Dazzled by the Italian glamour on display at Montreal’s McCord Museum

Aug 18 2016, 1:17 pm

I’m not a clotheshorse. You will never see me sitting in the front row of a fashion show, or breathlessly flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine to find out what the Do’s and Don’ts of the next season are. I honestly couldn’t tell you what this summer’s “in” colour is and I’m totally not losing any sleep over it.

I only have an inkling of an interest in those ‘Outfit of the Day’ (#OOTD) pictures some of you so painstakingly put together and post on your Instagram account, and I could live the rest of my days perfectly content not seeing another selfie showing me another designer shade of lipstick. You won’t find any high-end fashion designs in my closet and I don’t have a shoe closet. Serious wads of cash in my home are only spent for sneakers and training tights, and my decade as a competitive paddler means I own a disturbingly high number of flip-flops in every possible colour. Vivre et laisser vivre, my fine friends.

mccord museum

© Marilyn Aitken

In short, one would think that I would the last person to both attend and enjoy an exhibit on fashion. But here we are…

Since the end of May, Montreal’s McCord Museum has been celebrating Italian fashion from 1945 to today. Eleganza organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and presented by Holt Renfrew, celebrates the work of the most celebrated Italian designers, and – as the exhibition’s name would suggest – it does so in a very elegant style.

You don’t need to be that invested in fashion to recognize the familiar names on display. Valentino, Armani, Fendi, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Emilio Pucci… The impossibly gorgeous dresses from another era brought to life the black and white movies I love to watch even to this day. While I’m not one of those people who pine for the elegance of 1950s dinner parties and bemoan the lack of proper dinner attire and etiquette at high-end restaurants and bars, I do appreciate the bygone charm of a time that will no longer come around.

mccord museum

© Marilyn Aitken

The incredible detailing of the worksmanship and talent on display stopped me in my tracks. More than a few times the security guard had to reprimand people, who, utterly charmed by the detailed designs, would lean in too close to them and set off the alarm. It would have been hilarious if it didn’t keep on happening…

And there is no shortage of beautiful evening gowns, leisure wear, business suits, accessories and shoes to dazzle you. Ranging from the sublimely romantic to the in-your-face modern, there wasn’t a piece of designer clothing on display that didn’t show hints of the influence it continues to exert on modern designers today.

Some of the dresses and gowns on display from the 1950’s and 1960s could easily be worn today by women and no one would be the wiser. They are that beautiful and timeless. Some, however, like that dreadful ‘80s fashion (all shoulder pads and loose-fitting designs and leather) were as gaudy as they were back then, even when found behind glass-pane displays.

mccord museum

© Marilyn Aitken

On top of being a visually beautiful exhibition (it’s designer clothing, after all), the exhibition is wonderfully curated, offering glimpses into the times, via the Made in Italy documentary, and a vast amount of information on the era and the designers and seamstresses themselves.

And I’m certainly not the only person who was spellbound by the exhibition. Paul Gessel from the Ottawa Citizen wrote: “prepared to be dazzled”, while former Gazette fashion writer Eva Friede wrote that the exhibit “shows off the glamour, elegance, romance, whimsy and frequent funkiness of Italian fashion.”

McCord Museum: Montreal’s best-kept secret

As a side note, and as a long-time fan of the McCord Museum and its beautifully curated temporary and permanent exhibitions, I’ve always felt that it remains in the shadow of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which is arguably a flashier and larger institution. It’s a real shame, because you’re missing out. The McCord Museum has an incredible collection of objects, images and documents integral to Canada’s history over three centuries.

museum montreal


The Notman Photographic Archives alone are worth the price of admission. With some 400,000 photographs from the Montreal studio founded in 1856 by William Notman (1826-1891) and run by his sons until 1935 under the name Wm. Notman & Son, they are a veritable treasure trove of stunning black and white images of Montreal life during the latter half of the 19th century. If you are either a photography buff or a lover of history and this city, you won’t regret seeing this collection.

Finally, one last secret I’ll share, because we’re all looking to save a buck. While regular admission to the museum is $15 for the permanent collections and $20 for the main temporary exhibitions (like Eleganza), if you visit Wednesday nights after 5 p.m. you will only pay $9.50 for the temporary exhibition and everything else is accessed for free. It’s a sweet little deal that way too many people don’t know about.

You only have about a month left to catch Eleganza, so I wouldn’t wait. Go get your Prada on, people!