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Through the Looking Glass: Servants’ Appearance – a Reflection of the Upper Classes

by Rhonda Roth, Collections Librarian, Seneca College 

Mr. Carson, Mr. Barrow and Mrs. Patmore to name a few of our favourite characters/servants in the television show Downton Abbey (now, sadly in its last season) tell us a great deal about their position in society, without uttering a single word.  One simply has to observe what they are wearing.

All servants of the time wore some kind of distinguishing “uniform” which served as a useful reminder of status boundaries between employer and servant. It was imperative to the class conscious late- nineteenth and early- twentieth century employer that a servant be immediately recognizable as just that, but, it was carried even further to distinguish servant from servant within the stratified hierarchy “below stairs” as well.

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Servants

The premier show of Downton Abbey was set in 1912 with the tragic sinking of the Titanic dominating the events of the plot. This was the Edwardian era which stands out as a time of peace and plenty until the onset of World War 1 in 1914. But for many people, it was a time of shocking levels of poverty. A report written by Benjamin Rowntree on the slums of the town of York that came out in 1901 (Maloney 4) noted that 28% of the population was living in intolerable hardship. By this time, 1 in 4 people were domestic servants, mostly women who worked seven days a week from as early as 5am to 10pm for very little money. And yet, this was considered a reasonable alternative to the slums and gave some a certain amount of social status, especially if they worked in a home like Downton Abbey where they were housed and fed.

No matter the prestige of such a demanding job, a visible distinction in appearance was seen as crucial by their employers. Butlers, like Mr. Carson, were the highest ranking official servant in the house. They were responsible for running the house. It was customary in the early 19th century for employers to give butlers and other menservants, like Mr. Bates, their cast-off clothes but at the same time to make sure that the resulting outfit was never quite ‘correct’. The tie was not quite right with the coat or the coat was slightly out of fashion. A butler looked like a gentleman’s gentleman but not a gentleman in his own right. In the case of Mr. Carson, he wears a black suit so that he is slightly differentiated from other upper level male servants, and thus displays a visible signal of his superior status.

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From Downton Abbey, Footmen

The footman, like the incorrigible Thomas Barrow, was the most visible and splendid of the servants in a large Edwardian home, an adornment whose chief job was waiting at table, polishing dishes and supervising the rooms and activities of the lady of the house. Footmen reflected the wealth and class of the family, and tall, good-looking young men were quickly promoted to this position in the best households. A six-foot footman could expect to be paid more than a shorter one. Appearance seemed to be everything and some ambitious footmen made use of special pads to make their calves appear shapelier.

A whole coterie of maids would work in a home the size of Downton Abbey such as a housekeeper, lady’s maids, parlour maids, a head house maid, a nursery maid, chamber maids, laundry maids and lower on the totem pole would be the scullery and between maids. Maids who were most visible wore cotton print dresses in the morning to do the dirty work of cleaning the house and then changed to a uniform of black dress, turned-down white collar and cuffs, and muslin cap with or without streamers and bib-apron in the afternoon when, most importantly, guests came to call. Physical appearance, once again, was of considerable importance. Those maids possessing tall, trim figures were in far greater demand than short, stout individuals due to their perceived more graceful movements when waiting at table. Taller maids were favoured and could garner a higher wage just due to this advantage. Short girls were destined to be firmly below stairs or employed in poorer households.

Cooks, like Mrs. Patmore, had an important role in providing good food to the family and visitors but were not as visible and so usually wore washing dresses and white aprons, with coarse ones for cleaning purposes. Cooks did not always wear caps, except in houses where they were expected to answer the front door.

Uniforms or work dresses were rarely supplied to female servants and if they were, were taken out of their meagre wages. Boots were also expected to be provided by the maids themselves and as one girl in Somerset reported in 1913, her shoes cost an entire first month’s wages. In contrast to the more visible lady’s maids and parlour maids was the lowly “tweeny” maid or scullery maid like Daisy, who was often as poorly dressed as unskilled labourers because there was no fear of anyone seeing her slaving away downstairs in the kitchen.

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From Seneca Fashion Resource Centre, Footwear

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Servant

In highly- class conscious industrial societies, even accessories like hats were enormously important as signals that claimed or maintained social status. There are instances of maids instructed not to wear hats in church on Sundays but to wear identifying bonnets in case they should be mistaken for one of the family. Even personal choices like facial hair for menservants were discouraged while their employers wore the latest fashions in whiskers of the time. All of this points to the extreme social control and institutionalized separation of spheres that was imposed on working class employees. This is aptly captured in The Duties of Servants (1890), a bible for managing a household of servants, which warns lady’s maids to “never to dress out of your station as a servant: for your knowledge of stuffs, trimmings and fashions, gives you the means of doing this more successfully than any other servant.” (Lethbridge 41).

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From the Seneca Fashion Resource Centre – Upper class Edwardian woman’s hat

 

As Downton Abbey progresses into the interwar years and winds down in the 1920’s, we see the sun beginning to set on the lavish lifestyle of the Edwardian period with its wide range of appropriately dressed servants. Labour-saving devices, alternative sources of employment for women and increased wages began to shape the view that multiple servants for every task was an extravagance save for all but the biggest houses to have. Women were attracted to the new options for work that were less demeaning and didn’t require the wearing of the hated servant’s uniform of starched cap and apron. Although it would take until WWII to radically diminish the numbers of servants, dressed to reflect their place in the hierarchy was a thing of the glorified or horrified part of the past, depending on the level of the stairs you were looking at it from.

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From Seneca Fashion Resource Centre, Upper Class Dress

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Servant’s Dress

Works Cited

Lethbridge, Lucy. Servants. A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain. London:
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2013. Print.

Maloney, Alison. Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

Author Bio

Rhonda Roth is Editor of the Fashion Resource Centre Blog & Liaison Librarian at Seneca College. She is a devotee of the history of fashion and Downton Abbey.

 

Black Friday

While the North American retail world has become obsessed with “Black Friday” the term sparked an idea about the meanings and symbolism of colour in the fashion world.  From a retailing perspective the term Black Friday was coined to describe the potential influx in store sales in this last quarter of the year pushing achieved sales, and therefore profits into the “black” or plus sides of the accounting ledger.

Basic Black and the LBD are fashion terms which denote classic styles that can be dressed up or dressed down and move from social circle to social situation.  Black is also seen as a colour of power in fashion.  The black, pin-striped suit represents the most powerful of Wall Street and is frequently used in costuming to identify those with not only financial acumen but those with power.

Leonardo DiCaprio in the film "Wolf of Wall Street"

Leonardo DiCaprio in the film “Wolf of Wall Street.” Image from http://thewolfofwallstreet.com

Wesley Snipes in the film "Blade 4"

Wesley Snipes in the film “Blade 4″

Black is a colour that we associate with danger – it is the colour of the night and all those scary inhabitants of the mysterious netherworld. It is the colour of witches, demons, vampires – those beings who are most powerful in the dark.

Consider all the black worn by both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in films like The Matrix:

Characters in the film "The Matrix." Image from http:ss//ca.movies.yahoo.com

Characters in the film “The Matrix.” Image from http:ss//ca.movies.yahoo.com

Motorcycle gang from TV series "Sons of Anarchy." Image from http://miamiherald.typepad.com/

Motorcycle gang from TV series “Sons of Anarchy.” Image from http://miamiherald.typepad.com/

And, this association of power and danger has been adopted by those who wish to be seen as dangerous.  Not too many motorcycle clubs choose pink as the colour for their club logos or “leathers.”

So, black also becomes the colour of those who walk the edge of danger, the sophisticated and rebellious.  When Chanel makes the Little Black Dress the popular colour for her era she is not only reflecting the popularity of the Art Deco movement but it is the opposite of all those ethereal Edwardian ladies who wore white and pastel shades.  While it might also have reminded her of the austerity of dress worn by the nuns in the orphanage where she lived for part of her youth it also becomes part of the Lean Chic and Deluxe Poor Look she favored.  The box her Art Deco bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold in is outlined in this sleek and elegant line of black.

Chanel No. 5 perfume. Image from http://www.chanel.com

Woman wearing a black Chanel cocktail dress. Image from http://fashionstyleguru.wordpress.com

Black Chanel cocktail dress. Image from http://fashionstyleguru.wordpress.com

Interesting that when describing the little black dress the terms sophisticated, elegant and classic are synonymous.  A red dress, on the other hand is sexy and seductive.  The power of colour is one that we respond to consciously as well as sub-consciously and cannot be underestimated.

Of all the colours of all the items we have in our Fashion Resource Centre black would be the most prevalent.  Whether the colour is found in a gentleman’s tuxedo and top hat, in a pair of black stiletto pumps, in the satin and beading of a chic cocktail dress or the feathered drama of an evening gown we do own a lot of black.  And, it does make sense since we do consider black to be a good investment in clothing.  As basic black it matches with many things and we do believe that a black suit or dress will strike just the right tone no matter the social occasion.

So, while you may be looking for bargains on Black Friday, I will be considering a display featuring some of our Black Fashions.

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Fashion Costume – Who will I be this Halloween?

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Madonna on cover of first album. Image from Wikipedia.

The weather in my neck of the woods was dreadful this Halloween, but it did not stop the trick-or-treaters from coming out.  As always there were lots of superheroes and baby animals, but one intrepid girl did her best, despite the cold and wet, to channel her inner Madonna. Her t-shirt – “I love the ‘80s” was worn with fishnet black mitts and fingerless gloves, her jewellery included neon plastic bracelets, and her hair was in a messy updo.  She told me that she had a great mini skirt and stockings that she had wanted to wear but the weather just made it too cold.  I think she might have had a bit of help from her mom in putting the ensemble together since some of the bits might easily have been found at the bottom of mom’s jewellery box or closet.

Her enthusiasm for her costume was evident in her beaming smile and the high five we exchanged as she danced down the drive.  It started me thinking about the endless possibilities that fashion and fashion history provide on a night when we can choose to be anyone and from anytime that we want.

Students in Halloween costumes

Students in Halloween costumes

Our costume choice requires a fair bit of thought and not just from the perspective of assembling the pieces.  The hallways of our School of Fashion were filled with pirate babes, day of the dead women and others (who I needed much more time to recognize than the fleeting glimpse I got!)  As students of design they have the ability to assemble just about any character they desire.  For the rest of us it might take a bit more effort in shopping for the components that we can use to create our character.

And, the thought process involved in choosing who we want to be takes almost as long as the time to assemble the representative elements.   Who will we be this year?  The opportunity to reveal a hidden side of our character or to “become” someone so completely different from our normal self is what makes this something to consider carefully, if not, gleefully.

Seneca College English professor Rona Kaushansky in a flapper dress

Seneca College English professor Rona Kaushansky in a flapper dress

Do we want to be the happy-go-lucky flapper with her fringed dress, long pearls, headache banded hair and Betty Boop lips?  Or you may choose the seductive vamp (taken from the word vampire!) with her slinky satin halter dress and fur stole?  Are we looking to channel the elegance of Audrey Hepburn with our classic LBD (little black dress), long black gloves and cigarette holder or the free-spirited hippie with bell bottomed jeans, floral top and long, centre parted hair?  And let’s not forget our Madonna or punks of the 1980s.

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And let’s not forget about the gentleman out there.  I think a really amazing (not to mention versatile) purchase from a second hand store would be a tuxedo.  In that you could become the debonair Fred Astaire to a gorgeous Ginger Rogers, or a sophisticated Cary Grant or the mysterious Bond, James Bond.

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Wouldn’t it also be fascinating, especially for our fashion lovers, to become their favorite designer?  How about Coco Chanel, the original flapper and advocate of the LBD, with her costume jewellery and two-toned shoes?  You could become Karl Lagerfeld with a long black jacket, stiff white collar, topped with a white wig pulled back into a ponytail, a pair of sunglasses and costume jewellery chains.  Betsey Johnson, one of the original free-spirits of the 1960s could be assembled with pigtails and a mini metallic bubble skirted prom dress.

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It might not be too early to begin thinking about your next costume.  With 360ish days to go before you have your next opportunity to express your inner ________, perhaps starting to think about it now is not such a bad idea!

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Giving and Thanks!

Dale Peers being interviewed by Kristiaan Yeo for China Central Television

Dale Peers being interviewed by Kristiaan Yeo for China Central Television

We just celebrated Thanksgiving, midterm is just about here, the United Way campaign has been launched and Study Week begins next week which all spell out that we are well and truly in the midst of the fall term.  This means that things are getting busier for students, faculty, support staff and administration.  And yet, once again I find myself marveling at the incredible dedication and stamina in our college.

Over the past few weeks we have welcomed a news team to the Centre to talk about the Politics of Fashion, our friends from the Fashion History Museum have paid their semi-annual visit, an installation celebrating Women’s History Month has been installed (one location across from the library and the other in the D building, fourth floor window) and faculty and students alike have accessed the Fashion Resource Centre collection to study not only history of fashion but the details of skirts from a pattern making and clothing construction perspective.  A long time donor and supporter of the collection also dropped off some new items just last week. And all of these events led me to this posting of our blog.

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Fashion display

Display of outfits from the 1960s

Display of outfits from the 1960s

Display of outfits from the 1970s

Display of outfits from the 1970s

Display featuring outfits from the 1980s

Display featuring outfits from the 1980s

Visitors to our incredible collection of fashion (after having gasped at the size of the collection) invariably ask where everything comes from.  Initially they think the fashion items must have been made by students from our Fashion programs, and, although we do have items our alumni have left in our care this is a very small part of our collection.

I always answer this query with a certain amount of personal awe as our collection has been donated over only the past 25 years by more than 650 donors who have loved fashion and wanted to find a home for a cherished piece of fashion apparel where it would be valued, studied and possibly become a source of inspiration.

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Karen Bennet with dress from 1865 that she donated (left); Dale Peers, Bev Newburg, and Alex Burke at opening of SFRC event (right)

That old commercial of “you tell two friends, and they tell two friends and they tell two friends” is  the reality of the collection.  From industry leaders like Claire Haddad, Marilyn Brooks, Vivienne Poy, Sonya Bata to fashion faculty (many retired but to whom I am most grateful!) – Claire Becker, Caroline Routh, Bev Newburg to museum colleagues like Jonathan Walford, Kenn Norman, Alexandra Palmer, and friends of the collection like Charlotte Graham, Mary Ham, Penny Potter and Jim Payne have ensured the growth of the collection through their communication of its importance.  All of these people have been such staunch supporters of the importance fashion plays not only from a design perspective but from the social contribution that the art of fashion and costume has played.  And, to the faculty, support staff and administrators of Seneca College who have not only provided their support through projects like our Digital Fashion Photography project (Tanis Fink, Rhonda Roth, Ewan Gibson, Lydia Tsai) to so many other members of the Seneca Community for their donations.  There are so many who have donated personal items and who have told their friends about the collection that it is impossible to list everyone.

Students working on SFRC displays

Students working on SFRC displays

And, the group of constituents who play a huge part in this operation include so many students who not only accessed the collection in their learning but became integral members of the  Resource Centre team.  They have dragged bustforms, packed and unpacked boxes of garments, sewn buttons and hooks, photographed shoes and hats, mounted displays and staffed the Centre so that if could be made available to as many people as we can manage in a year.  Anne Chan, Calvin Butts, Stacey Yoo, Jennifer Fulton, Jennifer Hord, Lianne Brickell, Janelle Newbold, Alicia Mitha,  Malvika Rana, Joanna Rajarathnam, Shawna Wittenberg, Nina Pimental, Amaryn Boyd, Alex Burke, Shelly Dilouya, Irina Bikeeva, Dayna Stevens, Anne-Marie Di Iullio, Alex Backa, Kelsey Mills, Nicole Knight and Emma MacArthur are just a few who have contributed time and energy, and in some cases have also become donors.  My thanks and gratitude to all!

So, my thanks go to all of the people who have given their time, their fashion and their dedication to our incredible Centre.

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Back-to-School

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Seneca Campus photos

Now that the (chalk) dust has settled – back-to-school is always busy and exciting – it is time to return to my blogging.  The new, academic year always seems a bit like the January New Year feels – a time for fresh resolutions, and embarking on new plans or at the very least, new to-do lists.  (I once came across something that was called an “Accomplished List” rather than a to-do list, don’t you think that is so much more positive?).  Let me share with you what we have accomplished to-date and what we intend to do.

While folks may think everyone who is in an educational or academic role is “off” for summer vacation that is not the reality.  Summer is certainly quieter at the college but we are by no means “closed.”  In fact, the Fashion Resource Centre continued to be used by our summer faculty teaching the Evolution of Fashion subject and enjoying the use of our fabulous garments in our History Lab.

Our large window in the “Fashion” hallway – aka 4th floor D building had a display of truly contemporary design work.  Four of our students who have now entered their third and graduating year of the Fashion Arts program were featured with some of their proposed design concepts, target customer boards, colour/mood boards and sewing samples for their final collections. All of these will be officially shown in April 2015.

Displays by Fashion Arts students

Displays by Fashion Arts students

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Displays by Fashion Arts students

Displays by Fashion Arts students

Display by Fashion Arts students

In July I was pleased to attend a day- long planning session for the Fashion History Museum (FHM) which our long-time friends Jonathan Walford and Kenn Norman have been working so hard on for the past decade.  Light is appearing not just at the end of a tunnel but in Hespler, Ontario (formerly a town and neighbourhood within Cambridge) where we hope to be recommending everyone interested in all things historical and fashion related to visit.  Dates and program information are on our list to bring to you once we receive confirmation.

The FHM opened, “Street Style: Fashion and Architecture in Waterloo County 1853 to 1973 at the end of May.  The exhibit runs until January 4th 2015 and presents historic scenes of Waterloo County situated behind era appropriate fashions.

Fashion History Museum exhibit

Fashion History Museum exhibit

The FHM will also collaborate with Toronto’s Design Exchange on an exhibition entitled: Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics.  The exhibition, guest curated by Jeanne Beker with Design Exchange curator Sara Nickelson will explore how fashion and politics have not been such strange bedfellows from the 1960s to the present.  One item sure to be on display is a 1960s era paper dress with Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s face on it.  The Seneca Fashion Resource Centre also has one of these fragile paper dresses!

Trudeau paper dress

Trudeau paper dress

Our great Fashion Digital Photography project continued during the summer months and we spent one day filming segments we hope to air over the coming year.  These “vlogs” (video blogs) are intended to bring you closer to elements of our Fashion Resource Centre collection.  We have a bit of editing to take care of first and filming a few more segments over the coming year are both on our “Accomplishments” list.  If there are topics you would like us to focus on or items you would like a closer view of please send us a comment.

Also on the list – plans are underway to work with Elise Dintsman and Ainsley Bateman from the Faculty for Continuing Education on a display for Women’s History Month in October.  More details to follow.

And last, but not finally – (I for one find this fact very hard to believe) this year marks the Silver Anniversary of our collection.  The Seneca School of Fashion faculty officially launched the Seneca Fashion Resource Centre during the 1989/1990 academic year.  Thus 2014/2015 makes 25 years!  Exciting opportunities exist to celebrate this, not the least of which will be our annual display in May.  I have some ideas about how we might celebrate this milestone and welcome your requests.

As is generally the case with the lists I make they are always longer than I anticipate.  And, I have no doubt that for each item checked off as “Accomplished,” this year we will add twice as many.

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Summer Whites

Dresses from Seneca Fashion Resource Centre

Dresses from Seneca Fashion Resource Centre

If the Victoria Day long weekend marks the beginning of summer for you (and after surviving ice storms, frost quakes and polar vortices who wouldn’t want to welcome summer?) then summer is here.  It might not have been the warmest on record but the grass is greening, the trees are blossoming and nature is donning her summer colours.white-after-labor-day

And what colour traditionally marks the beginning as well as end of summer? – White of course!

That old fashion “rule” of only wearing white between now and Labour Day is one almost anyone, fashion-minded or not, has heard of.  Few follow it and fewer still know its origin.

Some explanations are linked to the status given to the colour white.  It is a colour (or absence of colour) that gets dirty very quickly.  When someone wears pristine and clean white it is obvious that they haven’t been doing anything – otherwise, they’d be smudged.  The next conclusion is since they aren’t doing anything they must have someone to do things for them and therefore, if you have “people” you must be wealthy.

We also agree that white feels so much nicer in the summer heat and so has been worn to help us stay cooler.

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Still image from The Eagle from http://prettycleverfilms.com

From social distinguisher to seasonal decision the colour white seems to have become a fashion rule during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  The blurring of social class lines that began with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class meant that members of the upper social classes needed to find ways to keep the unwelcome noveau riche from invading their society.  One way to do so was with the use of fashion as a signifier of class and then to have “rules” about such things.

Having multiple types of clothing for different activities was something that only the very wealthy could afford to do and, like white, implied this status.

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Florida Beach, circa 1905. Image from http://jasonpollock.tv/

If you were of lower social classes you needed to spend your money on things like rent and food and having multiple changes of clothes was just not possible.  You were also more than likely to be working many more days a week and the concept of a summer vacation meant little to you.  Not so for those members of the elite who could afford to leave the hot and stuffy cities behind and escape north or to the seashore to find cool summer breezes.

So, during the summer months wearing white not only kept you cool but it was a sure sign of status

The end of summer was marked by Labour Day which became a federal holiday in 1894.  Since it seems to clearly mark the end of summer it also became the end of wearing white.

Why?  Again, lots of theories but no real answer (one of the things I love about fashion!).  One thought is that if our summer vacation is over and we are returning to the cities our wardrobe changes to reflect this return to urban.  The darker colours of the city (grey, navy, black – just like the concrete, steel and pavement) work better than pristine white.  As the days shorten and the weather changes wearing cool white seems a bad choice.

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Coco Chanel. Images from http://elle.com

This “rule” of no white after Labour Day was broken by plenty of fashionistas including Coco Chanel who wore white year round.  She was always unique and this breaking of rules might have been one of the ways for her to show how avant garde she was.

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Elsa from Frozen. Images from http://movies.disney.com/frozen (left) and http://eonline.com (right)

And for those who chose to wear white in the cooler months they re-named it – winter white!  And that is another story.

 

Winter white is snow, frost, and rabbit fur trims.  The perfect camouflage for Snow Princesses – and again status is revealed.

Enjoy your white — weather permitting!

 

 

 

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