Until the 1980s fashion exhibitions were rarely mounted by museums, but as they began to attract audiences, the clothing treasures that languished in the basements of major institutions began to see the light of galleries more often. Popularity grew until in this last decade, three of the top ten most visited exhibitions ever held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were about fashion. These shows kept company with their historic blockbuster shows including Tutankhamen, Mona Lisa, and Picasso.
While most of the world’s great museum collections resulted from decades of carefully considered acquisitions by curatorial connoisseurs, a few came together quickly from individual collectors with passionate obsessions. These are usually specific object-type collections and often come with the benefit of ample funding by the collector. FHM founder Jonathan Walford was fortunate to experience this second model when Sonja Bata hired him in 1987 to transform her shoe collection into the Bata Shoe Museum in 1995.
After leaving Bata in 1999, Jonathan and his partner Kenn Norman pursued a freelance career of independent curatorial work, including developing travelling exhibitions. Jonathan authored six books on various aspects of fashion history, from paper dresses to shoes, and the two worked as dealers and appraisers of antique and vintage clothing. However, many of their best finds ended up in collections scattered around the world and they began to think about creating their own costume museum. This felt like it might make a good retirement project until a series of events changed their plans.
A growing interest in vintage fashion developed around the turn of the millennium. Old clothes became a hotly collected commodity and experienced a rapid rise in auction and online sale prices. There were more buyers vying for the best pieces that came onto the market and fewer good pieces were showing up.
When Toronto fashion collector Alan Suddon unexpectedly died in 2000, the 10,000 piece collection he had amassed over forty-years, and that featured important nineteenth-century Canadian clothing and twentieth-century French couture, was purchased privately with a promise that it would someday go to an institution. However, much of the collection was sold off or destroyed via poor storage conditions over the next 15 years. The best surviving pieces were eventually auctioned off internationally and a small remainder was selectively donated to Canadian museums, of which the Fashion History Museum received about 200 pieces. The collection that should have been Suddon’s legacy and a museum’s prize collection had been dismantled and all but forgotten.
In 2004, Kenn Norman registered the name Fashion History Museum. The timing was perfect as the Costume Institute’s Met Galas were becoming major annual media events and its summer fashion exhibitions were beginning to break attendance records. Three years later, in 2007, the Bath Museum of Costume in England changed its name to The Fashion Museum, signalling a new outlook on the subject of historical dress.
The next step was for the Fashion History Museum (FHM) to become a non-profit corporation, and in March 2009 the Canadian government granted the FHM charitable status. This allowed the FHM to give tax receipts for donations - a crucial step for a collection to be created without the benefit of a large acquisitions budget or endowment. The museum now had to make itself known. Exhibitions were created to be hosted by museums around Ontario and abroad. A shoe exhibition was especially popular that travelled to the U.S., Hong Kong and Bahrain.
Toronto’s Casa Loma was initially approached as a potential partner for the location of the FHM, but an opportunity for a pilot gallery in a former ironworks factory in Cambridge, which had been renovated into a mall, was offered to the museum for a trial period in 2013. Today's city of Cambridge was at the heart of industrial 19th century Canada where textile and clothing production were leading industries. The five month exhibition created in the summer and fall of 2013 brought in over 8,000 visitors. The following spring an exhibition created by the FHM about fashion and architecture at the nearby Waterloo Regional Museum brought in 24,000 visitors in nine months. The region looked like a good fit for the Fashion History Museum.
In late 2014 a five year lease was offered to the FHM for the old post office of the former town of Hespeler - home to what had been the largest woollen mill in the British Empire. The Hespeler post office was built in 1928 by Thomas William Fuller (1865-1951), the Chief Dominion Architect from 1927 to 1936, in an Art Deco/Italianate style. The building had been the centre of the Hespeler community until it was decommissioned in 1993 and sold to a private buyer.
With grants from the Region of Waterloo, City of Cambridge, as well as private fundraising, the museum space was renovated and opened its doors in June 2015. However, due to major roadwork re-construction of the main street that year, an official opening was postponed until March 2016. That same year, the museum's first employee, Alys Mak-Pilsworth was hired as museum manager, although as a skilled seamstress she also took on conservation work.
The museum has since grown to become a popular destination for locals and tourists. In 2016, the Hespeler community wanted to commend the work done by the private owner to save the post office and raised money to help restore the clock in the tower that every local had set their watches by for sixty years.
The private owner retired in 2019 and the city of Cambridge purchased the building in the summer of 2020, securing the museum’s tenancy into the future. COVID-19 has temporarily closed the museum to the public, but exciting plans are in the works to make the museum more visitor friendly with better access, and more exhibitions space when it reopens.
View of the former Hespeler post office, when newly opened in 1929 (the clock tower was added in 1932.) Image courtesy of the City of Cambridge archives.
OUR MANDATE, MISSION, AND VALUES
The Fashion History Museum connects the history of fashion with the world that created it. What we wear is a subconscious human expression, guided by habit and need, that reflects aesthetics, culture, identity, politics, economics, and technology. The museum collects, preserves, researches, and exhibits historical garments and accessories that illustrate these connections to better understand our past, present, and future.
Develop vibrant exhibitions that provoke discussion about the meaning and value of fashion.
Strive for authenticity in all museum presentations and activities. Undertake original research.
Protect our fashionable past by developing and caring for an important collection. Offer services that are accessible and valuable for all. Become a gathering place for the local community and destination point for tourists. Maintain an international presence and stellar reputation. Grow into a self-sustaining, well-respected cultural institution. Make a significant contribution and be recognized by the international fashion and museum communities
Diversify our community
Participate and collaborate