Expo 67 fashion exhibit recalls groovier times in Montreal

Montreal was never groovier than in 1967, and a new exhibition at the McCord Museum is about to remind us why.

Fashioning Expo 67, which opens March 17, features more than 60 outfits worn at Montreal's now legendary international and universal exposition.

Space-age uniforms worn by Expo 67 hostesses and haute couture dresses by Montreal designers of the day like Michel Robichaud, Marielle Fleury and Jacques de Montjoye are just a few of the exhibition's highlights.

In an interview on CBC Montreal's Cinq-à-Six, De Montjoye said the spirit of Expo 67's futuristic, awe-inspiring architecture helped fire the imaginations of fashion designers working in Montreal at the time.

"It was very stimulating for us, to see that architecture, these shapes, these colours — it was very exciting," he said.

A message of modernity

Like the architecture, fashion served to project Expo 67's vision of a world made better, more unified by art, design and technology.

The various uniforms worn by the army of hostesses who served as guides at Expo 67's 90 pavilions were a case in point.

"All the pavilions at Expo communicated a message that was really about modernity and what it was like to be a modern nation or to participate in this project of modernity," said Cynthia Cooper, the exhibition's curator.

"[The hostesses] were dressed in ways that were consistent with the pavilion's message."

Montreal's then-mayor Jean Drapeau approached designer Michel Robichaud to come up with the now iconic sky blue uniforms worn by Expo 67's official hostesses.

A video interview of Robichaud explaining that process is part of the exhibition.

"The uniform was his creation, but he describes how the whole time he had Jean Drapeau's expectations in mind," Cooper said.

"The hostess was going to be the first thing that people saw when they arrived on site. So, she had to look very good — attractive, but professional — and there had to be something about that uniform that had to provide instant recognition."

Rise of the miniskirt

Cooper said the general hostess uniform, with its gloves and hat, was in fact "quite conservative" for 1967 — a year that saw the miniskirt rising to fashion prominence.

"We had one hostess tell us that after inspection, she would roll her skirt to shorten it by one inch," Cooper said.

Hemline politics played out at pavilions across the Expo 67 site, led by Great Britain's pavilion.  

Swinging London was at its mod peak in 1967 and British pavilion organizers wanted its hostesses to reflect the famous "London Look."

They tasked designer Roger Nelson with producing the uniform, which included a miniskirt four inches above the knee.

"The [British Pavilion] commissioner presenting the uniforms to the press said he hoped that wasn't going to shock Canadians, though it might have been even shorter at home," Cooper said.

A dress called 'Vietnam'

Despite Expo 67's best efforts to keep its Utopian vision of Star Trek-style unity front and centre, keeping national and international politics at bay proved impossible.

French President Gen. Charles de Gaulle shouting "Vive Le Quebec Libre!" from the balcony of Montreal's city hall didn't help, nor did a dress designed by de Montjoye called "Vietnam."

"The cape was the American flag and, underneath, was a Vietnamese costume with a spot of red satin like blood," he said.

The dress made its debut at a Canadian Pavilion fashion show organized by Montreal fashion maven Iona Monahan for a select group of fashion journalists.

Monahan wasn't happy with the provocative dress, de Montjoye said, and refused to introduce it.

"So I ran onto the stage, took the microphone and said 'Vietnam!'," de Montjoye recalled.

"It was like a slap!"

Fashioning Expo 67 opens Mar. 17, 2017, at the McCord Museum. It runs until Oct. 1, 2017.​