The man of a thousand dresses

A century ago, the style was "beauty by impairment," explained clothing historian Ivan Sayers. "Essentially, the more handicapped a woman is by her clothing, the greater her status or appeal," he said.

A century ago, the style was “beauty by impairment,” explained clothing historian Ivan Sayers.

“Essentially, the more handicapped a woman is by her clothing, the greater her status or appeal,” he said.

The less she could move, the more attractive the woman.

After all, who else but the rich and well cared-for could afford to be artificially rendered into invalids?

And, if the women are all disabled by their wardrobe, it allows the men of society to appear big and strong by comparison.

“Nobody was fooled by this, but it was all part of the politics between men and women,” said Sayers.

On Saturday night, Whitehorse’s Northern Fibres Guild is bringing up Sayers for a showcase of 20th-century women’s clothing.

Featuring wool, embroidery and furs from across the last 100 years, the show traces the gradual “emancipation” of women from restrictive clothing, said Sayers.

Dubbed Keep Me Warm, the show does feature some warm clothing – but only a smidgen.

“You people get enough cold weather up there as it is,” said Sayers.

Sayers highlights the tribulations of old-timey women’s clothing through a circa-1900 “dressing” sequence.

A model begins by putting on a shift, followed by a corset – all the way up to hat and veil.

The sheer quantity of period undergarments makes the dressing sequence the longest part of the show, said Sayers.

At the time, women’s legs were so closely bound by skirts, that if a woman moved faster than a hobble, the fabric would tear.

Thus, a critical piece of underwear was a figure-eight-shaped piece of elastic pulled up to the knees in order to mechanically bind the legs together.

The infamous corset is now relegated almost solely to the dominatrix class.

Back in the day, they were the be-all end-all of women’s attire.

Not to mention a fitting symbol of women’s subjugation.

Modern audiences typically eye the garment with morbid fascination, said Sayers.

“They hate to like them, but they love to hate them,” he said.

Eighteenth-century women would be cinched into corsets from as early as one and a half years old.

“By the time a girl from high society was 15 or 16 years old, she couldn’t stand up unless she had her corset on,” said Sayers.

“The muscles in her body were so badly weakened that they couldn’t support her weight,” she said.

And the corset had to be rustproof, of course.

If a woman opted for a cheap, rust-vulnerable corset, she ran the risk of being stricken with fatal blood poisoning if one of the steel ribs accidentally stabbed into her.

The First World War changed everything.

Suddenly, society realized that, to win a total war, getting your women out of corsets is a good first step.

Sayers – a history curator at the Vancouver Museum – has been collecting vintage clothing since the mid-1960s.

Salvation Army thrift stores were a favourite hang-out – a fitting fate for the son of Salvation Army officers.

“The only competition I had was high school drama teachers and at Halloween,” he said.

Forty years on, his collection has swelled to un-corseted heights.

“I have a three-bedroom house and I sleep in the dining room,” said Sayers.

“It’s all clothes, solid clothes: believe me,” he added.

The collection includes men’s and women’s clothing dating back to 1750 and children’s garb as far back as 1840.

Sayers picks no favourites among the thousands of items.

“They’re all equal; it’s like God – we’re all equal before God,” said Sayers.

The conspicuously glamorous pieces of Sayers’ collection garner the most attention.

But it’s the modest clothes that were most difficult to find, he said.

Somebody made sure to save Princess Di’s wedding dress, but the tattered apron of an Irish immigrant usually got tossed in the bin.

Saturday night, however, the focus is on glamour.

One featured dress previously adorned Mrs. Frank Ross, the mother of former prime minister John Turner.

Whitehorse’s show also includes garb from the wife of a former mayor of New Westminster and a Bank of Montreal president.

Despite being surrounded by three centuries of finery, Sayers keeps his own threads pretty low key.

As we spoke he wore sneakers, grey cotton pants and a T-shirt.

“I never spend money on my own clothes,” he said.

Around Halloween, “people have learned not to phone me,” said Sayers.

“I do not lend things out; I haven’t got enough friends left to afford to lose any more,” he said.

For Sayers, wall-to-wall clothing is what brings in his paycheques.

“If a man does not look after his dresses, his dresses will not look after him.”

At Saturday’s show – even non-fashionistas can expect to be entertained by Sayers’ acerbic sarcasm.

Sayers calls his delivery Red Green-esque.

That is, a Red Green that lives in a home jammed with vintage fashions.

“My most valuable comments come from the husbands that are dragged to my programs,” said Sayers.

“They don’t want to be there, but they are usually among the most enthusiastic people that come up to me afterwards,” he said.

The modern day fetish on youth also had its origins in the Great War.

Pre-1914, women strived for “matronly” figures.

“Women were considered to be their most attractive when they were between 35 and 45 years old,” said Sayers.

At the time, the middle-aged were the role models.

Titans of industry, politicians, men with careers and families – those were the men that 19th-century society looked up to.

Just as society admired the middle-aged men, they admired their middle-aged wives.

However, with the Great War those dynamics switched.

“The image of the important man changed from being middle aged to being the young soldier,” said Sayers.

The female icon followed suit.

“The female image goes from being womanly to being girlish,” he said.

Men still get to feel big and strong – but more from a “protective” standpoint.

This new un-curvy woman was considered strikingly non-sexual, however.

To compensate, designers started to show off some leg.

Then somebody made the stockings transparent.

“By the end of the 1920s, she has no chest, she has no waist, she has no hips – but she’s sure got lots of leg,” said Sayers.

Once the stock market crashed, designers decided to save fabric by making the dresses tight and clingy.

Then, all hell broke loose: beads, tassles, stripes and fluorescent colours.

“We get ridiculous as we get more modern,” said Sayers.

In the first half of the show, audiences may well cluck their tongues at the ridiculous clothing of long-dead generations.

But in the latter half, they’ll be forced to confront the ridiculous clothes of their own lifetimes.

Keep Me Warm, a vintage fashion show with Ivan Sayers, is this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

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