A Fashionable Obsession at the Fashion History Museum - Ontario, Canada

As children we all had ideas of what we would be when we grow up – like many others, I at one point hoped to become a veterinarian. For Jonathan Walford, the Curatorial Director and Co-Founder of the Fashion History Museum (FHM) in Ontario, Canada, his childhood ambitions have closely aligned with reality. By the age of ten, he was so interested in fashion history that he would watch period films and look for historically incorrect costuming.




The entrance to the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The entrance to the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario.

The FHM grew out of this interest, beginning in 1977 when Walford was given a “period” collarless shirt to wear while working at Heritage Village, now known as Burnaby Village, in Burnaby, British Columbia. He knew that the shirt was not right, so he combed local vintage stores for starched collars, knitted ties, and straw boaters. By the end of the year friends and family were giving him their vintage clothing, and most of his paycheck went to growing his collection. Eventually this passion turned into a career working in museums. He was the founding curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, working there from 1987 to 1999, while simultaneously using his personal collection to give illustrated lectures and to create exhibitions for smaller museums. He created the hugely popular exhibit Ready To Tear, about 1960s paper dresses, which travelled to 13 venues across Canada and spawned the definitive book on paper clothing, Ready To Tear: Paper Fashions of the 60s. Since then he has authored many books and curated countless exhibits that have travelled as far away as Hong Kong.












Paisley display from the first exhibition at the Fashion History Museum <i>Paisley and Plaid: Recurring Patterns in Fashion</i>. Paisley display from the first exhibition at the Fashion History Museum Paisley and Plaid: Recurring Patterns in Fashion.


Victorian garments from the first exhibition at the Fashion History Museum <i>Paisley and Plaid: Recurring Patterns in Fashion</i>. Victorian garments from the first exhibition at the Fashion History Museum Paisley and Plaid: Recurring Patterns in Fashion.

In 2004 Walford’s partner, Kenn Norman, was taking a leadership course in California and used the idea of a fashion history museum as his project; within a year they founded the museum and by 2008 it was granted federal non-profit corporation status. After nearly getting a permanent space in 2008 in Toronto, they finally secured a location in Cambridge, Ontario in 2013 in a historic mill renovated to a boutique shopping center. While close to the big city, the town was increasingly becoming a tourist destination in its own right; Cambridge’s extensive history of textile and clothing manufacturing further connected it to the mission of the FHM. The museum had over 7,000 visitors in its first five months (a feat for any smaller museum), largely because of its strong exhibitions, from its inaugural Paisley and Plaid: Recurring Patterns in Fashion to its most recent MODe: Fashion in the 1960s. Unfortunately, a variety of external factors have forced the museum to close its space at the end of December and find a new location.

Photograph of the FHM’s most recent exhibit “MODe: Fashion in the 1960s Photograph of the FHM’s most recent exhibit “MODe: Fashion in the 1960s

As they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss, and the FHM will continue on. The museum is working on an exhibition, Street Style, which will open at the end of May 2014 at the Waterloo Region Museum, and Walford still actively contributes to his blog (I particularly like the “Fashion Hall of Obscurity” series, which examines the many lesser known designers of the past). The FHM also still has an incredible collection that will draw in crowds wherever it is on display. Whether it’s an rare women’s ensemble from 1765-1770, an elegant 1943 dress by couturier Jeanne Lanvin, or a Universal Studios paper dress from 1968, the museum holds thousands of beautiful pieces that span the 1700s up to the present day. As one of the only museums in Canada devoted to fashion, it is uniquely situated to collect Canadian-designed and/or manufactured pieces, which often reflect “part of a mosaic in the Canadian fashion story,” as Walford says; “there is no singular style or culture that stretches across the over 9,000 kilometer width of Canada.” They are even developing a touring exhibition for 2017, the sesquicentennial of Canada, which will explore the many elements that make up Canadian fashion.




CArticle Highlights from the FHM collection: Women’s Ensemble ca. 1765-1770, dress by Jeanne Lanvin from 1943, Universal Studios paper dress from 1968 (back detail).

Walford and Norman hope to have a new, better space in the near future and will continue to exhibit in other museums. They continue to receive funding from donations, book sales and other avenues, all of which contribute to the growth of the museum. One day they hope to have enough revenue to pay for more staff, ideally development and education officers, and to put more money towards marketing and fundraising. Until then they operate with the help of a handful of dedicated volunteers, who devote significant time to the project. Since Walford bought his first piece for his collection, a black net ensemble from the mid 1890s, he has been hooked, and he views the museum’s challenges as just a bump on an otherwise positive trajectory. Despite this optimism, there is something about the present Walford doesn’t like: when asked if he has any favorite pieces from the collection he remarks, “I find it very difficult to pick favorites because I honestly enjoy every period of fashion (except the one I am usually living in!)”


You can follow Jonathan Walford and the Fashion History Museum on his blog here.


Christian Hernandez is the Plinth contributor for the Central Region and an independent contractor for museums and cultural institutions in the US and Canada.