“Royal Alexandra first night…Top designers of the fashion world were represented in gowns worn by the distaff side of the throng, with members of the Women’s Committee, who had worked for so long for this moment, leading the parade of fashion.”
-Ballet Opening Sparkling Affair
Maggie Grant, The Globe and Mail, January 7, 1958
When Betty Cassels, president of the National Ballet Guild, wore her pink chiffon Marty of Switzerland gown to the 1960 opening of the ballet season she made the Toronto Telegram’s Best Dressed List. Considered an honour, appearance on this and similar lists not only reflected a society woman’s good taste, but also promoted her charitable works and causes.
Like a debutante’s ball gown Elite Elegance: Couture Fashion in the 1950s at the Royal Ontario Museum has many layers. On the surface, it’s about the beautiful, highly skilled creations of French fashion houses; underneath it also reflects the role these clothes played in the upper crust of Toronto society; and in the seams it explores the significance these gowns had to their wearers.
Considered the last golden age of haute couture, these exquisite hand-created garments were available to Toronto women at major department stores Eaton’s, Simpsons and Holt Renfrew. The rucked gown worn by Cassels is one of approximately 60 outfits on display and was purchased at Eaton’s on College Street. The gowns, which are the very best of the museum’s couture collection, are separated into groups based on the type of event and the event’s time of day. Meetings, Luncheons and Teas displays suits and coats, After Five showcases mid-length cocktail and dinner dresses and Grand Occasions has full-skirted ball gowns adorned with beads and embroidery.
The exhibit space itself was created by esteemed design firm Yabu Pushelberg and is set up like rooms in an upscale mansion. Curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer supplemented the clothes with video footage, photographs and quotes from historical texts and media sources such as Vogue, Marie Claire and The Globe and Mail. Accompanying each dress are placards explaining the history of the garment and include compelling facts about the wearer and the occasion. For example, Grace Gooderham wore her off-white silk faille Pierre Balmain evening gown to her daughter’s debut at the Artillery Ball in 1956. The dress itself had to be embroidered with roses after being sewn to fit. Equally exceptional is a 1952 Palmyre by Christian Dior, which garnered Dorothy Boylen a place on the Toronto Telegram’s Best Dressed List. The gorgeous silver and blue design was also worn by film star Marlene Dietrich and American socialite Wallis Simpson. Many of these garments were worn repeatedly and altered several times to suit the style of the day. “It’s a misconception that the clothes were disposable,” says Dr. Palmer. “The reality is these women loved their clothes and wanted to extend the life of their wear.”
The tour through the mansion begins with a definition of haute couture, and follows with an explanation of its relevance to the era and its use as an entry into the social elite. A special section is devoted to explaining the crucial role that retailer Holt Renfrew had in bringing Christian Dior and other couture designers to Canadian clients. The stunning presentation is capped off by a look at current haute couture with a breathtaking Christian Dior by house designer, John Galliano.
Much more than just a fashion retrospective, Elite Elegance is a unique and poignant look at women in the postwar era and the role that they, and their clothing, played in Toronto’s privileged society.content2content3content4content5—Meridith is our Managing Editor and resident style maven.