MONTREAL — Fifty years after Montreal hosted a world’s fair to mark Canada’s centennial, Expo 67 is generally remembered for art, architecture and infrastructure rather than miniskirts.
But that’s something Montreal’s McCord Museum is trying to change with “Fashioning Expo 67,” an exhibit that seeks to resurrect what its curator calls a “forgotten moment” in Canadian fashion.
To commemorate the city’s 375th birthday and Expo’s 50-year anniversary, the museum has assembled more than 60 outfits from the fair, from hostess uniforms to the designer duds that graced the runways of the exposition’s numerous fashion shows.
The exhibit also includes archival TV footage, images, documents, sketches and audio interviews with the designers themselves.
From groovy summer dresses worn by roller-skating models to fur coats and ballgowns, Expo 67 was a moment of “tremendous pride” in Canadian fashion, according to exhibit curator Cynthia Cooper.
“Expo created a lot of opportunities for the fashion milieu,” she said. “(Designers’) messages were very similar (to that of the fair): of being optimistic, avant-garde, very forward-looking, very modern and contemporary.”
She describes 1967 as a time of transition in women’s fashion, when designers were just beginning to make the shift from more formal, structured clothing to the skin-baring, psychedelic styles that would define the late ’60s.
That tension between old and new is evident in the exhibit’s collection of about a dozen official hostess outfits, designed for the young women who served as official greeters at the fair’s 90 pavilions.
It was a time when the miniskirt was just coming into fashion, and uniform designers had to grapple with whether to embrace the modern style or go with a traditionally professional look.
For the record, Canada played it relatively safe with a light-blue jacket and knee-length skirt combo, designed by Quebec’s Michel Robichaud.
Britain, on the other hand, went with a daring striped mini and proudly proclaimed all its hostesses “would wear skirts four inches above the knee and have nice legs,” Cooper said.
More than 50 million people travelled to the island southeast of Montreal between April and October 1967 to visit the various pavilions, exhibits and displays, all designed around the theme “Man and His World.”
Opportunities for Canadian designers were everywhere, from outfitting dignitaries to showing off their wares at various fashion shows.
The McCord’s collection includes four formal gowns designed for Marie-Claire Boucher Drapeau, wife of Montreal’s then-mayor, Jean Drapeau.
Another section shows the colorful, casual summer clothing worn by models on roller skates during a weekly fashion show at the Canadian pavilion known as “the great Canadian fashion caper.”
The politics of the day seeped into the garments, despite organizers’ best efforts to keep the event neutral.
Quebec designer Jacques de Montjoye shocked a fashion show audience with a dress called “Vietnam”: a tunic with a red splotch designed to look like a bloodstain, worn under an American flag-patterned cape.
Another Montjoye creation, a green dress depicting a snow-covered tree, is titled “Mon pays c’est l’hiver” — a tribute to Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon pays,” a song that has become an anthem of Quebec’s nationalist movement.
Despite the widespread presence of fashion at Expo 67, Cooper isn’t sure whether it had a long-term impact on Canadian design.
Unlike the public art and some of the pavilions that are still standing 50 years later, she says the fashion shows were quickly forgotten — perhaps due to what she calls the “ephemeral” nature of fashion itself.
“Maybe it’s because the (fashion) field has to always look to the future,” she said. “When something is over they have to be look to the next thing and not sit on their laurels remembering what a wonderful moment Expo was.”
“Fashioning Expo 67” runs from March 17 to Oct. 1.