Style stood still

200 years of costume history ranks as my fashion find of year

Rating: NNNNN

It seems typically Toronto that I only found out about the Costume Society of Ontario upon the death of one of its founders. Some of the 3,000 costume pieces he and his wife amassed date back to 1805. I especially appreciate that he hauled his finds back to his mannequin-equipped home on his bicycle.

Collector Alan Suddon passed away at age 75, three days after learning that he had cancer. But some of his contributions form part of a new exhibit at Casa Loma called 200 Years Of Toronto Fashion.

Casa Loma was the 98-room dream castle of hydroelectric tycoon Henry Pellatt. It was designed by E.J. Lennox, the architect of Old City Hall and the King Edward Hotel, and no expense was spared.

The Pellatts moved into the palace in 1913 and had a monumental contents sale (Persian carpets at rag rug prices!) when they were pressed for cash in 24. Unsuccessful attempts were made to turn the place into a hotel, and the building languished until the Kiwanis Club took it over as a tourist attraction in 1936.

Whenever I catch a glimpse of Casa Loma, it comes as a surprise. I forget there’s a storybook castle built by a prince of industry right here in our town.

Pleasingly inexact

“Was that a castle I just saw?” and then it’s gone. The big casa on the hill tends to loom and disappear in a most dreamlike manner. It looks unreachable.

I phone for directions, which are pleasingly inexact. The castle is somewhere south of St. Clair and north of Dupont, off Spadina.

It’s a challenge to dress for the weather when the day is cloudy, clear, hot and cold, but I feel up to it.

I break out a brand new old pair of linen/cotton pants — three pairs for $10 when the Hercules army & creepy store closed on Yonge.

These are rare and valuable pants because they do up on the side. A lady has no need of a fly in the middle of her slacks. The lilac colour of my French-cuffed shirt is the result of a binge with a few boxes of use-at-your-own-risk dye.

This is a perfect day for the reversible sharkskin windbreaker I found on a dig in front of the now-gone Goodwill on College. Fashion costs cash. Style is in the free pile.

Flowery paradise

Irises are blooming everywhere on the ride to Casa Loma. The poppies are pedal-stopping. Downtown Toronto is a lush and flowery paradise marred only by the car doors flying in my face and chunks of carbon monoxide lodging in my throat.

Once under the overpass, Spadina becomes a staircase leading up the east side of the stone wall around the castle. A sign prohibits tour buses from idling in the parking lot.

The ticket seller warns me that the costume display is just a few dresses (20) in various rooms, in case I complain and demand my tenner back. “That’s fine. If I don’t take an audio guide, where do I start?”

“Wherever you want.” How refreshing. No security guards ordering, “This way, sir,” and staring at me askance.

In the Napoleon drawing room lined with carved oak wall panels that took three Germans three years to complete are a few frocks that were a lot of work to wear.

The ruffly, fussy pre-1910 confection that looks like it would fall apart at a touch emphasizes the Edwardian ideal of the S-shaped woman. Bustles, hoops, horsehair crinolines and whalebone corsets once held up these fancy fabric constructions that housed tiny ladies from the 1800s.

Casa Loma is not a sterile place. The “secret” staircase smells like feet. Little gangs of tourists are wandering around under huge timber beams, hesitating at a handpainted sign with two arrows, one pointing to the enclosed or Scottish tower, the other to the Norman or open tower (best views for cameras).

One dizzyingly tight spiral staircase winds up to a round room covered in Japanese graffiti, another to unguarded windy parapets.

A long, dank tunnel leads past huge furnaces from the Polson Iron Works to the royally appointed stables, and to the garage and potting shed, beneath which lies the mushroom-growing room.

Permanent display

There’s a permanent display of 20th-century bathing suits, two lovely trouser suits from the 1930s and a showcase dedicated to “sharing the joy of hats.”

Sir Henry was an honourary colonel who sponsored his own busby-hatted army. Lady Mary Pellatt was awarded the Silver Fish as the first chief commissioner of the Girl Guides. In a case there are photos of early guides in wide-brimmed hats and uniforms.

Explanatory text says the handbook is open to an account of a brave young capitalist girl who enters a burning building to save the payroll, but the page is turned to the inspiring tale of a woman who, despite the fact that her feet were crushed in childhood, walked all of central Africa “almost alone.”

Yes, Pellatt was wealthy but she lived simply and never drank wine.

It’s closing time. I linger as long as possible in the vain hope that someone will play a chord on the giant Wurlitzer organ with horn section, which came from Shea’s Theatre to replace Sir Henry’s $75,000 job that was sold off for $40.

I am chronically 75 years too late.

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