From opulent evening gowns, chic cocktail wear and smart daytime apparel, the garments featured in the exhibition Christian Dior are drawn from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. Which begs the question: just how did the ROM go about building such a fabulous wardrobe?

From the get-go, fashion and textiles have been an integral part of the ROM’s collection. While the museum’s first director, Charles T. Currelly, was primarily known as collector of antiquities, he invested considerably in the acquisition of period costume, primarily 18th century dress for men and women. However, two pivotal developments in 1957 were what really shaped the ROM’s contemporary collection. That year saw the founding of the Fashion Group International Toronto (FGIT), the sole Canadian chapter of a global non-profit organization created to foster the growth of the fashion industry. Significantly, the FGIT designated the ROM as its charitable partner. Even more importantly, 1957 was the year that ROM curator Betty Brett began to consciously collect couture and, in doing so, she reversed a long standing museum policy not to collect material under 50 years of age.

“So there was a sort of general call for couture, and a lot of women went into their wardrobes and gave pieces to the museum,” explains Dr. Alexandra Palmer, Senior Curator, Fashion and Textiles at the ROM and curator of the exhibition Christian Dior. “These clothes didn’t have the value that they have today – there wasn’t a big secondhand market, this idea of ‘vintage’ didn’t exist. So what do you do but give your clothes to the museum and hope that they take them.”

Of course, these donations to the museum came from women of a certain station, namely Toronto socialites. However, Palmer notes that while the clothes were indeed expensive luxury items, they were not astronomically unaffordable at the time.

Palmyre (detail view) from the Autumn-Winter 1952 – 53 collection. The dress was worn by Toronto socialite Dorothy Boylen.

 “Women needed these clothes for the charitable organizations that they often founded: the Junior League, the hospital Auxiliary, the Art Gallery of Toronto [now the AGO],” says Palmer. “All of these women’s committees were incredibly important – they organized balls and events around that, as well just as the regular social season of, you know, the races, the debutante balls, provincial legislature meetings. It was just a different time.”

Often enough the clothing items that made their way to the ROM were those of Dior. It’s worth noting that the story of Dior in Canada is inextricably linked with Holt Renfrew, which in 1951 had obtained exclusive rights to sell the label in this country  —  a business relationship that endures to this day.

Holt Renfrew advertisement in Mayfair, 1952

“Dior] definitely was a pioneer in terms of licensing deals and controlling his own brand in a very complete way,” says Palmer. “You couldn’t just sell Dior stockings – you had to have a license. So that was very important, because that meant that Dior could no longer sell to Eaton’s or Simpsons and other shops. [Holt Renfrew] had to guarantee a certain amount of sales, but they had access to all of the licensed products.”

See for yourself what the some of the most fashionable women in Canada wore over a half-century ago when Christian Dior opens this Sunday, February 3.