Reviews / Comptes rendus - Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross, Formes et modes : le costume à Montréal au XIXe siècle / Form and Fashion: Nineteenth-Century Montreal Dress

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross, Formes et modes : le costume à Montréal au XIXe siècle / Form and Fashion: Nineteenth-Century Montreal Dress

Christina Bates
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross. Formes et modes : le costume à Montréal au XIXe siècle / Form and Fashion: Nineteenth-Century Montreal Dress. Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992. 95 p., 73 illus. Paper $29.95, ISBN 1-895615-00-3.

1 Form and Fashion is one in a series of eight handsome catalogues of inaugural exhibitions produced for the May 1992 re-opening of the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal. Form and Fashion is also a monograph on the topic of fashion in Montreal in the nineteenth century. The book contains both English and French texts.

2 The catalogue presents sixteen examples of nineteenth-century feminine fashion exhibited on mannequins. The ensembles, all drawn from the splendid McCord costume collection, are remarkably well-documented. Most are of Montreal or Quebec origin, and in several cases the identity of the wearer is known. The author has drawn upon another rich collection in the McCord Museum, the Notman Photographic Archives, to provide a context for the costumes. Each garment is accompanied by one or more comparable Notman portraits or fashion journal illustrations. These figures are, alas, too small to be very useful. The text calls attention to comparative details that cannot be detected in so small a reproduction.

3 The presentation of the garments follows an art historical format. The dresses are shown against neutral backgrounds, and except for the occasional prop of fan, umbrella or calling card case, the setting gives no hint of historical context. The descriptions of the garments are meticulously detailed, and the dramatic evolution of the feminine silhouette over the century is well illustrated. An excellent glossary aids the reader with the more technical fashion terms.

4 The art historical approach is maintained in the author's following essays. She takes a firm stand in the debate among costume historians about the purpose of costume research (see Dress 14 [1988]): should costume be studied for its own sake — for its aesthetic and technical qualities — or to illuminate the political, social or economic context in which the costume was used?

5 In her discussion of Montreal fashion, Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross is clearly in the first camp. Her allegiance goes against recent scholarship, in which the study of costume in its social context prevails. The author feels that costume historians have applied socio-economic influences to fashion too slavishly, and these factors often fail to adequately explain evolution in costume. Her thesis, developed from art historical theory, is that changes in form spring from an internal dynamic within fashion itself, independent of historical events and influences. The process of change is logical and cyclical; fashion constantly repeats itself. Outside influences such as wars or economic depressions may retard or hasten the process, but the pre-ordained pattern will always emerge.

6 To illustrate this internal dynamic at work, the author has used the garments in the catalogue, as well as the well documented and comprehensive Notman photograph collection. In her essay "Notman Photographs: The Dynamic of a Sleeve," the author presents a test case for her theory of the internal process of fashion change. She examines, through the Notman portraits, a very particular stylistic evolution: the shape of women's sleeves in Montreal in the 1890s.

7 From the plain, tight sleeve of the late 1880s, a few nascent hints of a puff soon appeared, the beginnings of a greater and greater distortion of the sleeve shape, which reached its evolutionary limit in the huge gigot or melon form, then collapsed returning to the flat sleeve by the late 1890s. The author observes that when a direction in style has been established, its own momentum will push it along that path to its limits, then it will retreat or change direction.

8 The last essay in the catalogue, "Collective Taste: Montreal Fashion Plates and Views," is somewhat of a caveat to the argument for internal dynamic. Although fashion is controlled by its own formal laws, understanding and acceptance by its public will also influence the path it takes: "The actual direction of fashion, including changes in stylish forms, shapes or silhouette, is thus dictated to a certain degree by ... collective taste" (p. 69).

9 Society in nineteenth-century Montreal learned about, and passed judgement on, the latest styles in numerous fashion journals published in Montreal, the United States, France, Britain, and the rest of Europe. By a careful comparison of fashion plates in Montreal and foreign journals, the author establishes that Montreal did not lack for the latest fashion news, and indeed was a fashion capital in North America. The journals borrowed fashion illustrations from one another, and there was a very short time lag between the appearance of a fashion plate in a European journal and its reappearance in a Montreal journal. Indeed Montreal was quicker that the United States in reproducing fashion plates, and sometimes took the lead role, which might be explained by Canada's closer ties to Europe. This analysis of fashion journals is accompanied by four useful appendices listing foreign fashion journals available in Montreal, and a comparison of fashion plates in The Canadian Illustrated News and foreign journals.

10 Montrealers were further exposed to haute couture through the display of fashionable attire worn by the bon ton at the theatre, garrison balls, exhibitions and pleasure parks, of which there were numerous reports and illustrations in the newspapers. The author concludes that fashion journals and public display provided opportunities for the dissemination of fashion. The actual mechanism for the creation of collective taste and the influence that collective taste had on new fashion trends is not addressed in this essay.

11 Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross maintains that fashion changes originate from an inner source, so that collective taste may influence, but not dictate, the direction fashion eventually takes. The evidence for an internal dynamic in fashion is convincing, but begs the question "how does it happen?" Sleeves don't change shape of their own accord. This anthropomorphism leaves out the role of the designers, producers and promoters of fashion. Where did they get their ideas, and how much influence did they have?

12 Any good book will spark many questions and Form and Fashion is no exception. As a catalogue, it contains excellent photographs and descriptive information of an important Canadian costume collection. As a monograph, it is thought provoking, and a serious contribution to Canadian material culture.