaching for our handbag prior to leaving home. Thus, the bag has gained an omnipresence in the life and wardrobe of women in general, and the modern, independent, and stylish woman in particular. In fact, some women—myself included—could be seen carrying more than one bag on any particular occasion. On a basic level, the handbag has come to hold our most intimate and ordinary items of personal importance deemed necessary for performing our daily duties.

Fig. 4 Watteau, Jean-Antoine. The Scale of Love. 1715–18, Oil on Canvas, The National Gallery, London.

With the passage of time, sartorially conscious men and women have shown particular interest in the fashions of the past. In fact, in the words of Giorgio Riello, “It is almost paradoxical that a phenomenon like fashion, which is continuously defined as ephemeral, leaves behind such a considerable quantity of surviving artefacts” (7). Therefore, it is the materiality of the fashion object that is of central emphasis to this blog, rather than the immaterial and abstract idea of what fashion may be or represent. Accordingly, the object of fashion has served as a subject of interest for self-proclaimed fashionistas, serious collectors or academic scholars.

Author's own
Fig.1 Needlepoint Purse


On that note, it should come as no surprise, then, to recount a purchase that I made last fall at the Toronto Vintage Clothing Show. As you may have already guessed by now, yes, it was a bag that I fell in love with (figures 1–3). It is a rather small needlepoint bag, decorated with a pastoral scene reminiscent of eighteenth-century Rococo paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau, such as The Scale of Love (fig. 4).


Fig. 3 Needlepoint purse, interior detail
Fig.2 Needlepoint purse, sideview detail




Interestingly, the earliest predecessors to the needlepoint bag may be the late seventeenth or early eighteenth-century pockets (fig. 5). Though we may associate pockets with modern women’s fashions, they were initially separate articles made of strong materials such as linen or cotton; their strength also reinforced through lining the interior. These pockets which held a lady’s personal items, such as handkerchief and pocketbook, were also beautifully embroidered in silk. Consequently, wide skirts in fashion, allowed for these roomy and deep pockets to be worn on a band at the waist, and safely concealed from public view (Wilson 34). In fact, due to their close proximity to the wearer’s skin, pockets were even considered by some as underwear (Cox 20). In addition to that, pockets were also highly symbolic of gendered binaries; social conventions demanded that, they be concealed when worn by women, as it was unbecoming for a respectable lady to be seen rummaging under her petticoats and into her pockets. In direct contrast to that, the highly visible and prominently positioned pockets on fashions revealed and asserted the male agency and power (Burman 459).

Fig. 5 A pair of linen tie pockets, embroidered in coloured silks in chain stitch. English 1700s. Accessories: Bags, Claire Wilcox, Fig. 23 overleaf, pp. 36–37.

These pockets eventually evolved into what is most similar to our own purses of today, the ‘reticule,’ which held a woman’s personal belongings and was carried in public (fig 6). In fact, the visibility of a woman’s reticule became a source of public scrutiny and led to instances of mockery and ridicule (Cox 20). Thus, it is important to note that, although material, these bags—or any other material item of fashion—were more than mere objects; they were signifiers of the larger socio-cultural, economic and personal practices within a nineteenth century context (Riello 5). Furthermore, the floral motifs and delicate embroideries of these objects were symbolic of nineteenth century gender dynamics. In direct contrast to the sobriety of the husband, was the frivolous beauty and the sweetness of the wife—the domestic diva in charge of flaunting the familial wealth (Cox 27).

Fig. 6 An Ackermann fashion plate from 1820 showing fashionable walking dress, including a reticule (vol. X, 2nd series, plate 4), Accessories: Bags, Claire Wilcox, Fig. 43, pp. 62.

In the highly problematic and misogynistic theories of Thorstein Veblen, “The homely reason for all this conspicuous leisure and attire on the part of the women lies in the fact that they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence of their master’s ability to pay” (345). All the above considered, one must remain cognizant of the fact that, Veblen was writing for contemporary nineteenth-century society, where such notions—incredibly absurd to the twenty-first century reader—were highly normalized and rather largely accepted. Also, Christopher Breward maintains, the socio-economic significance of a woman’s wardrobe being “specifically concerned with the display of power through a wealth of textiles and the cultivation of physical beauty” dates back to the Medieval period or perhaps even earlier (33).


Fig. 7 Black needlepoint purse. 1930s. Catalog Number 1989.04.019 Ryerson Fashion Research Collection




In this next section, let’s closely examine, and compare my own bag, with the ones belonging to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC) by doing a material culture analysis using the Slow Approach to Seeing, as developed by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim.

Fig. 8 Needlepoint purse, side view detail






The first bag from the FRC with catalog number 1989.04.019 is a “black needlepoint purse in floral motif with pink, green and yellow circular pattern. Brass-coloured closure and looped chain handle” (figures 7–10).

Fig 9 Needlepoint purse, top view detail
Fig. 10 Needlepoint purse, interior detail













My own observation is that there is a hand-made/homemade quality to this purse, as the hand-stitched exterior layer is sewn onto the frame and the interior lining. In fact, I found the irregularity of the frame, as well as the overall floral pattern of the bag to be quite similar to other needlepoint purses c.1910 (figures 11–13).

Fig. 11 Tapestry evening bag with pastoral
Scene, France, c. 1910.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing,
Feb. 1, 2011.
Handbag Courtesy of the Fashion Museum
Fig. 12 Floral petit point handbag with 1,800
Scene, France, c. 1910.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing,
Feb. 1, 2011.
Handbag Courtesy of the Fashion Museum
Fig. 13 Floral needlepoint evening bag with
Brass frame and openwork clasp, Belgium, 1910.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing,
Dec. 21&22, 2013. Handbag Courtesy of the
Sackrider Museum of Handbags

Consequently, the individual features of this purse are also more closely reminiscent of those popular in the first decades of the century, as seen in this fashion plate (fig 14) c. 1911. It is highly important to note, that the popularity and use of purses was due to the narrowing silhouettes of female fashions during the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries.  According to Caroline Cox, women were significantly more engaged in public, which was partially thanks to the emergence of the department store, as well as their opposition to merely spending all their time at home. In fact, these women were interested in having their voices heard as contributing and active members of society and demanded more rights (33).



Fig. 14 La moda elegante illustrada, 1911.
Plate Caption (translation): La moda elegante illustrada. 30 May 1911. Preciados, 46, Madrid.
No. 20. Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style, Plate 166, pp. 346–347.

The second bag belonging to the FRC with catalog number 2013.99.052 is a “needlepoint purse with brass closure” (figures 15–18). This purse has a semi-circular metal frame and chain handle, a kissing clasp closure that is decorated with two small clear beads on top.

Fig. 15 Needlepoint purse. 1930s
Catalog Number 2013,99.052
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection
Fig. 16 Needlepoint purse, side view detail












The surface is decorated with cross-stitched floral motifs and a central motif of a basket of flowers, and the interior of the purse is lined. The colours of this particular purse are much more vibrant compared to the other one belonging to the collection which, may suggest less use or, perhaps a later date.

Fig. 18 Needlepoint purse, interior detail
Fig. 17 Needlepoint purse, top view detail










I also found that the clasp is quite similar to an embellished purse from c.1920s (figures 19 and 20). Subsequently, this interest in petite point or needlepoint purses was also emphasized in popular women’s periodicals such as this article from The Women’s Wear Daily Archive’s January 23, 1925 issue (fig 22), suggesting “Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags…”(25).

Fig. 19 Purse with embellished frame
and chain strap, 1920s.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing
Oct. 8, 2008.
Fig. 20 Clasp detail of Needlepoint purse and chain strap, 1920s.












Fig. 22 Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags
Women’s Wear; New York Vol. 30, Iss. 19, (Jan 23, 1925): 25.

Now, lastly—and most importantly—let’s examine my own bag. I have chosen to discuss this bag last, for I preferred to examine the earlier purses first, and subsequently, use their qualities to assist me in examining my own. Indeed, the seller was somewhat correct in her estimation of 1950s or 1960s. Along with this, I have found that although needlepoint bags made a comeback in the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that they gained wider popularity amongst the fashionable (fig 21). Of course, this observation is based on examining existing sources for bags and finding that most needlepoint bags were dated as c.1960s, rather the 1950s. I am also pleased to find that, contrary to the seller’s belief, this bag, is in fact, an authentic needlepoint bag, however, it is definitely larger in size and its decorative pattern would most likely have been machine embroidered rather than done by hand.

Fig. 21 Suede evening bag with petit-point
Embroidered inset, Europe, 1960s.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing
Oct. 25, 2011
Handbags courtesy of the Fashion Museum

In closing, my research took on a life of its own; indeed, I began by trying to find out more about the bag that I had purchased and, ended up also learning more about the ones found in the FRC. Furthermore, I find it quite fascinating that, needlework, being a pastime activity of higher class seventeenth century women who were excluded from public life, would become one of the defining motifs of the twentieth century and their early strides towards the emancipation of women and their sartorial choices.





Works Cited
Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion. Manchster, 1995.
Burman, Barbara. “Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth-CenturyBritain.” Gender & History, vol. 14, no. 3, 2002, pp. 447–469.
Cox, Caroline. Bags: An Illustrated History. Arum, 2007.
Ivo, Sigrid. Bags: a selection from The Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam: Tassen,Bolsos, Sacs. The Pepin Press, 2011.
Johnson, Anna. Handbags: The Power of the Purse. Workman Publishing, 2002.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process.” The social life ofthings: Commodities in cultural perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 64–91.
Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015.
Pedersen, Stephanie. Handbags: what every woman should know. David & Charles, 2006.
Riello, Giorgio. “The object of fashion: methodological approaches to the history of fashion.”Journal of Aethtetics & Culture, vol. 3, 2011, pp. 1–9.
Veblen, Thorstein. “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.” Fashion Theory: AReader, edited by Malcolm Barnard, Routledge, 2007, pp. 340–346.
Wilcox, Claire. Accessories: Bags. Thames & Hudson, 2017.
“Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags”Women’s Wear Daily Archive, Vol. 30, no.19, Jan. 23, p.25.


Memories and Pearls: An Analysis of My Grandmother’s Necklace

The starting point for this analysis is Mida and Kim’s reference to the way Sherlock Holmes would understand an item of clothing. More specifically, their description of how the appearance of an object can tell a story about the person who wore it (11). Furthermore, a piece of clothing, as described by Mida and Kim, may contain personal and cultural narratives (11) that can be discovered by analysing the item. With this understanding in mind, I decided to think about my family’s own history through pieces that were passed on from my grandparents to me. I chose to examine my grandmother’s pearl necklace, inspired by Mida and Kim’s definition of a dress detective: the one who looks and interprets clues from the garment as a way of understanding its history and relationship with the wearer and its period (11).

My grandmother’s pearl necklace. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

My father lost his father when he was just a young boy. After that, he had to take care of his mother, who died when I was six years old. I don’t remember her, but ever since I was little, my father has been telling me histories of our family and my origins, providing me with memories of them through his own recollection.

My father’s family was poor, experiencing difficulties in life and trying to overcome them by working hard and staying together. His mother, a woman of German origins born in Brazil, was a simple person who didn’t own fancy items of clothing. The things that she owned, however, were cared for and passed on to me, her only granddaughter, as beautiful tokens of the women she was. One of these items is this pearl necklace, her most cherished piece. The use of pearls, just like any other garment, is a historical and cultural construction (Jobling 136), and here I will try to understand my grandmother’s necklace not only by analysing the item itself but by thinking about the history surrounding it.

My grandmother’s pearl necklace. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

It is interesting to notice that, as referred by Chadour-Sampson and Bari, the use of jewellery echoes historical moments and economic conditions (114). History shows that people have always been fascinated with adornments and how they can decorate the body. In the Ancient World, for example, distinct cultural groups developed their own styles on how to use jewellery, making use of simple beads, created from seeds, berries and shells (Philips 7). With time, people began to create their adornments using metals and gems, with jewellery made by the Byzantine Empire, in the 6th century, showing the presence of pearls in the created pieces (Philips 40).

During the Roman Empire, pearls were perceived as “attractive and highly fashionable” (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 39), being the most special and expensive jewel. Wealthy women from that time, including Cleopatra, were seen wearing pearls that would cost the same as a large state. Their desire for pearls was even bigger due to the “dangerous circumstances in which they were recovered from the sea by fishermen who risked their lives – and occasionally died – to secure them” (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 39). In other words, pearls were adored as a result of the way they were produced and consumed (Jobling 137). It is possible to understand, then, that a sign was attributed to the item. Pearls were associated with a cultural notion of wealth, creating a sign that made it possible to judge how rich someone was by the number of pearls they wore (Jobling 135). The fascination with pearls kept growing, and during the Renaissance, the gem was favoured and used more than any other piece of jewellery (Mackrell 60).

As referenced by Bari and Lam, the symbolic meaning of the pearl reached its peak in the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), since she was always covered with pearls, wearing them more than any other gem, having some even sewn onto her garments (139). According to the authors, it was then that the pearls became, even more, a symbol of “extreme power and wealth” (139). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, the usage of pearls was at its height, since the Catholic Church was trying to combat the Protestant Reformation by showing its power through extravagances, with rulers wearing an enormous number of jewels (Bali and Lam 143). Years after, royalty such Queen Alexandra of England (1844-1925), would still wear necklaces with diamonds or rows of pearls.

Miniature portrait of Queen Alexandra wearing rows of pearls, England, c.1901-10, by William and Daniel Downey, Royal Collection, in Chadour-Sampson and Bari (114).

Due to the high demand, the fishing for natural pearls was one of the main sources of income in the Gulf until around the 1930s (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 114). Since my grandmother was born in 1920, she lived during this period when things were very different, with pearls being seen as an equivalent to the amount of money one had. At the time, people were wearing ropes of pearls not because of its style, but for their social circle (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 120).

Pearls are still worn by a wide variety of women to this day, but there was a shift in the way they are perceived,  making it more acceptable to wear fake ones. When my grandmother was in her teenage years, Coco Chanel helped change the idea that only privileged people could wear pearls, making it “an affordable delight to all women” (Smith 136). This was due to her believe that jewellery was not made to show how rich a person was (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 126). Instead, she believed that every woman should own more than one pearl necklace, not mattering how real or fake they were (Smith 136). Her vision helped lead to change, with imitation and costume jewels being equally worn by celebrities and royals (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 114).

Even with Chanel’s help in democratizing the use of pearls, they continue to be perceived as a symbol of wealth and classiness. As pointed out by Smith, “South Sea pearls are still a status symbol among socialites” (137). In this sense, wearing pearls can be understood as an example of Mida and Kim’s definition of how an item may carry a social message (Mida and Kim 16). It is my understanding that everyone can wear pearls, but there will always be an extra symbol of glamour and status when someone is seen wearing it. My reflection is based on the idea that the sign associated with the image of a women wearing pearls, real or not, did not change. What changed was the sign associated with fake pearls, that began to be accepted by the population.

Coco Chanel in 1938 wearing pearls, in Chadour-Sampson and Bari (129).

It is important to think about the time when my grandmother would have worn her necklace. I believe that she would have started wearing it in the middle of the twentieth century, when, in a very different manner, the nobility would attend events wearing extravagant jewels, mostly pearls and diamonds (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 115). By looking at my grandmother’s item, it is immediately possible to notice the contrast between it and the ones the Royals were wearing at the time since hers was not white and had paintings on it, giving it a very fake appearance, the opposite of the ones that were considered to be fancy. But it is an object that was loved by its owner, who proudly wore it when she wanted to look classy. For her, it didn’t matter how far from a real pearl necklace this one was.

The piece is made of fake creamy coloured plastic pearls, starting with small ones, that grow in size on both sides, meeting in the middle with one big pearl. Each pearl was hand-painted with golden stripes and flowers, some blue, yellow and white and others pink. By analysing it, one can see that demanding work and a great amount of time was disposed to paint each pearl, making it a one of a kind piece.

The details on the pearls. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

My grandmother wore this necklace to every event she attended, and as one can imagine, the item began to show signs of usage, with its clasp breaking. This finding corroborates with Mida and Kim’s definition of how an item is subjected to the way its owner interacts with it, carrying marks and strains of wear (16). Furthermore, it is possible to notice that the usage that my grandmother did of this necklace corroborates with Chanel’s idea of the objective of wearing pearls: to adorn the body and not as a sign of wealth (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 126).

By analysing the necklace now, I believe that one pearl may have been lost when the clasp broke, making it uneven on one side and decentralising the big central pearl. This did not stop my grandmother from wearing it: she fixed it by giving it a home-made finishing. A new clasp was added, and several tiny knots were made so that the necklace wouldn’t fall apart a second time. Now, twenty years have passed, and the new clasp is rusty and looks very fragile, making the item look even farther away from the usual fancy white pearl necklace.

Signs of usage in the broken clasp, being possible to see how my grandmother mended it. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

The uneven sides because of the missing pearl. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

By thinking about this necklace through my grandmother’s history, it is possible to comprehend Kopytoff’s understanding of how a thing may have its own biography since it came from a person, a time, and a culture (66). Furthermore, its use also changed with its age (67), not being worn as a necklace anymore, but living on as a token, a memory. I can’t help but wonder how different its biography would be if some other person had bought it. Would it have lived for such a long time? Would it have been passed on from grandmother to son and then to granddaughter? It is truly accurate than that the cultural biography of the item is only possible from a specific perspective of it (Kopytoff 68).

Through Kopytoff’s understanding of commodities and their value (68), I began to think about how these notions can be applied to the analysis of my grandmother’s necklace. I imagine that not every woman would want to buy it, as it is not similar to real pearls and it has details that may be perceived as tacky or out of style. In contrast, we can again think about the types of pearls that were being worn by people at the time that she would have worn hers. As referred by Chadour-Sampson and Bari, after the second war, actresses like Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Grace Kelly were seen wearing pearl necklaces with rows of pearls. Furthermore, Dior’s ‘New Look’ had presented mannequins wearing pearls in abundance (131).

The history surrounding pearls leads me to believe that what differentiates my grandmother’s necklace from the ones worn around the same time, is the fact that someone could tell immediately that hers was fake, while everyone else was wearing imitations that resembled real ones. Even Dior’s collection contained mostly imitations of pearls (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 131), showing that real and fake pearls were perceived the same way at the time. I believe this was due only because the imitations were so well made that people couldn’t know just by looking at a woman how real her pearls were.

From left to right, Marilyn Monroe (1954), Jackie Kennedy (1962) and Elizabeth Taylor (1973), in Chadour-Sampson and Bari (132, 133, 135). All of them wearing white pearls and corroborating with my idea of how it is impossible to tell if they are real or not just by looking at them.

It is important to think about the other type of value that this necklace may have: the one that it carries due to its biography, the one that my grandmother gave to it by wearing it so many times. If I had to, I would pay an enormous amount of money for this necklace, not due to its physical characteristics, but because of its biography, something that is only important to my family and me. I believe that my grandmother, the owner, was the one to give this necklace identity: she gave it a meaning, a life, a biography. In addition, Wilson presented a concept regarding the interaction between clothing items, in this case, jewellery, and the body: the item is what makes “the body culturally visible” and at the same time, only by being worn by the body, the item is complete (376). In other words, the necklace may have helped style her outfit, but only by being worn by her, it received an identity and a meaning.

The necklace has not been worn since my grandmother passed away twenty years ago. Maybe because it does not fit my style, or perhaps it became too heavy to be worn, due to the amount of meaning that it carries. Now that I’m taking the time to examine it, I wonder how many events, people, happy and sad moments this necklace must have witnessed. How many times must she have danced, laughed and smiled wearing it? For twenty years this necklace has been stored in a brown box, in my washroom, sitting heavily with its memories. Now it is right in front of me, staring back and revealing several details that I have never noticed before.

This analysis of my grandmother’s necklace leads me to realize how accurate Mida and Kim were when stating that artefacts are unique, carrying a part of the wearer within it (11). In this sense, her own personality and history were transcribed into the necklace, that now has its own biography and value to my family. The item is today much more than a pearl necklace since it carries memories that turned it into something bigger.


Works Cited

Bari, Hubert, David Lam, and Museum of Islamic Art (Dawḥah, Qatar). Pearls. Skira, 2009.

Chadour-Sampson, Anna B., and Hubert Bari. Pearls. V&A Publishing, 2013.

Jobling, Paul, “Roland Barthes: Semiology and the Rhetorical Codes of Fashion,” in Thinking Through Fashion, pp.  132-148.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things:    Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.                64-91. Print.

Mackrell, Alice. Art and Fashion. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective. London, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015. Print.

Phillips, Clare. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present. Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Smith, Nancy MacDonell. The Classic Ten: The true story of the little black dress and nine other fashion favorites.    Penguin, 2003.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Magic Fashion.” Fashion Theory, vol. 8, no. 4, 2004, pp. 375-385.

Tutu Designed by Göran Ljungburg

Tendu, jeté and grande plié are ballet terms that are a part of a ballerina’s vernacular. Comparatively, to a designer who constructs ballet costumes, the words structure, fit and durability are a part of their design vernacular. Tutus and costumes have a contrasting, dual responsibility: the garment should appear light and whimsically ethereal, but at the same time, there is a heavy emphasis on proper design, strength and durability of the construction of the garment. Additionally, costumes and tutus are often shared amongst dancers and reused in other productions. The costumes are put through the arduous task of withstanding the intense physics of ballet: the fabric must stretch and move with the dancer’s cardiovascular exertion and extreme range of flexibility, while absorbing the sweat produced by the dancer, in addition to surviving the storing process as time slowly erodes the delicate fabrics of the costume.

The ballet and the tutu have a deeply rooted and fascinating history. The French word “ballet” comes from the Italian word “ballare” which means, “to dance”. Moreover, the word “tutu” was derived from a colloquial children’s word meaning “bottom” in French (Looseleaf). Ballet terminology has remained predominantly French, however, ballet terms are a universal language amongst dancers, allowing performers from all over the world to precisely communicate technique and choreography. Furthermore, ballet first emerged in Italy in the late fifteenth century and was later reinvigorated in France when Catherine de Medici of Italy, wed King Henry II of France (Haskell 17). During this time, Catherine de Medici initiated early dance forms into the court culture of France (“A Brief History of Ballet”). Knowing how to dance was a revered accomplishment and a testament to one’s rank in society and social status.

Dancing was reserved only for women and became popular during the early nineteenth century where women would dance in white, bell shaped skirts with a hemline that stopped mid calf (“A Brief History of Ballet”). Furthermore, the tutu was credited to have been invented by French painter and designer, Eugéne Louis Lami (Zoppi). In 1832, the first “romantic” tutu designed by Lami and was worn by Italian ballerina, Marie Taglioni (Looseleaf). Taglioni was one of the first women to perform en pointe and she did so in the title role of the Paris Opera Ballet’s “La Sylphide” (“Marie Taglioni”). The tutu worn in “La Sylphide” was a “romantic” style tutu that featured a skirt with a longer hemline (see figure 1).

Figure 1: “Marie Taglioni.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Accessed 24 March 2018.


Often, ballerinas were fitted into corsets or bodices that featured over skirts or skirts with a long hemline and a hoop frame. French ballerina, Marie Camargo, simplified the design by eliminating the shoe’s heel and shortening the hemline of the skirt in 1726 (Haskell 20). Symbolically, the tutu was a simplified version of a gown from the nineteenth century that featured a form fitting bodice, a wider neckline that exposed the shoulders, an accentuated bust line and a broad skirt that featured a hemline that stopped at the ankles (Zoppi).

Special thanks to Ingrid Mida for allowing me to analyze this tutu from the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. This gorgeous tutu designed by Göran Ljungburg (object ID#2014.08.025 and ID#2014.08.026), features a stunningly beautiful bodice and tutu that made its premiere on stage on May 1, 1985 in “Raymonda: Act III”, and featured the choreography of Terry Westmoreland and Marius Petipa (The National Ballet of Canada. Repertoire List 1980-1989) (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.025 and 2014.08.026. Photo by Dori Kwong.













The story of Raymonda features the beautiful, only daughter of a noble family in Hungary. Raymonda is engaged to be married to a knight named Jean de Brienne but they soon separate when Jean de Brienne leaves to fight in the Crusades. Later in the evening, Raymonda has a dream where she is reunited with her love, Jean de Brienne. Jean suddenly disappears in her dream and is replaced by an Eastern knight who Raymonda does not recognize. Raymonda determines that her nightmare is an omen. In act II, a party is in full effect and an unexpected guest, Abderakhman attends. Raymonda recognizes Abderakhman as the unidentifiable knight from her dream. In an effort to win Raymonda’s hand in marriage, Abderakhman promises wealth and power in return for her love. Raymonda rejects Abderakhman, which enrages him and causes him to attempt to abduct her. All of a sudden, the knights who had fought in the Crusades return all at once, including Jean de Brienne. The King of Hungary suggests that the two knights fight to win Raymonda’s heart. Jean de Brienne wins the duel by killing Abderakhman and is reunited with Raymonda. Finally, in act III, Jean de Brienne marries Raymonda (Raymonda Ballet in Three Acts).

Thirty-three years have elapsed since this tutu graced the stage but I can still feel the energy and the brilliance that emanates from this gorgeous ballet costume that features a sweetheart neckline, cap sleeves that drape off the shoulders, a cream coloured damask boned bodice with lace, gold metallic trim and a plethora of pearls, iridescent rhinestones (see figure 3), along with a white tutu that features a gold painted skirt plate with a gold lace overlay (see figure 4).

Figure 3: Close-up of sweetheart neckline, a cream coloured, damask, boned bodice with lace, pearls, rhinestones and gold metallic trim. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.025. Photo by Dori Kwong.


Figure 4: White tutu with gold painted skirt plate. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.026. Photo by Dori Kwong.


This tutu is a “bell tutu” (see figure 5), because it is directly attached to the panty and features a softer, more flexible skirt in contrast to the significantly longer hemline of a “romantic tutu” and the stiffer skirt and shorter hemline of a “classical tutu”. The “bell tutu” shows off the dancer’s toned legs and the intricacies of each and every choreographed step.

Figure 5: A “bell” tutu. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.025 and 2014.08.026. Photo by Dori Kwong.


The gender of this garment is distinctly female and is intended for a female ballerina who has a 33–inch bust line, a 25-inch waist and 33-inch hips. The main fabrics that have been used to construct the bodice are predominantly natural, such as a thick, cotton canvas with boning (see figure 6), to emphasize proper fit, structure and durability.

Figure 6: Close-up of boning in the bodice. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.025. Photo by Dori Kwong.


The gold lace and cream coloured tulle in the tutu accentuate the delicateness of this garment and the daintiness of the dancer who wears it. As previously mentioned, costumes are often shared amongst dancers and evidence of this is found in the tags stitched into the bodice and written on the tutu’s waistband. Two tags read “Alberta Ballet” and “National Ballet of Canada” respectively (see figure 7).

Figure 7: Tags and dancer identification. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.025. Photo by Dori Kwong.


In addition, the names of five ballerinas who previously wore this costume are written on labels adhered to the inside of the costume. The names Dennis, Misa, Gavin and an additional name that is partially covered, are found written on the inside of the bodice. The surname, Witkowsky, is written on the waistband (see figure 8). Gizella Witkowsky was born in Toronto and began to perform with the National Ballet of Canada in 1975.  Witkowsky had a prolific career that spanned over two decades with the National Ballet of Canada, where she performed numerous lead roles in many classical ballets (Quinte). Witkowsky is now retired from professional dance but continues to teach master classes to this day (Quinte).

Figure 8: A ballerina’s surname, Witkowsky, is written on the waistband. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.026. Photo by Dori Kwong.


The dominant colours are cream and gold and the tutu features a floral motif of embroidered flowers decorated with rhinestone rivets. One of the most unique aspects of this garment is the amount of embellishments, which cause it to be heavier than other tutus. Usually, tutus are less complex in design, lighter and not as extensively embellished. An embellished tutu such as this one states the wealth, glamour and power of the character personified in the ballet, as well as the maturity and seniority of the ballerina who wears it. Specifically in act III of Raymonda, Jean de Brienne returns from the Crusades to marry Raymonda in this costume, which is why this tutu is so richly ornate.

As a classically trained dancer with over a decade of professional performances on my resumé, I truly treasure a tutu as sumptuously magnificent as this one because not all tutus are created equal and it is a rare characteristic to have a customizable fit. For dancers, it is not “one size fits all” but rather “one small fits all”. I marvel at the craft, foresight and the workmanship invested into this garment that is demonstrated by a second line of “eyes” in order for each dancer to customize the fit of the bodice to their body (see figure 9).

Figure 9: Customizable fit at the back closure that features a second line of “eyes” in order for each dancer to customize the bodice’s fit to their body. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.025. Photo by Dori Kwong.


The details such as a pearl lined neckline and bustline, a metallic gold braided trim, a bedazzled bodice, a gold lace overlay, delicate sleeves, a flattering sweetheart neckline, a “bell tutu” and flesh coloured elastics at the shoulders to hold the bodice up firmly, are evidence of a well constructed dance costume (see figure 10).

Figure 10: Flesh coloured elastics at the shoulders to hold the bodice up firmly while allowing the cap sleeves to drape past the shoulders. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.025 and 2014.08.026. Photo by Dori Kwong.


There is something magical about the tutu and how it makes the wearer feel when it is worn. According to Adam, “enclothed cognition” is used to describe, “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes” (1). Tutus have a way in making the dancer feel like the goddess of her realm. At the same time, behind the smile, the tightly coifed bun and the stage makeup, the ballerina dances across the stage as the tutu bounces with every movement, while simultaneously trying to disregard the pain emanating from her feet as she continues through the graceful art of dance. Furthermore, the embodiment of boning within the bodice of a dance costume is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a bodice without boning feels like something is missing because it lacks the firm structure, but on the other hand, boning can restrict movement causing the dancer to make subtle modifications in choreography where fashion may hinder movement. This ornate tutu is a symbol of a technically advanced dance career culminating to a high point.

This costume is extremely fragile and should be handled cautiously and stored appropriately to prevent causing further damage. This garment shows wear on the panty and the colour of the floral embroidery on the skirt has faded over time (see figure 11). In addition, the delicate lace has become discoloured over the years and the hook and eye closure on the back of the bodice looks timeworn. Do better procedures exist to preserve delicate costumes?

Figure 11: Floral embroidery has become discoloured over time. Ballet costume designed by Göran Ljungburg, c. 1985, Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. 2014.08.026. Photo by Dori Kwong.


Similar to how actors say “break a leg”, dancers say “merde” to one another prior to gracing the stage. The ballerinas who wore this tutu certainly heard this term often, which in this context, means “good luck”. For some, ballet is a form of creative expression that guides the dancer, as well as the viewer, on a journey to an artistic escape. The tutu is the final piece of the puzzle that allows the ballerina to enter her ultimate realm of artistic expression through fashion and athleticism.












Works Cited

“A Brief History of Ballet.” Atlanta Ballet, 2018, Accessed 19 February 2018.

Adam, Hajo, and Adam D. Galinsky. “Enclothed Cognition.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 48, no. 4, 2012, pp. 918-925.

Haskell, Arnold L. Ballet: A Complete Guide to Appreciation, History, Aesthetics, Ballets, Dancers. Vol. A122, Penguin, 1951.

Looseleaf, Victoria. The Story of the Tutu. Dance Magazine, 2 October 2007. Accessed 19 February 2018.

“Marie Taglioni.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Accessed 24 March 2018.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object Based Research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Quinte Ballet School of Canada. Gizella Witkowsky, Ballet, Pointe, Repertoire. Accessed 20 March 2018.

Raymonda Ballet in Three Acts. Bolshoi, 2015, Accessed 19 March 2018.

“The National Ballet of Canada. Repertoire List 1980-1989”. The National Ballet of Canada Archives, Accessed 19 February 2018.

Zoppi, Sabrina. Vogue Italia Encyclopedia The Tutu. Vogue Italia, Accessed 20 February 2018.

Grandma’s Jewellery Box

My Grandmother’s jewellery box, an object that has fascinated me since my toddler days, is a cherished memento of a remarkable woman. Mary Kruger passed away during my final year of studying fashion here at Ryerson in 1994, and she was not only dear to me, but was a conduit in my love of fashion and hand-making.

Grandma’s Jewellery Box

The box, which sat squarely centered on her bedside dresser for my entire upbringing, now resides with me.  I don’t interact with it very often, for I have always known that to go there requires tissues-at-hand and a psychological readiness to feel pulsed with emotions at the very moment I pop open its latch.  You see, the jewellery box represents a myriad of messages, which seem to possess the ability to penetrate to the depths of my senses and memories in a profound way. My eyes begin to water as I recall everything that was my Grandma with a simple sniff and touch.

Grandma was a stylish woman with a penchant for fashion: she loved to match her jewellery, hats, shoes and gloves to her dresses, and I spent a great deal of my childhood playing dress up with her collection.  Thankfully she let me do so.

Jewellery box C1960’s by Philippe of Sweden 

The box itself is wrapped in a now slightly discoloured beige vinyl material. Imprinted on the top is a motif of three gold roses, very similar to the motif she also had on her tableware set. A quick search of images online leads me to believe the box is inspired by Philippe of Sweden who designed very similar pieces in the 1960’s, yet Grandma’s does not bear any branding.

Phillip of Sweden Insignia

With the opening of the box, a distinctive scent is revealed.  This scent is one that I have yet to smell in any other place or environment, and continues to smell the same forty-three years after I first experienced it. It is nothing other than the distinguishable scent of Grandma’s jewellery box–perhaps I should try to bottle it. I am always amazed how powerful the sense of smell can be in recalling memories, with its precise ability to bring one back to a certain place or event in their life.  My curiosity about the power of this sense brought me to research done by Herz in 2004, who determined that “scent-cued memories were more emotional and evocative than memories cued via visual or auditory stimuli” (qtd. in Reid et al 158).  The “Proust Phenomenon” is a term coined by Chu and Downes in reference to Marcel Proust’s earlier accounts regarding scent and recall.  It describes “the power of scents to provoke vivid and emotionally charged autobiographical memories” (qtd. in Reid et al 158).  Interestingly it was also found that memories triggered by scent are greatest at the early school year ages (Chu and Downes, Willander & Larson qtd. in Reid et al 158), the time when I was playing a great deal of dress up with Grandma’s things.

Inside the box a swing out shelf separates the smaller items.  The interior is lined with a red satin that features the same gold rose motif present on the top lid.  The inside is brimming with plastic baubles and beads that are carefully strung with fantastic metal clasps which seem to be a from the 1950’s and 1960’s mostly.

Mary Kruger’s Jewellery Box
Cut Glass Clip-On Earring and Brooch

The cut glass clip-on earrings with matching brooches are reminiscent of Gustave Sherman’s designs from the 1950’s (Collectors

Screw-back Clip-On Clasp Earrings          

Some of the clip-on earrings feature screw-back clasps which I remember clearly because of this novel mechanism which is no longer found in earrings today.

Cameo Motif Pendant

A black and cream set of earrings and pendant features a cameo motif that I had asked to borrow in my teenage years.  With each piece I touch, I recall a time where she or sometimes I, had worn them.

I draw out a necklace from its resting place entwined with the others in the bottom of the box, I am quickly reminded of the distinct rattling sound of this motion.   I experience a powerful jolt of connectedness to these objects and my Grandma, that takes me deep into my thoughts recalling particular moments of being at play with these items and my interactions with Grandma.  I feel teary-eyed and sad in my quiet reflection, missing her greatly.



Dance Hall Name Tags – Priceless to me!

Next, I move over to touch the black name tag pins, a set for her and her husband Harry–“Belles & Beaux Mary Kruger Grenfell“ (Grenfell is the name of a small Saskatchewan town where they started their marriage).  Now I am reminded of their many interests, hobbies, talents, and the “joie de vivre” that in my current reflection I realize was central to their life story.

The wealth of emotion elicited by the simple unlocking of this vintage box draws attention to “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennett “The Force of Things” 351).  Jane Bennett and other proponents of new materialism explore the notion that there is a vitality and force in all things (Vibrant Matter 10) which is helpful in understanding the power these baubles have on my being.  Though each item alone has the ability to affect me, when the entire jewellery box is in front of me my five senses are fully-blown by the expose of materials that intermingle with each other and add up to the distinctive and provocative whole.  Deeply layered in memories, feelings and nostalgia, this group of items I call “Grandma’s jewellery box” seems to control my emotional state like a joystick.  Bennett claims that “in addition to the agential propensity of each member of an assemblage, there is also the agency proper to the grouping itself” (“The Agency of Assemblages” 461) which may explain the exponential power of this object in its entirety.

However, some scholars such as Jennifer Cotter who works in the area of Critical Literary and Cultural Studies, do criticize the mystification and ideological approach of new materialism (177).  One may question if it is truly a liveliness flowing from the baubles and beads that is responsible for my emotional response, or if my own subjective existence based on social and cultural structures has elicited my response to the material items before me.  Cotter’s critique of new materialism looks to Marx’s labour theories of value to argue that “human labor-power” is the commonality that brings the material world together, not some form of “immanent vitalism” that the new materialists’ theorize (174).  If this is so, then perhaps my perception of who my Grandma was, the aesthetic qualities of her pieces, or the cherished smell of her jewellery box, are simply a reaction to what I consciously or unconsciously value based on the social structures surrounding me then and now.

Yet in this autobiographical case study of my relationship to this keepsake, I must share that when my Grandmother died I was asked if I wanted a piece of her more valuable gold jewellery, but instead I requested this box far less valuable commercially, yet priceless to me personally. The brands, the items’ monetary values, their quantities, or the specificity of each item was not at all important, rather it was the collection intact as it was on her dresser that I wanted to savour.  If in fact the jewellery box assemblage has no agentic propensity, then it would be a curious experiment to break down my nostalgic yearning into its subjective parts.  This exercise might help me to understand the narratives that form my interest and emotional reaction to the box beyond the obvious connection to my loved one.  On further contemplation however, I am not certain that this exercise would be possible due to the complexity of the social relationships involved.

Instead I will close up the box, tell its “vitality” to “settle down”, tuck it back into its storage place, and allow my senses and emotional state time to recoup until the next moment my body and mind gets the urge to pop open the latch–one more time.


Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public Culture, vol. 17, no. 3, 2005, pp. 445-466.

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347-372.

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Collectors Weekly. Vintage Sherman Costume Jewelry, 26 Feb 2018.

Cotter, Jennifer. “New Materialism and the Labor Theory of Value.” The Minnesota Review, vol. 2016, no. 87, 2016, pp. 171-181.

Reid, Chelsea A., et al. “Scent-Evoked Nostalgia.” Memory, vol. 23, no. 2, 2015, pp. 157-166.

The Modernity of the Victorian Era White Dress Shirt

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860 and modern dress shirt, (illustration by author)

There are only a few fashion items that can be considered genuinely iconic. The term is usually reserved for garments that have stood the test of time—such as the little black dress, the blue jeans, or the trench coat—and continue to be a staple in today’s wardrobes. The same can be said for the white dress shirt, particularly when it comes to menswear. Over the last century, it has become a closet essential in men’s wardrobes, with publications like GQ affirming that “Every guy needs a stable of white dress shirts” (Woolf), while many designer labels vie for their place in the market despite very few variations between the styles. Although the brand Brooks Brothers is widely credited (Antonelli, Fisher 185; Sims 142) for the invention of the modern button-down shirt, the popularity of the garment can be traced back to the early Victorian era when the white dress shirt first adopted the streamlined look. The shirt became an “important symbol of wealth and class distinction and a powerful emblem of sobriety and uniformity for men” (Brough 2). The tailored shirt from the mid-nineteenth century can be considered an early prototype or precursor to the now classic design. The white linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002) from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection is an excellent example of a garment that embodies this theory.

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860, Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (image by author)

Using the Checklist for Observation from The Dress Detective (Mida and Kim 216), I carefully analysed and measured the garment. I then illustrated it as an attempt to capture its construction beyond the photograph. For comparison purposes, I also illustrated a contemporary slim-fit dress shirt. Upon careful inspection, the two garments bear a significant physical resemblance that is perhaps not apparent during the initial observation.

Dated 1840-1860, by the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection curator, upon first glance, the garment is a far cry from today’s modern button-down shirt. It seems unnecessarily voluminous and cumbersome for a garment that was meant to be worn underneath something else. For example, its length from shoulder to hem measures at an astounding forty-two inches, which would sit at mid-thigh on an average height male. When compared to its contemporary version, which averages at around thirty inches in length, it reads more like a sleep shirt or a chemise rather than something that is commonly tucked into trousers. However, the rest of its proportions are comparable: the width is a tad broader than the modern slim-fit shirt while the sleeves are approximately the same length. This is not uncommon for the era.

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860 and modern dress shirt, detail (image by author)

According to Brough, between the 1840s and 1870s, the shirt became increasingly slimmer in popular fashion due to the popularity of fitted suits and the developments in tailoring (2). Most unusually, the sleeves have a rather large seven and a half inch gusset at the armpits, giving them a dolman-style shape. The small rounded collar is made to fit a fifteen-inch neck width and is secured in the front by a single plastic button that was most likely a twentieth-century replacement for the original mother of pearl. Similar dress shirts featured in Dressed for a Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 show similar style collars worn both turned up and down, most often with a necktie underneath. Unlike the modern Oxford, the two collar ends do not meet in the centre.

The garment’s front body is made out of a single piece of fabric, with a ten-inch-long placket with embroidered owner’s initials, F.M. and a button enclosure in the middle. The shirt’s back body is also made from a single piece of fabric, and unlike the modern shirt, it doesn’t feature a yoke at the rear shoulder. Instead, two symmetrical panels are placed as shoulder reinforcement, quite similar to a Western-style shirt. The only decorative element, aside from the embroidered initials, is the thin ribbon finishing at the edge of the cuffs, which are smaller in size than on contemporary shirts. The cuffs’ decorative elements suggest that they were meant to peek out of the overcoat sleeve.

White linen dress shirt (FRC2016.11.002), c. 1840-1860 and modern dress shirt, detail (image by author)

The garment’s panels are cut with straight lines, without the usual curve at the armhole and the hemline. This cutting technique perhaps helps date the shirt closer to 1840 than 1860, since Cunnington and Willett trace the beginning of a curved hemline to 1853 in The History of Underclothes (140). The heavy use of pleating and ruching to compensate for lack of curvatures in the pattern is exemplary of garment construction before it was factory streamlined later in the nineteenth century.

Tintype, 1852-55, National Museum of American History (59.229) (Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent State University Press, 1995., p.142.)

The garment was a gift from Kevin Manuel to Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, and nothing is known of its origin. The owner, F.M, remains a mysterious figure. Since the shirt is made of high-quality linen, it perhaps suggests that the owner was someone that belonged to the middle class. However, the relaxed collar suggests that the shirt was worn in a more casual, working-class manner. Still, a white shirt was a wardrobe standard for men of all classes. According to Brough, “The white formal shirt, until the end of the nineteenth century, was a significant symbol of wealth and class distinction, as only a person of substantial prosperity could afford to have their shirts washed frequently and to own enough of them to wear” (3). During the visit to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, curator Ingrid Mida and professor Alison Matthews David suggested that the embroidered initials were placed for laundering purposes, which was a necessity for many since most people didn’t have running water at the time. Upon my remark on the unusual length of the garment, Mida and David advised that the shirt might have doubled as an undergarment since the idea of underwear had not yet been popularised. Although its collar and part of the chest was meant to be worn visible in accordance with the popular fashion of the time.

Men’s walking costume and sports costume, Gazette of Fashion, 1861 (Laver, James. Fashions and Fashion Plates 1800-1900. London and New York: The King Penguin Books. 1943. Plate 12.)

Cunnington and Willett consider the white shirt as an undergarment until the First World War, when it became fashionable to wear on its own (15). However, by the early nineteenth century, the garment, which had previously been relegated as an undergarment, began to peek out more and more, thanks to the era’s trendsetter, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (Brough 2) and his elaborate upturned collars and ruffles. Lord Byron is also said to have popularised the modern shirt collar by laying them flat against the collarbone rather than upright as it was worn at the time (Antonelli, Fisher 183). By mid-century, the shirt’s features have become less decorative as those features were “reviled for being non-masculine” (Brough 3).

The concern with masculinity was of great importance to the men of the Victorian era. As fashion became thought of as a feminine interest, men’s clothing became more utilitarian. (Breward 171).  According to both Breward (171) and Brough (3), male dress codes began to prioritise uniformity over individualism. Brough goes as far to suggest that the “pure white colour fulfilled masculine ideals of resolute austerity and the shirt, through its constancy, epitomised conformity and dependability” (3). He goes to explain that later in the century, the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” began to emerge (4), placing additional symbolism on the garment and its social status.

Those same connotations are still very much present today. The contemporary white button down shirt is still considered to be formal dress despite its ubiquity, and it is still regarded as part of the daily middle-class uniform. Class connotation aside, the austere nature of the Victorian garment can be considered on the cusp of modern, adhering to the idea that “less is more” over half a century before architect Adolf Loos gave his Ornament and Crime lecture with the now-infamous quote. Apart from the yoke and the full-length placket, all the parts of the modern shirt design are in place. Regarding Kopytoff’s idea of object biography (65), a biography of a white dress shirt can be looked as an anthology, from undergarment to a style icon.

As for F.M’s biography, it is open to interpretation. His fifteen-inch neck circumference suggests that he was he was a slim individual. We can conclude that he did not do his own laundry, nor it was done within his household. Little wear and tear perhaps indicate that F.M had many shirts in daily rotation. Taking into consideration Brough and Breward’s findings on the Victorian gentleman, F.M. was maybe someone who appreciated restraint when it came to dressing, someone who did not love to stand out from the crowd. And it is my interpretation that he inclined towards modernity, that his shirt represented more than merely a garment, but a movement.

Works Cited

Antonelli, Paola, Fisher, Michelle Millar. ITEMS: Is Fashion Modern? Museum of Modern Art, 2017. p. 83-84.

Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion. Manchester University Press, 1995. pp.145-180.

Brough, Dean. “The classic white formal shirt: a powerful emblem of social change.” In 15th Annual IFFTI Conference: The Business & Marketing of Icons, April 2-6, 2013, Los Angeles, California, USA.

Cunnington, P. and C. Willett. The History of Underclothes. London: Dover Publications. 1992.

David, Alison Matthews. Personal Interview. 23 January 2018.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things, 1986, pp. 64–92.

Laver, James. Fashions and Fashion Plates 1800-1900. London and New York: The King Penguin Books. 1943.

Mida, Ingrid. Personal Interview. 23 January 2018.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015. Retrieved from

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent State University Press, 1995.

Sims, Josh. Icons of Men’s Style. Laurence King Publishing, 2011.

Woolf, Jake. “The Only Seven White Dress Shirts You Need to Know About.” GQ. 10 April, 2015. Retrieved from

The Coat, The Shoes, The Dress – Givenchy

The following is an imagining of the previous “lives” these objects had (Mida and Kim, 26). While none of the objects were donated by the same person, I wanted to explore two elements that I connected them with: their era (1960’s) and their designer’s association with Audrey Hepburn. I also wanted to consider the “lives” these objects may have had, and if they could be connected, possibly over different eras, through different aspects of their biography. While this is a piece of fiction, I did incorporate some aspects of Barbara Moon’s persona, as the black wool dress was donated by her. I also wanted to explore how the “Audrey look” would have been considered by women in different time periods, as it is a “look” I personally love to emulate regularly through clothes and accessories. I would like to also give special mention of Sam Wasson’s book “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” which is a wonderful resource on the effect “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” had on culture. This post also utilizes “The Dress Detective” (Mida, Kim) methods of dress analysis and sketching.

Objects from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection:

Givenchy fuchsia pink ribbed silk coat 2014.07.006

Givenchy black linen drop-waist dress 1997.04.026

Givenchy navy pumps: 2014.99.018 A+B

Givenchy coat, dress, and shoes from the Fashion Reserach Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #’s: 2014.07.006, 1997.04.026, 2014.99.018.

The Coat

Sketch of Givenchy coat, by Emily Mackey.

The early sixties are hinting at a revolution, a departure from the classic, conservative, and chic looks of Betty’s youth, but in that moment Betty Lambert couldn’t care a jot, for before her lay an entire box full of beautifully made Givenchy clothes. While Betty bought some practical pieces, a respectable black wool dress, and shoes that upon second look may be too tall for her comfort, the real apple of her eye is the bright pink wool coat, perfect for a night out with her husband, Bill. Bill never did understand why such clothes must be bought from Paris for such high prices when something similar could be bought at Sears. Betty has given up on trying to explain, Bill just can’t see that their simplicity and craftsmanship is what makes them timeless and elegant (Couturier, 8, 34), Betty then reminds him that these pieces are an investment, something that will “last and be re-worn by our daughter and maybe even her children.” Bill’s reply to this thinking is that their daughter is only ten and too young for such clothes, but at least he responds. Betty turns her attention back to her new coat, which promises to make her feel like Audrey in her latest picture – Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Coat by Givenchy. Photo by Emily Mackey. Coat from the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #2014.07.006.

While everyone can’t get enough of the black dress Audrey wore, Betty knows that a good evening dress can be found anywhere, by anyone (Wasson, 129) and she has a couple in her closet already. But this coat is unique, and special, and worth the price. Still, Betty couldn’t help keeping the two-page spread in Women’s Wear Daily showcasing the beautiful clothes worn in the film.

“Audrey Hepburn: A Givenchy Dream” in Women’s Wear Daily, 1961.

She first fell in love with Givenchy’s designs when Audrey Hepburn won her Oscar for Roman Holiday almost ten years ago. Betty was enamoured by the white lace bateau neck gown that Ms. Hepburn had worn to the Oscars. Betty was in Paris at the time studying Baroque-era art, and immediately went to Monsieur Givenchy’s maison and bought a lovely dress she still wears to this day. She even caught a glimpse of the unexpectedly tall yet graceful couturier once (Wasson, 130). Betty has been a faithful member of Givenchy’s clientele ever since, buying pieces whenever she accompanies Bill on his business trips to Paris. Paris has a special place in Betty’s heart as a place where she was independent, and perhaps that’s why she loves Audrey’s films so much – they’re often set there, with Audrey as the sprightly independent protagonist. Betty always finds herself tearing up in the scene of Sabrina where Sabrina is writing a letter while in her Paris apartment, with La Vie En Rose playing quietly in the background, but she’s unsure why.

When a trip from Paris is far off, a bottle of L’Interdit, the fruity and floral perfume that was made specifically for Audrey by Givenchy, gives Betty the feeling that she’s once again a young woman studying art in Paris. It’s not that Betty doesn’t love the life her husband provides for her, but she can admit to feeling a bit bored with her days now that her daughter is old enough to go to school, and it leaves Betty wishing she could have a place to go each day and feel useful again.

l’Interdit advertisement in Vogue, 1970.

The Shoes

Sketch of Givenchy shoes, by Emily Mackey.
Photo by Emily Mackey. Shoes from the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #2014.99.018 A+B.

Ann unpacks the last of her things into the room she has just rented. It’s just a small basement apartment, but it has its own entrance, a kind landlady, and affordable rent. The rent is especially important to Ann because it must be covered by her salary as a secretary in a downtown office building. It’s the 1970’s, and while Ann may not dress like a hippie, she certainly sees the value in their principles, especially women’s rights. Ann bore witness to the dissolution of her parent’s marriage, one where her father ruled over her mother by using his money as leverage every time. Ann didn’t want to have a marriage like that – one where the wife must ask for her husband’s money just to buy a new handkerchief, needing to justify her wants and needs only to be met with complaints over every penny and choice. Ann will pay her own way and buy her own things. Ann took as little as possible from her childhood home to prove that she could be self-sustaining, but she couldn’t leave her mother’s pair of Givenchy shoes that had barely been worn. The shoes remind Ann of an outfit Audrey Hepburn wears in How to Steal a Million, in which Audrey plays a woman with her own job that she studied for, where she was treated as an equal by the male characters (von Dassanowsky, 112) and of course, a beautiful wardrobe that has been inspiring Ann in her wardrobe-building for her new job.

Detail of blood stain on inner right heel of shoes. Photo by Emily Mackey. Shoes from the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #2014.99.018 A+B.
Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole on the set of How to Steal a Million, 1966.

One outfit in particular has been a goal for Ann, she calls it the “navy suit,” as Audrey wears a beautiful pair of navy shoes, stockings, wool coat and skirt, and a scarf. Ann is sure that her old school uniform skirt will work perfectly as it’s not too long (Vogue vol. 155, 125), as will the scarf she made in Home Economics. Ann had just purchased a navy wool coat from the consignment shop for $5, and stockings for $0.75. Feeling excited about her new outfit, Ann decides to try on her version of Audrey’s “navy suit.” Putting these pieces together, Ann felt transformed into a confident, chic, yet minimalist 1970’s Audrey (von Dassanowsky, 107), for only $5.75 (Moseley, 72).

Ann ignores the fact that the heels are taller than what Audrey wore, Ann is much shorter than Audrey anyways. Ann also ignores the digging in she feels on the inside right heel, and she’s sure she’ll break them in without injury. Ann consoles herself with the thought that she could always sell the shoes if they really are uncomfortable, she doubts her mother will notice they’re gone anyways and it’d be easy money, a pair of Givenchy shoes would cover a month’s rent surely (Stallybrass, 183).

The Dress

Dress by Givenchy. Photo by Emily Mackey. Dress from Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #1997.04.026.
Dress by Givenchy. Photo by Emily Mackey. Dress from Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #1997.04.026.
Dress by Givenchy. Photo by Emily Mackey. Dress from Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #1997.04.026.













Nicole sits down on her childhood bed while putting on her black stockings. She can’t escape the heavy melancholy she feels over losing her grandmother. Her grandmother’s health had been failing for years, and in the end, she knew her grandmother was ready to pass on.

Sketch of Givenchy dress, by Emily Mackey.
Detail hidden clasps and zippers on dress by Givenchy. Dress from Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson University. Accession #: 2014.99.018 A+B.

Nicole stands to put on her dress for the funeral – her comfort on this day, for her grandmother had given it to her a month before she passed (Bride, 450). It’s a Givenchy design, which comes as no surprise since he was her favourite designer, and still in perfect condition despite being 30 years old. All the women in Nicole’s family loved to watch Audrey Hepburn films, and her grandmother was fortunate enough to afford pieces from the golden years of Audrey’s career. At that moment Nicole’s mother comes in to check on her and gives a chuckle when she sees the dress Nicole has picked out.

“The Audrey Dress,” in Women’s Wear Daily, 1993.

Nicole soon finds out that her grandmother had bought that dress, and when showing it to her husband described it as a sensible dress one could wear to work, a comment her husband mocked because she didn’t even have a job. The next day she went out to the local art gallery and got one and told her husband she had had enough of his begrudging. While it wasn’t until a few years later that they got a divorce, it was the start of her grandmother recapturing her independence. Nicole was elated to hear such a wonderfully “modern” story of her grandmother and felt connected to her once again through the dress (Bride, 450).

Audrey Hepburn in a promotional still for Sabrina, 1954.

Nicole slipped on the dress, after fiddling with the intricate clasp system, and inspected her image in the mirror, the v-neck shaped back of the dress reminded her of the all-black outfit Audrey wore in Sabrina. Despite the modest front of the dress, Nicole is surprised by the open back and marvels at Givenchy’s ability to incorporate such a visual trick in his clothes (Wasson, 130). Nicole feels comforted by the heavy wool dress and knows her grandmother would have been delighted to see her in it. Her grandmother had given Nicole the gift of being able to tell how well a piece of clothing is made, to be able to recognize and admire craftsmanship (Couturier, 44), although she’s unsure whether she’ll be able to match her grandmother’s keen eye for detail and subtleties (Couturier, 43).

With one last inspection in the mirror, Nicole is reminded of how what’s old is new again (Moseley, 72), and that the dress her grandmother Betty bought in the 1960’s looks like it could be in the latest issue of Vogue or Women’s Wear Daily. More importantly, knowing what this dress signified for her grandmother’s independence, Nicole thinks she’ll start wearing it to the office.

“The Little Black Dress” in Vogue, 1991.
“The Little Black Dress” in Vogue, 1991.












Discussion question: Do we hold on to and value clothes for their sound construction, or for their sentimentality?


Works Consulted

Bethan Bide (2017) “Signs of Wear: Encountering Memory in the Worn Materiality of a Museum Fashion Collection,” Fashion Theory, 21:4, 449-476.

Couturier, Myriam. “Professional Glamour And Feminine Mystique: Barbara Moon’s Style In Words And Wardrobe.” Ryerson University, 2015. Ryerson University Library and Archives Digital Repository,

Dassanowsky, Robert Von. “A Caper of One’s Own: Fantasy Female Liberation in 1960s Crime Comedy Film.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 35, no. 3, 2007, pp. 107–118., doi:10.3200/jpft.35.3.107-118.

Fashion: Doing it their Way—Only: The Nifty Dressers Think A Lot and Go Ahead. (1970, Mar 01). Vogue, 155, 125. Retrieved from

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Moseley, Rachel. “Trousers and Tiaras: Audrey Hepburn, a Woman’s Star.” Feminist Review, no. 71, 2002, pp. 37–51.JSTOR, JSTOR,

Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat” in P. Spyer (ed.) Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, NY: Routledge, 1998.

“Funny Face (1957) – “On How to Be Lovely” Song – Audrey Hepburn (8 of 10)” Youtube, 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2018.

“Sabrina – The letter from Paris” SimplyPerfectAudrey. Youtube, 29 Sep. 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2018.

“Audrey Hepburn: A Givenchy Dream.” (1961, Jun 23). Women’s Wear Daily, 102, 4-5. Retrieved from

“Advertisement: L’interdit Givenchy.” (1970, Dec 01). Vogue, 156, 75. Retrieved from

Kazanjian, D. (1991, Jul 01). “Vogue’s view: The little black dress.” Vogue, 181, 52-52, 54, 56, 65. Retrieved from

“The Audrey Dress.” (1993, Jan 28).Women’s Wear Daily, 164, 1. Retrieved from

My Timberland Boots: The Story Behind the Brand and My Boots

When winter strikes in Toronto, many Torontonians are often found bustling through the sidewalks in fall or winter shoes to combat the snow and the sludge. For me this past winter season, those shoes were my new Timberland boots, bought on a whim and they have caused me no buyer’s remorse. As I watched the sidewalks and yellow-green grass emerge from melting ice, I was compelled to reflect on my Timberlands—what is the history behind them, and what do the boots mean to me?

Old marketing poster featuring the classic 6-inch Timberland workboots. Source:

The History of Timberland

Timberland produces both outdoor and action sports footwear, apparel, and accessories for men, women, and children (“VF Corporation 2016 Annual Report”). A lesser-mentioned footwear line, Timberland PRO, produces robust work-boots for the toughest job sites (“Timberland PRO”). Timberland is now owned by VF Corporation, owner of other well-known outdoor and action sports brands including Vans, North Face, and Jansport (“VF Corporation 2016 Annual Report”). However, Timberland carried a strong brand reputation even prior to VF Corporation’s acquisition (

Founded in 1952, it began with father, sons, and half ownership of the Abington Shoe Company in Massachusetts, United States (“Yellow Boot”). There, they produced and sold handmade footwear for various discount outlet and store house brands ( After developing new crafting techniques, acquiring new machinery, and upgrading to a new rubber sole manufactured by Goodyear, the iconic Timberland boot was born in 1973 (“Yellow Boot”). Targeting blue-collar construction workers in New England, the boot was durable, waterproof, and had a complex manufacturing process (“Brands: Timberland”). It was one of the only boots of its kind in the market at the time, thus sold at a premium (“Yellow Boot”).  After the boot’s continuous success, and the family’s full ownership of the Abington Shoe Company, the business was renamed as “The Timberland Company” in 1978, representing durability and functionality (

Within the following 20 years, Timberland exponentially rose in popularity, thus in sales ( Priced at $60 USD in the early 1980s (, the brand reached an unexpected international market—the Italian fashion accessory market—largely attributed to a well-recognized Italian goods distributer, Giuseppe Veronesi  (“Timberland Blog”). By the early 1990s, the iconic 6-inch work-boot was co-opted by the American hip-hop community ( As gangsta rap became glamourized, prominent hip-hop artists such as Boot Camp Clik and the Wu-Tang Clan began wearing the work-boot as early as 1993 ( They opened up a new market for Timberland, acting as “unauthorized endorsers” for the brand ( Despite initial resistance from management to expand the company’s market, artists continued to purchase the work-boots, their style eventually trickling up to the more welcomed mainstream market (Walker, 84). The Timberland brand was linked to authenticity, suggesting “an American aesthetic that combined physical labour with the great outdoors” (Semmelhack 154).

Boot Camp Clik wearing Timberlands in 1993. Source:


Hip-Hop and Timberland Boots as Fashion

The Nike Air Superdome 1991, bearing a similar aesthetic compared to Timberlands. Source:

Hip-hop culture, unified in aesthetic, stood for self-expression through both music and fashion (Brantley 247).  By the 1990s, brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Reebok began producing various versions of footwear lines emulating the rugged hip-hop aesthetic (Price 38). According to Cova et al., consumers grapple and blend brands and products with their own lives, essentially altering them (4). Commercial culture becomes part of their cultural, social, and self-identity (4). Hip-hop artists perceived Timberlands as strong and durable, both functionally and representationally (Brantley 248). The boots, originally made for tough job sites (now fulfilled by Timberland PRO), were able to withstand urban concrete, barbed wire, and other varied urban terrain (Brantley 248). They also represented the authenticity, aggression, and resilience in the war between black youth and America (

Erving Goffman, a sociologist and writer, suggests that identity is “a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented” (253). It is the result of repeated behaviour and actions understood within an interactive social process (Goffman 253). When hip-hop culture co-opted the 6-inch work boot into their outfits, it became part of self-expression and another building block to the group’s identity. Much like Cova et al. suggest, these artists incorporated Timberlands to their lived experiences (4), physically enclothing their bodies and becoming part of an iconic style and identity, as Goffman suggests (253).


Timberland Boots in Today’s Fashion

Serayah McNeill sporting denim overalls and light blue Timberlands. Source:

Now, celebrities and everyday streetwalkers alike wear Timberlands and all their variations as items of popular fashion. Much like Dr. Martens in the 1990s, Timberlands are now offering more colours and patterns (“Yellow Boot”), positioning the brand and its boots as a component of urban fashion “costumes” within the boot marketplace. (Semmelhack 154).  Cova et al. suggest that consumers “work within the staging that brands and companies have built” (10), ultimately interpreting and creating their own meanings of the brand. To a certain degree, each person is using the shoe and brand to express and communicate a certain aspect of their visual identity. At Coachella last year, celebrities such as Hailey Baldwin and Josephine Skriver, were seen wearing Timberlands to the outdoor spring music festival (Bahou, “The Unexpected Shoe Trend”). Here, Serayah McNeill pairs a half-buttoned jean overall short with a light blue 6-inch Timberland boot. Far from the historically intended worksite use, this celebrity incorporates the outdoorsy yet urban essence of the boots with her individual urban flare. She is merging her individual brand interpretations with her personal sense of style to construct a deliberate image and aesthetic at the music festival. In my opinion, she looks tough, adventurous, yet feminine.


My Timberland Boots

Side view of my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan

Inspired by Mida and Kim’s The Dress Detective, I set out to perform a closer reading of my boots to further enhance my research. I own a pair of women’s 6-inch black Timberland boots. They are made of nubuck (a type of leather), and have padded leather collars similar to most classic Timberlands. This one in particular, the “Joslin,” has low-profile outsoles, leaving a less robust appearance that most would describe as more feminine. Contrary to assumption, this particular boot is not advertised as waterproof. A special spray was later applied to provide water resistance.

I wore these boots through snowstorms and sludgy days. Some of this year’s scuffs, salt stains, and dirt still stick to the surface of each boot. A few crinkles have formed on the vamp of my boots, a form of physical proof of the steps I have taken this winter season. Since I have only owned these boots for less than one season, the condition of the heels remain in good condition.


Front view of my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan
The crinkles on my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan
The bottom of my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan


The Timberland Brand

Timberland describes itself as a brand that “outfits consumers for everyday adventure in the city, countryside, and everywhere in between” (“Brands: Timberland”). It boasts stylish, finely crafted products that are durable and functional. VF Corporation is committed to being a consumer and retail centric organization, their efforts reflected in a 15 percent growth in B2C (business-to-consumer) sales in the last few quarters of 2017 (“Fourth Quarter 2017”). This being said, overall sales figures for this brand were not particularly impressive in 2017, outshined by Vans. The company is now in the works of re-energizing the brand (“Fourth Quarter 2017”). Within the Toronto shoe market, direct competitors of the classic 6-inch Timberland boot include high tops and short boots from Sorel, UGG, Dr. Martens, and Blundstone. Sorel’s primary value proposition lies in its functionality—an insulated and waterproof shell ( UGG, producing a variation of styles, boasts functionality and its premium brand name ( Perhaps the most similar in visual aesthetics compared to the 6-inch Timberland boot is the laced up, ankle high Dr. Martens boot, rich with cultural history (Semmelhack 152), quality materials, craftsmanship, and style ( The widely popular Blundstone brand offers comfort and craftsmanship ( For a visual comparison between these boots, refer to Figure 1.

Figure 1: Toronto’s 2017 Popular Short Fall/Winter Boots. Source: Emilie Chan

In 2015, Timberland launched a marketing campaign titled “The Modern Trail.” It aimed to persuade customers that Timberland products are made for all adventures, big or small. The brand encouraged customers take and share pictures of their experiences while wearing Timberland footwear, through social media with the hashtag “#ModernTrail” as a form of documentation and community engagement (“Made for the Modern”).

Images from the #ModernTrail campaign, by Timberland. Source:

On a deeper level of analysis, customers were being encouraged to see and experience objects as things that contain memories and emotions—evocative objects, much like Sherry Turkle suggests (9). Objects, in this case Timberland gear, are not merely products with functional aspects, but can bring together thoughts and feelings. Products, like Timberland boots, are part of the wearer’s physical and emotional (modern trail) experience—this makes the boots “priceless.” Suggested by Igor Kopytoff, “its pricelessness makes it in some sense more valuable than the amount of money it can fetch” (82). This exemplifies Kopytoff’s theory of singularization, moving away from a Marxist view of commoditization where everything is defined by labour, profits, and how much one can buy an item for (Sullivan 38). Consumers eventually singularize Timberland boots because they are evocative objects that cannot simply be replaced by even an identical pair of boots.


My Perspective on the Timberland Brand

My father’s Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan

Although my Timberland boots were bought without much thought, I had a subconscious trust for the Timberland brand. I grew up watching my father collect shoes, each pair now, on average, reaching 20 years old. Many of them are now worn in the soles and heels, materials tearing at the edges. Of all the shoes he owns, his black and brown 6-inch Timberlands are in the best shape and hold many childhood memories. In the harsh winters that Toronto once faced, I remember my father trekking through the snow in his Timberland boots. On camping trips, I remember him hiking in the muddy forests and on rocky cliff-sides in those very boots with ease as I struggled behind in whatever running shoe I owned at the time. Engrained in me from childhood is an understanding that Timberland boots are not only durable, but is a key tool for moving through rough terrains. My father’s boots, with a thicker heel and seemingly more durable construct, shows its wear and memories in the many crinkles of the smoother nubuck material.

Hajo Adam (a business professor) and Adam Galinsky (a social psychologist) suggest that the experience of wearing clothes can trigger associated abstract concepts and symbolic meanings, termed “enclothed cognition” (919). Since the 1970s, Timberland boots have always upheld their branded functionality, durability, and quality (“Yellow Boot”). Growing up, I learned to believe Timberlands can withstand any type of environmental challenge. Throughout the past winter season, I painstakingly trudged through ice, wet snow, and black sludge in my Timberlands. Perhaps it was the boot itself, but assessing the construction of the model, likely just my enclothed cognition, that made these journeys easier.

Although I am not particularly adventurous with my Timberlands, I know they represent more than simply black boots—they come with rich cultural history. My Timberland boots may not be as robust as my father’s boots, nor have they experienced the same amount of wear, but they hold my memories. Through time, my boots will continue to collect different physical reminders of my journeys via stains, rips, and crinkles. My Timberland boots are thought provoking and carry my memories.


Will learning new knowledge or historical understanding of an object affect the relationship between the owner of the object, and the object itself? If so, how will this affect the process of singularization?



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—–Made for The Modern Trail,

—–Timberland PRO Work Boots & Shoes, Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

—–Yellow Boot, Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

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—– Brands: Timberland, 2018, Accessed 18 Feb. 2018. 1980 Timberland Boots Ad, 2018,–If-Your-Feet-Ever-Get-Cold-or-Wet_p_130607.html. Accessed 24 Mar. 2018.

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