Irene of Montreal
Born in Bendzin, Poland, 1916 - Died in Montreal, 2001
1948 - 1976
Hat, Irene of Montreal, 1962. Gift of Nelly MacLean Burke, M2007.16.12.2 © McCord Museum
After fleeing Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1939, Irene Burstyn travelled first to Italy, lived in the Middle East and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and then moved to Canada in 1944 with her husband, Ignace Burstyn. In Montreal, she began making hats in 1948.
Although she had no formal training in millinery, she built a successful business thanks to her ingenuity and creativity.
Initially sharing a workshop on MacKay Street, she opened her own studio around 1957 at 1522 Sherbrooke Street West. Her hats often sported unusual shapes, which earned her much praise from the fashion press.
In 1954, she made all the hats for the Association of Canadian Couturiers’ New York City fashion show. For nearly thirty years, her creations were featured in the fashion shows of Montreal’s top fashion designers and couturiers and her clients were among the most prominent and well-dressed women in Canada. Fashion journalist Iona Monahan called her style “refined and international.” After closing her workshop in 1976, she turned to writing and began publishing short stories in the 1990s. Her collection of stories, Picking Up Pearls, was awarded the QSPELL (Quebec Writers’ Federation) First Book Award in 1997. Her literary career was interrupted by illness and she died in 2001 at the age of 85.
Fidelman, Charlie. “‘Irene of Montreal’ designed hats for elite”, The Gazette, 22 December 2001, p. A6.
Cynthia Cooper, McCord Museum
© McCord Museum 2019