The Koffler Gallery’s latest exhibit employs used clothing to tell tales of the city
Most art installations don’t let you try on the pieces displayed. Or take home other people’s clothing. Then again, most art installations aren’t located on the second floor of Honest Ed’s, in full view of the men’s department, right next to the hair salon.
But until March, Toronto’s most idiosyncratic department store is playing host to Honest Threads, an interactive sartorial history of the city’s population.
Close to 100 Torontonians have volunteered items of clothing for the exhibit, and are sharing the stories behind the clothes. Honest Threads is equal parts art installation, boutique and lending library: Visitors are encouraged to sign out any item of clothing that catches their eye and wear it for a few days. “You will have the opportunity to try a different identity by wearing someone’s clothes,” explains Iris Häussler, the artist behind the exhibit. “You will literally be walking in someone else’s shoes. Then you bring it back and, we hope, add your own story to our guest book by writing about your experience in the clothing.”
Honest Threads is the first of what will be many off-site installations from the Koffler Gallery over the next two years as its home at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre undergoes a major renovation.
“This exhibit really was designed for Toronto,” says Häussler, who moved here from Munich in 2001. “People here are willing to tell their stories.”
Häussler attempted a similar installation in a small town in eastern Germany in the mid-’90s, but it was marred by a distinct lack of participation. “In Eastern Europe at the time, people weren’t so open,” she observes. “And maybe it’s more difficult to define your own story when you’ve lived in the same place for your whole life. In Toronto, everyone is from somewhere else.”
The immigrant experience was the what attracted the gallery to Honest Ed’s. “Ed Mirvish was an immigrant who made a huge impact on Toronto’s cultural and business scenes and the store is such a landmark,” explains curator Mona Filip. “The store is not just a unique architectural presence, but it’s often where recent immigrants come to furnish their first homes. It’s like the Ellis Island of Toronto.”
Häussler has collected garments and accessories from an assortment of Torontonians, including a few of the city’s more prominent citizens, such as the Mirvish family and restaurateur Jamie Kennedy. “We’ve received a huge variety of things,” she says. “Several wedding dresses, shoes, children’s pieces — even an old kit bag from [the Second World War].”
And anyone on the lookout for a pair of white satin wedding shoes should stop by. “It would be nice if someone else wanted to get married in them,” Brydon Gombay says of her contribution. “I’m not sure how they survived all of the times I’ve moved, but they’re still here, and I’ve been married for over 50 years now!”
For some donors, Honest Threads offered an opportunity to reflect on family history. “When I sat down to write about my grandmother for the exhibit, I realized what a tragic life she had had up until the time she met my grandfather,” says Kristen den Hertog, who has offered the pair of gloves her grandmother got married in. “They were married for more than 60 years — a feat that seems to be becoming more and more rare — and I felt the gloves were symbolic of that kind of bond. For that reason, I am thrilled at the prospect of someone wearing them.”
Even Häussler will donate something: a pair of her signature cargo pants, which she’s worn for 20 years. “They’re not exactly beautiful, but they’re meaningful to me,” she says.
Honest Threads runs to March 8 at Honest Ed’s (581 Bloor St. W.).
Georgiana Uhlyarik’s yellow hat, which her mother made for her in 1972, the year Uhlyarik was born.