As a young woman in her late 20s living in London, Jane Van Gelder was apprenticed to a French fashion designer. For a year, she learned all about draping material, cutting and sewing clothes. She then worked for another year in a salon to learn the business side of haute couture. As a Second World War evacuee from England, she arrived in Canada in 1940 without material resources and successfully made a place for herself beside Montreal’s established couturiers. Her Sherbrooke Street salon, a few doors from the Ritz-Carlton hotel, was a centre of fashion and meeting place for wartime evacuees and refugees, many of whom were artists and musicians who went on to have successful careers in Canada.
Shortly after arriving in Montreal, she was hired by Morgan’s department store, where she outfitted in uniform all the women who were going into the armed forces. Six months later, she left Morgan’s to found her own business, Jane Harris Limited, in 1941.
The new addition to Montreal’s well-established fashion designers emphasized her connections with Europe, especially England, and found her clientele primarily in the Anglophone community, a group that admired and emulated what it perceived as the British aristocracy’s approach to fashion.
The designer also saw herself as a fashion entrepreneur. She produced collections, which combined her fashion imports with designs made up from her own sketches, and presented them in unusual and dramatic fashion shows, often on location. With Gaby Bernier and other Montreal couturiers, Jane Harris designed costumes for the Quebec film Le Père Chopin, which opened in 1945.
Invited to be on the Montreal Refugee Committee, Jane Harris was the youngest member. Among the people she met through this organization, some became customers while others came to work for her. Her father, a London wool merchant, sent her fashion items to sell under the Dollars for Britain campaign in which quality goods, unavailable in Britain, were sold abroad to raise funds for the war effort. In 1950, in recognition of her contributions to this campaign, Jane was honoured at a reception given by the British Board of Trade at Lancaster House in London.
The post-war economic and social climate in Montreal was very conducive to her business. The Saint Andrew’s Ball, the high point of Montreal’s Anglophone community’s social calendar, had been suspended during the war. It was revived in 1945, with more splendour than ever, and named the Victory Ball. Over 2,000 guests attended, and 183 debutantes were presented to the guests of honour.
Jane Harris offered her clientele gowns with full skirts and bodices with pinched waists and off the shoulder necklines.
She acquired the exclusive Montreal distribution rights for Pierre Balmain of Paris for five years and Nina Ricci for two years. Her salon became known for its European prêt-à-porter, Italian sportswear and separates, and the designs of the Italian couturier, Emilio Pucci.
Sam Getz, Model in skirt by Jane Harris-Putnam, Montreal, about 1955. Gift of Jane Harris-Putnam, MP-1987.15.5012 © McCord Museum
Unknown photographer, Models in outfits by Jane Harris-Putnam, Montreal, late 1950s. Gift of Jane Harris-Putnam, MP-1987.15.5013 © McCord Museum
Initially established at 1324 Sherbrooke Street West, in 1955 Jane Harris’ salon moved farther along the street to number 1200, still only one block from the Ritz-Carlton. Apart from the salon’s Pierre Balmain, Paris, Boutique, most of her imported collections were British. From London, she imported a Susan Small collection of clothes priced at under $100. For her fashion shows, Jane often went on location and her themes often centred around travel, using as her context airplanes, boats, trains, cars and highways. In 1958, she launched the Air France Fashion Tours of Europe with a collection of clothes from England, France, Austria and Switzerland. Michelle Tisseyre, who had her own radio program at that time, gave the commentary for the event on French radio. Jane Harris’ fashion shows caught the attention of the media; articles were written about her, notably in Montreal’s Star Weekly magazine and the Canadian magazine Maclean’s.
When Jane Harris visited London in 1960, she saw in the bold, colourful clothes of Mary Quant a wind of change in fashion and a direction that she could never take. In 1961, she closed her business and returned to England. She was eventually drawn back to Canada to live, while still visiting England for part of each year. In June 1968, she directed one last fashion production as part of the Royal Commonwealth Society Centennial Celebration in London.
In 1991, Jane Harris-Putnam donated her archives to the McCord Museum of Canadian History. In 1997, the McGill University School of Social Work honoured Jane’s work with evacuees and refugees by giving her name to a graduate scholarship in social work. These events acknowledge the quality of this high-energy woman’s achievements in two very different areas of accomplishment.
Sharman, Lydia. “Fashion and Refuge: The Jane Harris Salon, Montreal, 1941-1961”, in Fashion: A Canadian Perspective, edited by Alexandra Palmer, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2004, p. 270-287.
Lydia Sharman, Dicomode
Cynthia Cooper, McCord Museum
© McCord Museum 2021