20th Century Couture in Toronto

Social and Cultural History of Couture in Toronto, 1900-1937

This project explores the historical role, cultural meaning and function of European and Canadian couture for the makers, merchandisers and consumers in Toronto in the first half of the 20th century. It provides an earlier context for my research published in Couture & Commerce: The Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s.

Though there is some published work on the major European couturiers of this period no one has examined the larger landscape of European couture production nor its marketing and reception in North America. The Canadian couturiers who operated on a small scale, such as Madame Martha, and the large scale dress houses such as Murray's, have received virtually no attention.

I am examining the role of both of these types of Toronto fashion establishments, and their role as merchandisers of style and culture. The prominent position held by merchants, such as Murray's, a dressmaking establishment that has left artifacts in museum collections across Canada, is proof of its importance as a Canadian bastion of correct, expensive and lavish dress that served Canadian women for decades. Its interior, complete with an Art Gallery and tea room decorated with lavish garden decor, similar to that of the Winter Garden Theatre, signifies its place as an important arena and rendezvous for women.

Mapping the Canadian social season in Toronto and the influential women within it will permit me to trace not only what was available locally in terms of fashion information, prices, and actual couture designs, but will enable me to interpret and assess the demands for contemporary fashion that Canadian etiquette deemed appropriate. I will trace the shifts in the late 19th and early 20th century social season, the debutantes and balls, and the affects of the First World War and the inter war years. This will permit an analysis of the shifts in design and taste within the first half of the 20th century.

This research is an area that has received no academic attention in Canada. It combines several areas of interest: department stores, fashion shows, history of fashion, Toronto women's social and cultural history.

Social and cultural history of couture in Toronto, 1900-1937, has been supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Recent Publications

YearPublications
2006 Alexandra Palmer, "A Bomb in the Collection: Researching and exhibiting early twentieth century fashion.", The future of the twentieth century. Collecting, interpreting & conserving modern materials