The mid-century Toronto haute couturier Angelina, who died recently aged 99, was a dressmaker to society ladies in a city that was changing from a dour provincial capital into a self-styled world class city, chasing the latest in wealth, glamour and style.
Her clients included the wives of beer magnates, sports executives, retail kingpins and gold mining barons, often dropped off by chauffeur at her storefront fitting rooms in a house that was also her home at the foot of the Avenue Road hill north of Davenport. She chose it because it was a step closer to Forest Hill than the crumbling Victorians of nearby Yorkville, now a swank shopping area, then a dodgier quarter of hippies, beatniks, drugs and coffee houses.
It was a world away from the house on Gerrard Street in working class East York where Angelina moved after immigrating from Italy as a young mother, with a husband who would eventually leave their arranged marriage to return to the old country, leaving her a single mother of three with a talent for fine fashion, in a city populated by rich women desperate to buy it.
Later, when Angelina’s name was dropped in the fashion pages of Mayfair or Maclean’s, sometimes with her first married name Palumbo or her second Fabbro, it was often with a reference to the unjustified expense of “Paris originals,” or a criticism of the latest impractical cut by Balenciaga, and how Toronto fashion played in the same league.
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Toronto couture was small but mighty, though Angelina felt the word was overused and misused by mere clothes-makers.
“Many people call themselves couturiers for prestige reasons, but to be a couturier one must be able to produce a garment about which everything is right — the cut of the material, the making and design, the lining and interlining,” she once told an interviewer.
Her view in the 1960s was that there were then only about half a dozen such couturiers in each of Toronto and Montreal. But she saw a future in it, driven by Canada’s future, and particularly Toronto’s, because fashion follows money.
“Chic becomes the automatic corollary of wealth,” Angelina said.
Rich people can be demanding, and some would demand five fittings, but Angelina maintained two was sufficient. Others would ask for a skirt cut shorter than Angelina felt was best.
“It is my duty to tell her she shouldn’t wear her skirt that way. Normally a woman’s knee is not always a thing of beauty,” Angelina said.
She was exacting in her work but practical in her outlook. She maintained that a good suit takes 40 to 45 hours of work. She preferred fine fabric to fur, and thought a smart new cloth coat every few years was a better investment, dollar for dollar, than “the same old mink forever.”
In 1971, then aged 46, she observed that if she tried to look 36, she would look 56. “Fashion is fine but if I have to distort my figure to be in fashion, then I won’t be in fashion,” she said.
At a certain level, craft can become art. Her dresses, for example, were shown at Expo 67 in Montreal. A 2004 fashion retrospective at the Royal Ontario Museum included her black lace cocktail gown.
Born Angela Pacione in Bari in southern Italy on Nov. 12, 1923, her chosen nickname and brand identity of Angelina became so much a part of her identity that it was later on her Canadian citizenship documents.
She was taught to be a seamstress both informally by her aunt and formally in a fashion school, but was diverted from the trade by her early arranged marriage and the war. She became Angelina Palumbo by marriage to Giovanni Palumbo, and their first child died in infancy. In 1950, with a young son Carmen and extended family members, they immigrated to Canada, soon buying the house on Gerrard. Daughters Teresa and Chiara were born in Toronto.
She found work as a seamstress in the St. Regis Room at Simpson’s at Queen and Yonge, now The Bay, where she met some future clients. Later, as an employee of a dressmaker in Yorkville, she clashed with the owner over standards and quality. She would simply have to run her own business. She bought the Avenue Road house in 1955.
In time, her basement workshop became a main floor shopfront with fitting rooms. In June 1959, for the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the wife of George Wilson, head of Toronto’s Harbour Commission, wore a silk dress by Angelina. Soon after, when she met the Queen, it was in an Angelina dress, “a beautiful gown of sunlight satin with long chiffon drapery.”
In 1961, Angelina’s “cocktail suit” was the “sensation” of a show by the Association of Canadian Couturiers, according to The Globe and Mail. In 1962, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record put a picture on the front page of her “cape ensemble of grey lattice tweed,” in which “slanted seams spiral around the body of the figure-defining tunic effect dress.”
In Montreal in 1963, at an all-cotton collection sponsored by the Canadian Cotton Council, the Gazette reported Angelina “drew applause with her giant, full sleeves in a white swiss embroidered cotton gown topped with a white cotton pique evening coat with the matching floral lining and helmet headpiece.”
The Sudbury Star was mightily impressed in 1965, when she was a guest at the summer home on Lake Ramsey of Mayor Joe Fabbro.
“Angelina, of Toronto, who has five seamstresses turning out ‘haute couture’ for a steady core of some 100 customers, happily admits to earning far more than $10,000 a year when she was interviewed,” wrote women’s editor Betty Meakes.
“Chatting easily, seated surrounded by some of her many sketches and photographs of her prize-winning designs, amid swatches of fine fabrics, Angelina punctuated her witty and staccato replies to queries with some amusing anecdotes of her days in the fashion world, both in Canada and Europe, and added some delightful nuances to English phrases with an Italian flavor,” Meakes wrote.
Angelina would later marry Fabbro’s older brother Louis, an architect in Sudbury, who predeceased her in 1992.
In 1966, she agreed to make hostess outfits for the public tours of the then-new Toronto-Dominion Centre, designed to great acclaim by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a major expression of Toronto’s developing corporate power.
Angelina’s presence in the fashion pages through this period led to many collaborations that became friendships, such as with Iona Monahan, the late pioneering fashion journalist who has a square named for her in Montreal’s garment district.
“I am sorry to unburden myself to you in this way but I know that you are as interested in perfection as I am,” Monahan, then fashion and beauty editor of Mayfair magazine, wrote to Angelina in May 1959. Monahan had just endured a “bad and hectic day in the studios” at CBC, and confessed that Angelina’s rose print dress, which she made special effort to include, could not be used because “white is often a problem on television and sometimes the glare cannot be controlled…. As I wired you, I have kept the pink dress (without the organdy) and I think it is magnificent. Would you bill me at the above address as soon as possible?”
A few weeks later, Iona wrote again: “I have just seen the stunning outfit you made for The Globe & Mail editorial and am so pleased that you will be receiving this nice piece of publicity! The coat reminded me that you have not billed me for the pink cotton dress which was a “succes fou in Puerto Rico — in New York — and here in Montreal. Please send me a note as to how much I owe you for that beautiful dress.”
Monahan had other concerns. The singing star Phyllis Marshall, whose career was taking off, was touring Europe and needed clothes. Could Angelina help? CBC would guarantee they get plenty of publicity. Angelina sent two skirts and a blouse, and a blue wool skirt decorated with the coats of arms of various Italian cities and cathedrals, such as the keys to St. Peter’s and the Caravella de Genoa.
Monahan replied that the idea was “just perfect…. I look forward to hearing from you…. AND WHERE IS THE BILL???????????”
Angelina’s home and workshop at 303 Avenue Road no longer exists, replaced by condos. She died at her new home nearby, though, of natural causes in September. Her hundredth birthday would have been last month.