March 29, 2023


The Fashion History Museum in Cambridge is celebrating 200 years of Tying The Knot.mwbeads

Kenn Norman and Jonathan Walford, co-founders of the museum, have 35 dresses dating back to the early 1800s up to designer gowns from the late 1900s displayed in the showroom. The oldest documented Canadian dress is kept in a glass-protected case and was worn in an 1816 Quebec City wedding.

“It takes us through the Victorian period right up to present day. All of these dresses pretty much have a Canadian provenance, so they were either worn by Canadians or made here in Canada, so there is a good connection that way,” said Norman.

Weddings are special. The day signifies two people coming together. The “traditional” white wedding dress didn’t make an appearance until the 1800s. Prior to that the dress chosen would also be worn as a night-out gown during the first year of marriage and, since the silk material used to make the gown was too hard to keep clean, brides opted for more practical colours like creams and browns. Due to middle-class wages rising in the 1830s having a silk dress in white became more feasible. Queen Victoria herself wore one to her wedding in 1840.

The dresses in the exhibit were either found in antique shops or donated by families.

“The wedding dress is one of the most popular items donated to museums overall, not just ourselves. It’s something that has a very sentimental attachment, it’s something people tend to really care for. It’s been fun to collect the stories at the same time which is also a part of what the museum does,” said Norman.

Over time the style of dress has changed to show individuality. The evolution of wedding dresses comes along with new technology and fabric availability.

“It has become very individual to the person. There is wanting to follow current fashion, but, for instance, when we were establishing this show one of the women that we talked too, who had just gotten married last year, used neoprene as her wedding dress,” said Norman.

Neoprene is a flexible synthetic rubber commonly used to make wetsuits.mw1816

Both men agree that the era of fashion they like most is when the clothing is changing and more complex.

“There are periods that I like maybe a little more than others simply because they are more complex. There are lots of things happening. I think right now we are kind of boring, because things haven’t changed dramatically in the past 20 years,” said Walford. “Then there are periods where a lot happens, and in a really short period of time. The 1960s to 1972 the world just changed. The clothing is so indicative of that. We started off with everyone looking very 1950s and by the time we got to the end it was a completely different world.”

Walford added that he is fascinated by how quickly society can adjust to fashion change, and how easily it becomes normal.

“I’m particularly fond of periods that are transitional. For instance, the turn of the century – last century – the 1900s because you move from Victorian into Edwardian,” said Norman. “There are dresses that have great trains and they are very elaborate. Then we get more into contemporary fashion and just the change in society reflected in that is quite amazing. The 1980s in particular when we opened up in this location had such a period of rejuvenating the Canadian fashion industry but also creativity. People loved colour, patterns and just going crazy with ideas so it was really wonderful to see that.”

Norman and Walford met during university in Vancouver. Walford was interested in the history angle whereas Norman was looking at it on the business side.

“I’ve always been fascinated by history and clothing, it is really the most personal you can get. We don’t know anything more personal that has survived our own lives then the clothing that we wear. And, I find it interesting how the body is a very strange shape and there’s only so many ways of covering it, and we’ve pretty much covered everything we could think of. Every sleeve style, every type of hat, every type of shoe and at some point in history that has always been considered beautiful and other points in history it is considered ugly. I like that. I like to know why, well, what is the reason for that,” said Walford. “I think by looking at clothes we can understand an era quite well, we can understand what is going on.”

Norman said, “I wanted to get into fashion design but didn’t follow through with that. So I went through the business side of things.”

Through this their ideas merged which led them to co-founding the museum back in 2004. In 2008 they were officially incorporated as a federal non-profit organization and then in 2009 they received their charitable status with the Canada Revenue Agency.

“That enabled us to build upon the founders collection started by Jonathan Walford back in the 1970s,” said Norman. “That was the basis of what we grew from and we have over 12,000 objects now of original fashion worn by real people, dating from the mid-1700s to the present day. We do have some older pieces and this is the first time we’ve had a permanent home; we’ve had travelling expeditions, we’ve had a palette gallery but now here in Hespeler, which is northern Cambridge, this is our home.”

On the side Walford keeps a personal fashion blog.

“It keeps me tuned in to what is going on in fashion,” he said.

The museum is located at 74 Queen St. E. in Cambridge and will continue to show the Tying The Knot exhibit until Dec. 18.


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