The Spring of 1914 was the last gasp of the truly frivolous hat. With the declaration of war in August, women’s fashion took a turn for the sober and practical. Hems rose, colours muted and hats lost the tulle, veils, wings, feathers, ribbons and flowers that had made them the most expressive element of the pre-war wardrobe.
The way women pose, move and perhaps even interact is transformed by their style of clothing. William James’ 1908-1914 photographs of track-side fashions at the Ontario Jockey Club’s spring society event offer a peek at the coming together of the past, symbolized by constrictive, stiff clothing, and the modern spirit expressed in looser fitting, flowing and whimsical garments. While, during these pre-war years the two approaches to dressing co-existed, the war made the rupture with the old ways sharp and irreversible.
James’ snapshots reveal the silhouette shift from the hour-glass, seen in profile as a languorous S-curve in which the top was the forward tilt of a wide-brimmed hat,Spectators at Ontario Jockey Club, 1908
to a more coquettish carnival-like figure of tiered layers and fluttering edges topped by a close-fitting, upturned-brim hat.
The two photographs below demonstrate the changing shape of garments between 1911 and 1913.
Hat styles, because they changed from year to year, are often used to date photographs. But, as a rule, older women’s hats tend to lag behind and younger women’s reflect the latest trend. It’s therefore difficult to interpret the precise dates of the Ontario Jockey Club photos on this basis. Reflecting the spectrum of Toronto society and the breadth of women’s ages, the most stodgy, button-down versions of fashion commingled with the latest, more daring trends.
Part of the fun of attending important social events is putting names to faces.
Sadly, in the City of Toronto Archives database result of the “Ontario Jockey Club” key word search (tick the “Scanned photographs only” box) few figures are identified and the dating is haphazard. William James, the creator of most of these images, likely shot groups and individuals on spec and the society columnists at the number of dailies he supplied later added names.
Among the few identified subjects are Lord and Lady Pellat, a couple very much in the public eye with the building of their suburban castle, Casa Loma. However, the archives is not able to unequivocally identify the woman with the opera glasses as Lady Pellat in “Two Women 1911” seen above and “Two Women 1910” below:
The woman on the right may be Lady Pellatt. The photo appeared in the Toronto World on Sunday, June 4, 1911, under the heading “Fascinating Women and Charming Gowns snapped at the Woodbine.”
Lady Pellat’s appearance in those years is seen in William James photos that emerge from the database by using the search term “Casa Loma”. To see the archives information on “Lady Pellat with guests in the greenhouse (1914-1915)” click on the caption beside the photo below.
However, a March 1913 Toronto Star Weekly published version of the photo reveals the archives date of the photo to be incorrect.
Toronto Star Weekly March 29, 1913 caption: Lady Pellat, Commissioner of the Girl Guides of Toronto and other guests of the movement on the recent visit of the Girl Guides to the Pellat conservatories on Walmer Road Hill.
Lady Pellat’s Waist
Look carefully at the face, posture and body shape of the central figure in the green house wearing a necklace. This is undeniably Lady Pellat, but is the woman with the opera glasses at the Ontario Jockey Club the same person? The unidentified woman’s cinched waist-line appears far smaller than that of Lady Pellat. Could there have been a significant weight gain? Could the corset have created a waist where there was none on the body? Such speculation is, as much then as now, part of the celebrity-watching game.
Tightly corseted and well into middle age, Lady Pellat’s cautious approach to fashion can be seen in the above series of photos. While the cut of her dress remains in the 1910 style, the edge of her hat brims turn up as a concession to the new style. Perhaps the silk dress awash with flowers is also meant to echo the free-wheeling spirit of the fashion moment. Or, it may be a banner of Lord Pellat’s position as honorary president of the Toronto Horticultural Society. In the foreground, left,and below with his wife is W.G. MacKendrick, president of the Society. The presence of Mrs. MacKendrick dates the photos to 1913 or before because she died in the fall of that year.
The presence of the vice-regal family Duke and Duchess of Connaught and their daughter, Patricia conferred the monarchical approval so desired by still highly colonial Toronto. As befitting the representatives of the crown, their dress was designed to project power through understated elegance. The Duchess’s and Princess’s enormous hats made them visible from any corner of the field.
The Star report on Princess Patricia’s black and white dress scheme below confirms 1912 as the accurate date for the above photos.
SOCIETY AT THE WOODBINE
The Woodbine was the Mecca towards which the social world flocked in hundreds on Saturday afternoon when their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, accompanied by Princess Patricia were the distinguished guests of honor… Her Royal Highness was gowned in deep blue taffeta skirt and coat, with black hat. Princess Patricia wore a girlish white silk gown with bands of black, black hat and long coat.
Black and white pattern to accentuate the long torso and play with the theme of ribbons and wrapping were heralded as an important fashion trend to Toronto readers of the Star in the spring on May 11, 1911.
The New Silhouette
The Toronto Star Weekly Women’s Section sharpened it’s readers visual skills and fashion knowledge through its celebrity silhouettes, dramatically illustrating how they “cut a fine figure” among the Woodbine crowds.
The taste for bold black and white pattern and especially stripes was used in the Ascot scene of 1964 movie musical My Fair Lady. In this scene the former flower girl Eliza Doolittle debuts in her guise as a young woman of fashion. The race is chosen as the ideal venue because, while her still rusty accent and conversation skills make a more intimate event impossible, the language of Ascot rests entirely on the eloquence of the shapes of the hats, the angles at which they are worn and their sky-scraping trimmings.
In the BBC series, Downton Abbey, each hat is a carefully calibrated statement of the social rank, age, and character of the wearer. In the pre-war episodes the Dowager, Lady Grantham wears turbans or hats whose brims sweep downwards or sideways from a height. Lady Grantham favours wide-brimmed hats with copious trimming around the crown with only the narrow edge of the brim lifted. The young ladies of the household wear modestly trimmed, narrow brim hats that more fully expose their faces. The female servants… well really, after all who cares?
Trickle Down Theory
The Gilded Age of Fashion 1890-1914, a recent exhibition at the Toronto Public Library, highlights how the theatrical stylings of such Paris designers as Poiret and Paquin were adapted for off-the-rack every-day wear by North American retailers. Such upscale Toronto outfitters as Redferns Limited set the standard for “Race Week” events, providing walking suits, garden party dresses and evening clothes for consumers anxious to be welcomed into the hard to crash inner circles. As an important indicator of wealth, but also reflecting the popularity of retail fashion the Toronto Star social columnist made a point of noting if a given person was wearing “custom-made” at the Ontario Jockey Club spring gathering.
For the growing middle class, fashion was translated and made practical, affordable, and available almost everywhere in Canada through the impressive communication and transportation system of Eaton’s Department Store.
For the many who had the skill and time to sew, The Globe, promoted fashion trends through their line of patterns on the same “women’s page” where who-wore-what at which society event was covered.
Who Wore What at “head garnish” market square April 19 at Wychwood Barns
Amanda Lewis, Book Editor
Cole & Samantha Eisen