Agatha: The Written Diary of a Victorian Maid

This blog post is a creative reflection on Plate 17 from the 1890-1891 “The Ladies Tailor,” (Williamson) which was reviewed at the Royal Ontario Museum, call number: RB P.S. La 120 v. 6-7). The author would like to thank the team at the ROM libraries for their help and guidance. This blog post aims to explore Victorian domestic service and the social structure of working for a middle class family within the context of creating this jacket pictured in “The Ladies Tailor,” (Williamson, 40). This blog entry also references and adapts story lines from “Maud: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman,” (Fraser and Berkeley, 1987) a published diary of a middle-class woman who kept a diary of her day-to-day experiences along with charming illustrations, some of which are featured below.

Victorian maid, n.d.

May 14, 1891

Well, hello there! I’m not quite sure how I feel about keeping a diary, but my mistress seems to enjoy it, she certainly writes in hers regularly (Fraser and Berkeley), and at this particular moment I’m fit to burst with the story of my day and no one to tell it to. At this particular moment I can’t recall a day with so many hiccups as this one!

To be perfectly honest – I feel a bit rude jumping into my story without introducing myself properly, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but as my Gran says – I’m a bit chatty. My name is Agatha Jones, born and raised in Edinburgh before starting in service at 12 (Higgs, 201), and I’m old enough to have lost any girlish giddiness. I’m a maid-of-all-work for Miss Maud – oh, my heavens – Major-General James Berkeley and Mrs. James Berkeley – although she says I can call her Mrs. Maud, as she’s not one for formalities. You see, I’m not used to referring to my mistress as anything other than Miss Maud, as I originally worked for her parents on the Isle of Wight (Fraser and Berkeley, 6) when Maud was a spinster. I prefer working in Mrs. Maud’s household much better, not that it was all that bad in Wight – just terribly boring looking after her somehow always sickly and decidedly elderly parents and preparing dull food (Fraser and Berkeley, 51), which is perhaps why I admire Mrs. Maud so much, she’s awfully busy and athletic, particularly in regards to ice-skating (Fraser and Berkeley, 10), and always going out and about with her friends (with such silly nicknames! ‘Rozie,’ ‘Steakie,’ ‘Tykie,’ and who could forget ‘Noggie,’ ‘Hoggie,’ ‘Shoggie,’ and ‘Toddie!’ (Fraser and Berkeley, 8) — I never knew if she was referring to a man or a woman with nicknames like those). Mrs. Maud would come home and regale me with her adventures. And quite the adventures they would be – the disaster of a billiards cue falling over mid-game, or losing a sash mid-dance (Fraser and Berkeley, 10). However, she’s been married almost 8 months now to Major-General Berkeley, and is step-mother to his children – his two youngest daughters, Miss Lily and Miss Trixie, are teenagers and living at home (luckily all the women get along right as rain) (Fraser and Berkeley, 12). Mrs. Maud is actually a distant cousin of mine (Higgs, 206). As I said, Mrs. Maud isn’t one for formalities and is adjusting quite well to married life and step-motherhood, but apparently someone from her circle thinks she should be more conventional, which is what led to Mrs. Beeton showing up at the doorstep. Oh! How Mrs. Maud has had a time pretending to run the house like a military officer (Beeton, 3), and chuckling when she uses slang and then exclaiming that she is the ‘model of morality’ (Beeton, 9). Maud says that referring to Beeton’s book as a code of conduct for running a household is the same as walking around dressed as if in a fashion-plate (Higgs, 203).

Please take note of my mistress’ jacket (in white!). Fraser and Berkeley, 22.

My daily duties are many, but generally each day goes as so: both preceding and following the family throughout the house so that it can be prepped by myself, made a mess of by them, and tidied up once they’ve moved on to another room I’ve just prepared. I clean the kitchen before it needs using and I then use it and help prepare the meal, the dining room before it is dined in, their bedrooms while they’re eating, the front hall before they leave, and use their absence as a chance to clean anything and everything (Beeton, p89). But I’m a smart-worker, and plan out which days I should clean which things and determine how often they need to be cleaned, and review the family’s social calendar to determine if extraordinary items need preparation or mending (Beeton, 92). I do what I can when I can at all times, as being a maid-of-all-work implies. I’ve heard of some in service coming up with all sorts of fancy titles for themselves (Reid, 133), but they’re still in service, and the butler and the housekeeper are always at the top. I don’t generally like mean sketches, but the ones in Punch magazine on this job title fluffing up did test me in stifling my laughter at my friends’ expense (Reid, 133). But I most certainly have fair employers, who are not so high and mighty as to turn their noses up at a bit of work – Mrs. Maud and her step-daughters help daily with the bed making (Beeton, 90). This is most refreshing as my employers have capital in every way: economically respectable, culturally engaged, and social connections abound with Major-General Berkeley’s military service (Bourdieu, 243).

Miss Trixie and Mrs. Berkeley on a stroll last autumn (Mrs. Berkeley must really love that style of jacket!). Fraser and Berkeley, 83.

See now look what I’ve gone and done – chatted away for pages! I’m sure you feel more than properly introduced – perhaps feeling overwhelmed! So, I’ll get back to why I wanted to write today – making Mrs. Maud’s new jacket (even though, if I’m to be bold, she has a perfectly good jacket that looks quite similar already to this one, but I suppose that is more of a skating jacket…). Plate 17 in this month’s The Ladies Tailor, in particular the bottom left jacket, was my goal (Williamson, 41). Now, I don’t know about you, but I find the tone of Ladies Tailor quite annoying – always asserting again and again how you can make variations to the pattern and style (Williamson, 34). Well, of course I can! And so can everyone else making something for someone else, whose individualistic variation requests are more important than the instructions – my Gran taught me that as well as to be the (quite skilled, if I’m honest) seamstress that I am. But, as I found out today, this tone can be even more annoying when one’s requester wants you to make the exact article as pictured, and the accompanying text goes on and on about varying away from what is pictured! Hm. I can tell that I’m still quite flustered from this experience! Why you may ask? Well, I will tell you why – because my afternoon downtime today was to be used to work on this jacket, but this work kept getting interrupted by the silliest things!

Williamson, 40. Image taken by author at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The first incident was with Miss Lily, one of the daughters, having – quite frankly – a very humourous battle with the shower contraption the Major-General installed (Fraser and Berkeley, 126). This invention is meant to provide the bather with a ‘shower-bath,’ but when Miss Lily made an attempt at taking one, the hose took on a life of its own – going every which way all over the bathroom like an elephant’s trunk (Fraser and Berkeley, 126)! I ran to upon hearing the commotion and screaming, and found the room, Miss Lily – and eventually myself – soaked through (Fraser and Berkeley, 126)! After we tamed the beast, and Miss Lily swore that till the end of her days she would bathe as she always had (Fraser and Berkeley, 126), I went upstairs to dry off and get back to my task.

A wretched beast! Fraser and Berkeley, 124.

Just as my head was filling with ‘austrian knots,’ ‘crow’s toes,’ and ‘gauntlet cuffs’ (Williamson, 34), another disaster struck! While Mrs. Maud was out for a picnic with her lady friends, the pitcher of lemonade fell over (Fraser and Berkeley, 10) and Mrs. Maud had come running back to replace the lost refreshment. She asked me to make lemonade as quickly as possible, and thank heavens I had made an extra pitcher that morning – with a recipe I find I always gravitate towards:

  • 1 ½ oz. citric acid
  • 1 ½ lb loaf sugar
  • 40 drops of perfectly good essence of lemon
  • 1 pint of boiling water
  • 2 lemons

And, as the recipe – taken from a Keating’s powder advertisement no less – says “Pour the Essence of Lemon on the sugar and acid in a jug. Add the boiling water, then cover till cold’ when required for use, put 1 part to 4 or 5 parts of water and add the juice of 2 lemons” (Loeb, 6).

After bidding my grateful mistress off, I went to check on the chocolate cake prepared for that evening’s dessert. Somehow or other I got some chocolate on my hands, which made its way to my fresh apron! The sight of that perfectly brown smudge on my crisp white apron exhausted me, and as I washed out the stain I felt as though I never detested an advertisement more than the one for Sinclair’s Soap, which makes domestic work looks like a heavenly idyll, instead of the constant mishaps interrupting the routine of labourious tasks (Loeb, 16-7)!

My employers at their leisure! Fraser and Berkeley, 18.

My word! I went back to my workstation, and was able to get some work done without interruption, and no, I did not take the author’s advice to indulge in the myriad of variations I could produce. My Gran always said that a well-tailored piece of clothing upheld one’s respectability (Sayer, 118), and I think my mistress would agree that this upholding is more useful than creative expression (Sayer, 112). Besides, Mrs. Maud would rather her clothing signal that she is as she appears to be – a good wife, step-mother, and at the helm of a happy, well-kept, and respectable home than her individual personality – which shows through quickly enough by her actions. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s more important to have a garment of sound structure, than one that expresses individuality?

Williamson, 34. Image taken by author at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Perhaps my day was all the more dramatic in my head than written down on paper, but there you are. While Mrs. Beeton would recommend that I do needlework at my end-of-day rest (Beeton, 93), I’ve had quite enough of that, thank you very much. I’m going to sit in my chair, rest my eyes, and have a “momentary affair” with the world of leisure – a cup of cocoa (Loeb, 173).

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood, 1986.

Beeton, Isabella. How to Manage House and Servants and to Make the Most of your Means. London: Ward, Lock and Tyler: 1886. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. [Accessed March 10, 2018].

Fraser, Flora, and Maud Berkeley. Maud: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman. Chronicle Books, 1987.

Higgs, Edward. “Domestic Servants and Households in Victorian England.” Social History 8, no. 2 (1983): 201-10.

Loeb, Lori. Consuming Angels. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Reid, Antony S. “Servants in Society: Victorian Servants in Affluent Edinburgh.” Family & Community History 2 (2) (1999): 129-140. doi:10.1179/fch.1999.2.2.005.

Sayer, Karen. “‘A Sufficiency of Clothing’: Dress and Domesticity in Victorian Britain.” Textile History 33 (1) (2002): 112-122.

Williamson, James. The ladies’ tailor, jacket, mantle and costume cuffer : a journal devoted to ladies high class tailoring, illustrative and practical. The Tailor and Cutter, 1891.

Rave Culture and Resistance

As a “90’s kid” my Friday nights were spent watching the MuchMusic countdown, and afterwards, Electric Circus. Electric Circus was a program on MuchMusic that was a live streamed electronic dance party. Every Friday night, crowds of eager dancers would line up on Queen Street West waiting to get inside, where dancers would be featured on live television, like a 1990s version of Soul Train. Growing up in Nova Scotia meant that I didn’t have access to clothing that was as unique and colourful as the styles I saw on Electric Circus. At 6 years old when the music video for “Barbie Girl” by Aqua was aired on the program, I realized that I had to make it to Toronto and dance on Electric Circus. I ended up eventually moving to Toronto in 2011, but my childhood dreams to dance on live television were never realized as Electric Circus went off the air in 2003. My love for the fashions of the 90s however, did not die with it. In the winter of 2015, I found the jacket that symbolized my love for the electronic dance party, a vintage Groggy faux fur coat.

I bought the coat after seeing it listed in a Facebook buy and sell group for vintage clothing. I met the woman selling it at the corner of Yonge and Dundas and paid $70.00 cash for the coat I had seen many years before. It was in great condition, and she was selling it because she did not have anywhere to wear it anymore. I hurriedly took it back to the fashion lab on campus at Ryerson University, where I proceeded to make an Instagram post of my amazing find. In the moment of wearing it, I felt that I finally owned a piece of fashion from an era that was now gone.

Instagram Post from January 26, 2015 by Alysia Myette. Image taken at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.


The Groggy coat I own is dated to approximately 1995 by the original owner and is in near mint condition. The coat is a 3/4 length style, with a notched shawl collar, and orange buttons that can be fastened to lap in either direction using elastic loops. The shell of the coat is made entirely of white and red-orange faux fur. The under collar and lining are made of hot pink satin. The label inside the coat denotes it was made in China, is 100% acrylic and dry clean only.

The Groggy faux fur coat displayed on a Judy. Photo taken by Alysia Myette.
A view of the lining inside the coat. Photo taken by Alysia Myette.

The brand label is the original Groggy logo, adjacent to a size tag reading “small” inside the garment’s collar. On the outside of the garment, a small woven tab with the “G” from the Groggy logo is displayed at the back neck. The only sign of age in the coat, is that the faux fur has turned slightly off white, and is a bit matted at the seat area. There are no holes or stains in the garment, it has all its buttons, and there are hardly any signs of wear and tear.

The exterior tab displaying the Groggy brand at the back neck of the coat. Photo taken by Alysia Myette.
The interior Groggy label and size tag. Photo taken by Alysia Myette.

I am surprised at the coat’s generous sizing, as often I fit into a ladies large, but given that the lap at the opening fastens either way, the coat may be read as unisex. Despite owning the coat for 3 years now, I have only worn it a handful of times. It is incredibly bright and soft on the outside, garnering many compliments anytime it is worn out. The loftiness of the coat however, is not overly flattering to the figure of the wearer, and I feel like a giant fluffy ball when I am wearing it. It is a great statement piece to wear when I am attending a nightclub or event and is surprisingly quite warm. Despite the coat not having cost much in terms of money, the value the garment holds is rich in nostalgia. The memories of nights spent staying up past my normal bedtime watching dancers in neon clothing, dyed hair and plastic jewelry, faux fur vests and wide pants dancing atop boxes in the windows of Much Music.

A view of the back of the Groggy coat. Photo taken by Alysia Myette.
A close up view of the matted faux fur at the seat area of the Groggy coat. Photo taken by Alysia Myette.

The Groggy brand was based in Montreal and specialized in rave inspired clothing that folded circa 2011 (Trio Group, 2007). The brand produced faux fur coats; jackets; vests; and zip-off cargo skirts as well as printed sweaters and tees. Groggy was sold locally at alternative clothing stores, such as Numb and Noise in downtown Toronto, now both closed. An article, titled Rave Review in Vogue 1997, describes the role that rave culture played in the inspiration for the designs of Marc Jacobs and other luxury fashion designers on the runway (Greeven 114). In a street style article found in the Globe and Mail from January 22, 2000, Geneviève Blouin described her own Groggy clothing as a staple in her wardrobe, citing her favourite zip-off skirt made by Groggy (Pearce).


A still from Marc Jacob’s 1997 Fall Ready to Wear collection. The model is wearing an orange fur vest and wide legged pants. Video found on Youtube at

Knowing of Groggy’s popularity in Canada, I scoured the internet to find sources on the company, its designers and additional photos of products, but realized they had little to no online presence. In turning to social media, many friends who attended Raves in the 1990s offered photos of themselves in Groggy clothing, and their current collection of vintage pieces.

Tristan, who at the time went by “DJ MoldyLox” in Halifax, Nova Scotia, described finding many of his pieces at a local Winners when the company folded, and is seen pictured in their Groggy sweater, DJ’ing below:

Tristan (Dj MoldyLox) DJing wearing a Burgundy Groggy brand sweater. Images provided by Tristan in a personal communication with permission to use for this blog.
A close up view of the Groggy logo printed on the sleeve of the sweater. Images provided by Tristan in a personal communication with permission to use for this blog.

Rhia, a local Toronto raver, sent pictures of her own impressive faux fur collection by Groggy. Pictured below are numerous Groggy coats she owns and photos showing how the pieces are mixed and styled with the Raver fashions of today.

Rhia (RaveFae)’s personal collection of Groggy faux fur coats. Images provided by Rhia in a personal communication with permission to use for this blog.
Rhia wearing her own Groggy coat identical to my own on a night out. Images provided by Rhia in a personal communication with permission to use for this blog.

Raves, as they were in the 1990s, are assumed to have mostly ended around the globe at the end of the 20th century (Van Deen 30). Raves were dance parties, advertised quietly, promoting happiness and good feelings through dance, electronic music and often the use of illicit drugs in large, open and unoccupied spaces. Attendees were encouraged to lose themselves to dance (Wilson 385). Toronto’s rave subculture began in the early 1990s, despite raves having started in the UK in the late 1980s (McCall 33). The first officially reported rave occurred in 1991 in Toronto. While clubs were known to have dress codes raves were very accessible, with an anything goes attitude (McCall 33). The raver style often borrowed from a combination of hip-hop, snowboarding and skateboarding clothing styles (McCall 120). The style of raver clothing can be broken down into four categories. The “Sporty” look, consists of baggy clothing, often by Adidas or similar sports brands, with matching shirts, pants and sneakers. The “Return to Childhood” styles which embodied youth and innocence, with bright plastic jewelry, and cartoon character prints. The “Outrageous Costume” style, consists of neon colours, platform shoes, faux fur, see-through vinyl and coloured lens glasses. This is where I feel my groggy jacket is positioned comfortably, as it would have made a loud statement. Lastly, the “Nothing Special” style, which was a direct transition from daywear to night, often just jeans and tee-shirts (Wilson 399).

A photo of Raver fashion taken from casting director Caroline Johnson-Stephens’ Instagram account, models unknown. Both images detail fashions worn by ravers of the 1990s. Link:
Another photo of Raver fashion taken from casting director Caroline Johnson-Stephens’ Instagram account. Link:

Brian Wilson describes the rave subculture as a form of symbolic “purposeful-tactical” resistance. In subcultural groups; youth culture and counter culture, bodies offer prime sites for resistance, often through the use of clothing (Tynan 192). Resistance in fashion, as defined by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, is the subverting of normalized dress and the ability for bodies to transcend subordination through dress (Tynan 195). Ravers can be described as symbolically, subtly and purposefully resisting mainstream value systems and culture through their dress. This is also done so through the promotion of the PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) value system (Wilson 401). This philosophy, and doctrine of rave attendees, upholds the social values within the subculture, with the use of high-technology as a means to gain pleasure and empowerment as well as to seek and experience pleasure (Wilson 384). Rave culture embraces the liberation of coded gender and sexuality, in its creation of nonsexist spaces of encounter and unisex clothing (Alwokeel 55, Van Deen 44). This resistance also takes form through the use of illicit drugs as a subtle reaction (as drug use was not advertised or placed on public display) to the hypocritical mainstream rejection of drugs and acceptance of alcohol (Wilson 399). This form of resistance stands in contrast to subcultures like punk, where issues of class, gender and race manifest into aggression and confrontation. The PLUR philosophy stands in resistance even to other subcultures, embracing positivity through escapism, comfort and pleasure.

In comparison to punk subculture, which explicitly displays anti-capitalist symbols through dress, Rave culture was subdued. Ravers adopted looks that were cute and cuddly. The tactile nature of the materials used in rave style clothing, directly resulted as a response to the types of drugs being taken at raves. Substances like Ecstasy and MDMA, elicited a heightened sensitivity to tactile materials (McCall 169). A coat like the one I own consisting of bright coloured faux fur would elicit pleasure when touching it and harmonize with the sentiments felt when taking these types of drugs.

A GIF image from the film “Get Him to The Greek” (2010) starring Russell Brand and Jonah Hill. The moving image shows Brand instructing Hill, who has taken many drugs at a party, to stroke the furry wall in an effort to calm him down. Link to source:

Rave culture, however resistant, actively supports the reproduction of dominant culture, while passively subverting it. While raves were happening, and becoming further publicized, design and music began to profit from the “rave” style (Wilson 407). Rave culture grew faster than the clothing labels trying to adopt their styles into production which resulted in many ravers making their own clothing. Like most anti-fashion, the style did not remain unique forever and brands like Groggy began to emerge selling rave style clothing to consumers. This also created a homogenous rave style, in where ravers could be identified aesthetically by their sartorial choices, promoting a form of assimilation within the subculture itself. Other similar brands included Mod Robes, JNCO, Clobbers and Snug. In the adoption of rave culture into mainstream fashion, ravers began to abandon the subcultural, realizing it had become corporatized and homogenized. This is likened to George Simmel’s critique of the adoption of fashion in his trickle-down theory, in that when a fashion becomes adopted by the majority of persons, it is no longer in fashion (Simmel 547).

An advertisement for a navy blue hooded dress by Snug clothing, a Canadian brand specializing in rave inspired clothing. Link:
An advertisement for a yellow hoodie by Snug clothing, a Canadian brand specializing in rave inspired clothing. Link:

Moby, a staple in electronic and techno music at raves and in the 1990s, embraced the raver style himself. His autobiography, with chapters such as “Neon Green Muppet Monster Fur”, “PVC Bodysuit” and “Orange Jacket”, gives a well-rounded idea as to how the clothing of rave subculture was visibly defined in its style (Moby 8). In his music video for “Southside” with Gwen Stefani below, Moby sports a faux fur jacket nearly identical to my own Groggy jacket.

A still image from Moby’s music video for “Southside” featuring Gwen Stefani. Image taken from Moby’s official Youth channel. Link to video:

The adoption of the raver style did not stop at the fashion industry in stores or on the runway, but even permeated the children’s toys industry. Mattel in 1999 released a “Happenin’ Hair Barbie” seen in the commercial below that rocked colour-changing hair, wide legged jeans and sparkly neon tops.

A still image from Mattel’s 1999 commercial for Happenin’ Hair Barbie. Image taken from Youtube. Link to video:

It would seem that rave subculture in the 1990s has passed, but trends from this era are still alive and well today, with new electronic music lovers seeking out vintage clothing to complete their looks. The underground all-night multi-room raves held in abandoned warehouses seem to have passed, but the subculture is still alive and well. New forms of raves are taking place all over Toronto, in the forms of festivals and themed club nights with extended last-call times. Despite never getting to dance at Electric Circus I have my Groggy coat that hanging in my closet, serves as a nostalgic artefact.

For Discussion

  • Is anti fashion, fashion in subcultures, and other forms of fashion that disrupt mainstream fashion trends like rave culture a form of resistance if the clothing is produced by large retail chains?
  • Does this follow Simmel’s trickle down theory of fashion in stating that society follows fashion to fit in, or does it disrupt this idea in that individuals are trying to stand out? Are individuals actually standing out if they fit in within a subculture?


Special thanks to Shari Schulist, the original owner of the Groggy jacket who was able to date and confirm the place of purchase of the Groggy coat. A huge thank you as well to Tristan, Rhia and Ronak, who shared personal stories with me about their own Groggy items, as well as photos.

Works Cited

Alwakeel, Ramzy. “The Aesthetics of Protest in UK Rave.” Dancecult, vol. 1, no. 2, 2010, pp.50–62. ProQuest, doi:10.12801/1947-5403.2010.01.02.03.

Greeven, Amely. “Vogue View: Rave Review.” Vogue , vol. 187, no. 12, 1 Dec. 1997, pp. 111– 116. Vogue Archive, ProQuest,

McCall, Tara. This is not a rave: in the shadow of a subculture. Insomniac Press, 2001.

Moby. Porcelain: a memoir. Faber & Faber, 2017.

Pearce, Tralee. “Geneviève Blouin’s Montreal Style.” The Globe and Mail, Jan 22, 2000, Canadian Newsstream,

Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 62, no. 6, 1957, pp. 541–558. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Timewastermohanty. YouTube, YouTube, 30 Aug. 2013,

Trio Group. “News.” Trio Group Brands: Groggy, 2007,

Tynan, Jane, et al. “Michel Foucault: Fashioning the Body Politic.” Thinking Through Fashion,I.B. Tauris, 2015, pp. 184–199.

Veen, Tobias C. Van. “Technics, Precarity and Exodus in Rave Culture.” Dancecult, vol. 1, no. 2, 2010, pp. 29–49. ProQuest, doi:10.12801/1947-5403.2010.01.02.02.

Wilson, Brian. “The Canadian Rave Scene and Five Theses on Youth Resistance.” Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, vol. 27, no. 3, 2002, pp. 373–412. JStore, doi:10.2307/3341549.

Material Power: The 1987 Albert Nipon Skirt Suit

I am pictured in the centre, wearing my Albert Nipon skirt suit at the Liberal Party annual fundraising dinner on October 20th, 1987 in Toronto, Ontario. Friends Anita to the left, Marion on the right. Polaroid photo taken by Tina Elliot. Source: Author’s personal collection.

Material objects have power over us. Referred to as “Thing Power,” Jane Bennett describes the power of the object as “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate … to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (351). We love our material objects, we treasure them, hoard them, buy multiples of them, we go into debt for them, we give them meaning and stature in our lives beyond the inanimate status they intrinsically hold (Stallybrass), and yet, they remain material. These material objects diminish, become unfashionable, and evolve into trash (Bennett). Although objects are inanimate and prone to ruin, they can bring stories, lives lived, and eras long gone back to life through material culture. An established method of research in Anthropology and Archeology, material culture reveals insights into history through the study of objects (Riello; Mida and Kim). In fashion studies, material culture analyzes the object with the aim to learn more about the lifestyle, time period, and values of that era (Riello). For instance, fashion history views the bikini as a sartorial object and places it along a timeline in the evolution of swimwear. Material culture recognizes the same object, then reveals how this particular piece of clothing is “a specific social practice during the second half of the twentieth century … [that refers] to a certain lifestyle, to the emancipation of women, to the opposition against right-wing bigotry in the 1950s and 1960s” (Riello 6). A material culture approach in fashion studies brings the past to life. In this blog post, I look forward to taking you on an autobiographical journey back to the 1980s, through the material culture analysis of one of my favourite sartorial objects from that time in my life, my 1987 Albert Nipon skirt suit.

The Power Suit Rises

In the United States, the National Organization of Women (NOW) was founded in 1966. This organization advocated for women’s rights and was devoted to fighting discrimination of women in the workplace. Made up of an older generation of women who had been fighting for women’s rights since the 1940s and 1950s, their focus was on making changes to the legal system and lobbying politicians. A younger generation of feminists, who followed NOW, began challenging NOW’s approach. These second-wave feminists exerted their demands by turning their backs on hegemonic ideals of femininity and, among other battles, fought for a woman’s right to wear pants to work (Hillman)! It was this younger generation that was behind the proliferation of the pantsuit for women in the 1970s. Third-wave feminists “championed women’s ‘choices’ in self-fashioning” arguing that “women’s liberation is strengthened when women can reclaim femininity as part of their individuality” (Hillman 176-177).

1987 Albert Nipon skirt suit, Made in Hong Kong.
Source and Photo: Author’s personal collection.

In 1977, following the success of his book written for men, Dress for Success, John Molloy released The Women’s Dress for Success Book. This book along with third-wave feminism, was the start of a shift from polyester pantsuits to a look that brought the authoritative influence of the man’s suit to women’s career wear (Cunningham). Women aspiring for career success had to find a way to “escape the role of secretary, assistant, and employee … to find the armor that would … stop them from feeling out of place” (Frisa and Tonchi 123). Designers like Giorgio Armani began designing for a “woman who was not the man’s other half but his antagonist” (Frisa and Tonchi 125). By the 1980s “suited power-dressing [for women] became the norm” (WSGN 7). Women were asserting themselves in traditionally male-dominated workplaces and design elements such as shoulder pads, gave women’s dress a “masculine prowess” (Frisa and Tonchi). The padded shoulder silhouette lent “an imposing touch to the figure … perfectly cut to suit the female figure, [with] straight skirts … that leave the legs exposed” (Frisa and Tonchi 123). Frisa and Tonchi’s description of the power suit silhouette describes my 1987 Albert Nipon skirt suit exactly. This suit look – commanding, and feminine at the same time – came to be known as the “‘power look,’ accurately encapsulating the phenomenon of the career woman, her aspiration to get to the top, [and] the authoritative nature of her professional choices” (Frisa and Tonchi 125).

Thanks to second-wave feminists who had made significant strides toward the acceptance of women in politics and the workplace (Hillman), I began my professional career at the height of the power suit era, in 1986, working as an aide to a female politician and Cabinet Minister, the Hon. Elinor Caplan, Minister of Government Services and Chair of the Management Board of Cabinet in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

Power Suits Me

Lipton’s retail store label tacked onto the designer label. A reminder of where it was purchased. This suit was not part of a special collection commissioned by the retailer. I am certain of this as the retailer’s label does not appear in the skirt. Source: Author’s personal collection.

My 1987 Nipon skirt suit is one of my treasured 1980s purchases. I have carefully stored this suit for 30 years, protected from dust, mold, and decay. When I pulled it out of storage for this research, the Lipton’s label on the jacket, tacked onto the garment’s designer label, immediately triggered my memory of purchasing this suit. This Nipon suit was displayed at the front of a high-end retail store in Toronto called Lipton’s. Lipton’s was founded in 1950 by a Toronto couple, Evelyn and Marvin Goodman. By 1987, when I made my first purchase at Lipton’s Fairview Mall location in the suburbs of Toronto, the brand had become a retail clothing chain with 65 stores across Canada. From 1990-1991 the company was listed as one of the best companies to work for in the Financial Post’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in Canada.” Sadly, by 1995 the company filed for bankruptcy and was closed (“Evelyn Goodman”). This Nipon suit was my first and last purchase at Lipton’s in Toronto. I purchased this perfectly fitting suit and wore it twice that year. First in the summer for a formal outdoor occasion – I can’t recall if the invitation was for a personal, business or political event – and second, in the fall to an annual political fundraising dinner. This suit embodied all the aesthetic qualities I had come to love from the design cues I was getting from the world around me, including my style inspirations, Princess Diana, the Paris runway and popular culture.

My style icons, Princess Diana, the Paris runway, and the popular show Dynasty featuring female characters I aspired to become in my professional career. Source: (Vogue; WSGN; Cunningham, Mangine, and Reilly)

Little did I know that while I was proudly wearing the “Albert Nipon” label, Mr. Albert Nipon himself was being released from 20 months in prison for tax fraud (Haynes)! Albert Nipon and his wife Pearl founded the label, in Philadelphia, PA in the 1950s. In 1984, before Mr. Nipon’s tax evasion schemes were underway, the couple was interviewed by Barbaralee Diamonstein, author of the book Fashion: The Inside Story. In this clip, Pearl, the head of design, introduces the Albert Nipon collection.

Above: Albert and Pearl Nipon interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein on the show Inside Fashion, 1984. Source: Diamonstein-Spielvogel, Barbaralee. “Inside Fashion: Albert and Pearl Nipon.” 1984.


As a consumer, I had no knowledge of the controversies surrounding the label and confidently wore my beautifully constructed power suit. Detail A below shows the construction of the jacket, with multiple panels that end in an inverted pleat creating the peplum style. Detail B is a close view of the fabric, 75% linen with 25% rayon. Perfect for a spring/summer outdoor event. The garment is fully lined, also making it perfect for an evening event in the fall/winter seasons. Detail C shows the meticulous construction. The lining mimics the same design detailing as the jacket it protects.

Source: Author’s personal collection.


Click on the image to see how the jacket closes.

In keeping with the trends of the time, this power suit invokes status, with its angular shoulders and femininity, with the jacket nipped in at the waist creating a peplum hemline accentuating an hourglass figure and a simple body-hugging pencil skirt to the knee that reveals the legs while maintaining a level of modesty by fully covering the thighs. The simplicity of the ivory colour jacket with a black skirt is further enhanced by the bold black polka dot buttons on the jacket. Two columns of three buttons each, placed symmetrically on the torso make a bold statement. The jacket is double-breasted and yet only one of the six black buttons fastens.

For a young, aspiring career woman, the power suit of the ‘80s was a foundational building block in my professional career. I owned five power pieces in the ‘80s: the ivory and black Nipon suit, a wool knit Alfred Sung suit, a Jones New York silk jacket that I paired with skirts and slacks, an Alfred Sung navy wool blazer with very square shoulders and a single button closure placed low at the hip, and one prized red nautical theme Jones New York blazer with a blue velvet collar that also paired well with slacks and skirts. I walked tall and proud in my power suits and separates. Reflecting on Merleau-Ponty’s work that says our bodies are the very means through which we come to know the world and articulate our sense of self (Negrin), I know that my embodied experience in those power suits changed my engagement with the world around me. When my body was dressed powerfully and confidently, my voice was not shy to speak up. Known as “enclothed cognition” (Adam and Galinsky), research has found that one’s attitudes and aptitudes shift when, as an example, one is wearing a doctor’s coat versus a lab coat. My ability to contribute powerfully and confidently is a skill I perfected in the ‘80s wearing my broad shouldered, commanding power suits.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is today’s equivalent to the “power suit?” Is it the playground attire worn by IT geniuses changing the world or does the suit still have “power play” in the workplace?
  2. I almost sent my red blazer to the fabulous and talented Mr. Andew Antons of Thomas Tweed to have it converted to a custom messenger bag. What’s your vote? Shall I keep it in storage or ship it off to Andrew in Chicago?
Metro Messenger – Flower Power. Made from a woman’s blazer/suit jacket. Source:


Works Cited

Adam, Hajo, and Adam D. Galinsky. “Enclothed Cognition.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48.4 (2012): 918–925. Web.

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory 32.3 (2004): 347–372. Web.

Cunningham, Patricia A. “Dressing for Success: The Re-Suiting of Corporate America in the 1970s.” Twentieth-Century American Fashion. Ed. Linda Welters and Patricia A Cunningham. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2008. 191–208. Web.

Cunningham, Patricia, Heather Mangine, and Andrwe Reilly. “Television and Fashion in the 1980s.” Twentieth-Century American Fashion. Ed. Linda Welters and Patricia A Cunningham. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2008. 209–228. Web.

Diamonstein-Spielvogel, Barbaralee. Inside Fashion: Albert and Pearl Nipon. N.p., 1984. Film.

“Evelyn Goodman.” Ontario Jewish Archives. N.p., 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2018.

Frisa, Maria Luisa, and Stefano Tonchi, eds. Excess: Fashion and the Underground in the ’80s. Fondazione Pitti Immagine Discovery, 2004. Print.

Haynes, Kevin. “Albert Nipon: Back in Charge.” Women’s Wear Daily 1987: 1. Print.

Hillman, Betty Luther. “‘The Clothes I Wear Help Me to Know My Own Power’: The Politics of Gender Presentation in the Era of Women’s Liberation.” Frontiers 34.2 (2013): 155–185. Web.

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

Negrin, Llewellyn. “Maurice Meleau-Ponty: The Corporeal Experience of Fashion.” Thinking Through Fashion. Ed. Agnes Rocamora and Anneke Smelik. London, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2016. 310. Print.

Riello, Giorgio. “The Object of Fashion: Methodological Approaches to the History of Fashion.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 3 (2012): 1–9. Web.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Marx’s Coat.” Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. New York: Routledge, 1998. 183–207. Print.

Vogue. “Diana, Princess of Wales: A Life In Style.” Vogue. N.p., 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2018.

WSGN. The 80s: Swagger & Spectacle. N.p., 2012. Print.