Friday, July 20, 2007

A Fashion Historian Taught Me That!

I came across Ivan Sayers’ name when a friend told me my outfit was hideous.

I was wearing a fitted white blouse and this jean skirt I bought in Thailand with a sequined pirate on it over opaque red tights. “What? Should I be wearing a grey, ill-fitting Smart Set t-shirt and sweat pants like YOU? Hummph,” I said. In fact, I hummphed all evening. I hummphed until I got the brilliant idea of taking a course on fashion history so I could claim to be the expert. Turns out there is no class available for people not enrolled in a fashion program. But there are lots of historical fashion lectures held by Sayers all around B.C.

The 60-year-old is known in Vancouver’s small fashion community because of the lectures and historical fashion shows he presents. As curator for the Original Costume Museum Society, a group dedicated to preserving historical clothing from around the world, Sayers is able to bring his expertise and biting sense of humour to the public.

The group’s some 150 members want to create a local museum dedicated to historical fashion, textiles and fabric art spanning 1800 to 1985. But the road toward Vancouver’s first fashion museum isn’t paved in satin. They can’t afford the $15 million it would cost to establish, develop and operate the museum. So for now, the society has no home. Its collection is currently being held at Sayers' private residence and at Hycroft Manor.

I had to find out more. Why isn't there enough money to fund a fashion museum in Vancouver? Winnipeg has one! And who is this man? How did he become such an expert? So I called Sayers up and he agreed to meet with me to discuss life, fashion, museums and false teeth.

What is the most significant obstacle preventing you and the OCMS from opening a fashion museum in Vancouver?

Sayers: Money. That’s the only thing missing. I think a fashion museum in Vancouver would be very, very successful. We just need someone with deep pockets to fund the project. And we're always putting on events to stir up interest and raise our profile.

When did your interest in historical fashion begin?
Sayers: “My parents were involved in amateur theatre when I was very young, and were officers in the Salvation Army in the Okanagan. My mother made costumes for the local theatre company, the Summerland Singers and Players. I built my own museum in the garage when I was 13 and I would make little labels for all of my pieces. That’s how I played. I eventually ended up working for the Vancouver Museum for 20 years and made a career out of it.”

What was your first collectible piece?
Sayers: “It was a black lace dress from around 1931. I bought it in 1963 when I was 16 for a friend to wear as a little old lady in a play. I paid five cents for it.”

Do you still have it?

Sayers: “Yes, it’s upstairs in a box somewhere. I’d show it to you but it would probably take me an hour to find it.”

How will you feel when the OCMS opens the museum and your collection finds a home?
“Relief! I have a three-bedroom house, and I sleep on the floor in the dining room because the bedrooms are full of clothing. I can’t get fat or I won’t be able to fit between the rows and rows of boxes. But I will feel torn when most of the clothes are gone. I’m a bit of a control freak, and I’m very protective. I jokingly say, if a man can’t look after his dresses, his dresses can’t look after him, but what I mean is if I don’t look after the collection I can’t use it to continue to make a living.”

What are you reading right now?
“I don’t read fashion magazines because modern fashion doesn’t interest me. Right now I’m reading The Strange Story of False Teeth, which I have read twice already. I plan to use the stories to keep my audience awake! Because in the 1820s most people by the age of 25 would have serious dental problems like decay and abscesses, bad breath was a serious social problem. People always think women used fans to be coquettish, but the real reason was to cover up their bad breath and deflect the breath of others.

What really bothers you?
Tattoos. I think appearance is fluid and tattoos are too permanent. People’s appearance will and should change just as their life and personality will, and I think tattoos are limiting and ugly.

What’s the best part about your job?
“Anybody who’s had an audience knows it’s addictive, and it’s a very large ego-boost. I have actual fans. I’m not joking. People have actually called me on the telephone and told me my work has changed their lives. I think people find it inspiring that I do what I love, even though I barely make enough money to live.”

Why are you so fascinated by clothing?
“It’s a way of depicting how you interpret your character and your personality. You dress the way you do, usually within the restrictions of modern fashions,” (eyeing my little short-sleeved, velvet jacket with gaudy gold buttons from the Sally Ann) “but you dress the way you do because it’s a code to other similar people. It’s a way for you to cut to the chase. And you will find the more precise you are about it, the more likely you are going to be to find the counterpart; the person who is on the same wavelength. I find all of these intricacies fascinating.”

What? I had never before thought of myself as restricted by fashion. And to what “chase” am I cutting? Now that I’ve been exposed to Sayers’ world, I want him to show me how to interpret myself through those who came before me. I want to know how women’s adventure-travel wear from the 1890s relates to my interpretation of packing light. And I want Sayers to know I am his newest fan.

Photos courtesy of Gerhard von Rosen


Anonymous said...

Hey! I rather like smart set.. ;) Yeah it's not so funky though. But it provides basics that you can funki-fy with some creativity. Throw a crazy satin ribbon over a jersey dress and voila, you have one of chulo pony's $200 dresses without going in debt (yes I missed the sample sale...)

Gazella said...

Not really. Did you go to the one before the last chulo pony sample sale? That one was raided with people, but this recent one was basically the same clothing with one/two extra rack of new items. Not as exciting, I left with nothing if that makes you feel better. :)

Gazella said...

Oh, and I definately want to check out this Ivan Sayers guy, he seems knowledgable! :O

Lena said...

Sorry about bashing Smart Set! I actually have some cute stuff from there! I just hate when people who wear plain t-shirts criticize other people who like to dress "with flair..." I also love to funk-ify. Thinking about adding some fringe to a square silk scarf this weekend. (oh-em-gee!)
And Gazella, you should definitely check out this dude... we have to bring a fashion museum to Van.

Gazella said...

Haha, I want to check out this dude, did you just call him up Lena?

And yes, I'm so down with bringing a fashion museum here!

CountryGirl_CityLife said...

so interesting! This was a great post. Your outfit sounds so not hideous to me.

Lena said...

Hehe thanks! I sometimes like to walk the fine line between edgy and slightly trashy but only when it gets dark!
And Gazella, I looked up a bunch or articles about him on the Vancouver Courier's website and found his number and called him up. If you want to know more, I can give you his number, or you can check out Gerhard's website for info on past and upcoming shows (it's at the bottom of the post: I totally think we should review one of his historical shows!

Stylefinder (Editor) said...

Hey, I agree, we should totally follow up on one of his future shows!

And PS - wasn't there something about invite-only sales? Because I really really want an invite...


Lena said...

Yes, he does have invite-only sales every now and again.
We'll have to rack our brains to figure out how to get invited to the next one. Maybe if we bake him a three-tiered cake that looks like a dress? Mmmmm.


OCMS said...


I would like to link this to the Original Costume Museum Society's Facebook Fan Page.

Here's the link:

If you have a Facebook Account please join this group and let's support Ivan!

Thanks for writing this article!