The Ivan Sayers Story

It is popular to offer the fatuous advice: follow your passion. It is inspiring to meet someone who has done that very thing. The eminent fashion historian and collector, Ivan Sayer, planned his first museum as a child in the Okanagan. 

Located in the family garage, he collected perceived treasures from the dump and thrift shops, carefully hand-labelling the artifacts. By 20, his plans had matured and he began assembling old, but still extraordinary, clothes to create a museum of costume.

If the study of fashion history was to change Sayer's life, his personal history was forever tied to the Salvation Army. Badly shaken by Ivan's mother prolonged ill health and considerable pain, his parents found faith and solace in the Salvation Army. The Army gave new scope for Ivan's father who found fulfilment in mission work--particularly with the homeless and alcoholic. From successfully fund-raising for a new mission building, to work as a chaplain for a Canadian penitentiary, the Army helped both parents to fulfil latent potential. 


The drawback was that God's work didn't pay well and a teenage Ivan needed a strategy if he was to complete a degree in Classics at the University of British Columbia in the 1960s. Following his passion for antique and designer clothing, Ivan developed a scheme to collect for his museum and provide for his keep. An engaging young man he prevailed on two middle-aged employees, named Gwen and Ethel, at the Salvation Army store on 12th Avenue, Mount Pleasant to put aside the older and more interesting clothing donations. The better examples would be kept and the lessor sold to antique stores and at garage sales for Ivan’s living essentials. Gwen and Ethel were endangering their jobs, or at least the wrath of their supervisor, but it is likely that they caught Ivan’s enthusiasm for preserving articles of cultural importance. Without Ivan, and his unlikely co-conspirators, many objects of beauty would have a one-way trip to the dump. The Salvation Army provided the structure of Ivan’s burgeoning collection.  While many of the clothing items found were divorced from their histories, Ivan had to rely on research and his expanding knowledge to place the articles within an appropriate social context. Starting with a fringed 1860s dress in ribbed silk, Ivan has a parade of clothes—all drawn from the “Sally Anne” that embody the spirit of each decade. There is pretentious German expression for this: the zeitgeist.

But each fashion artefact captures a unique time and places when people had different priorities and fresh beliefs. More importantly each garment presents a visual and tactile history of ordinary people, and the often hidden lives of women. A fragment of lace or bolt of silk is an eloquent witness to the ephemeral beauty of everyday life.

Written by Denise Jacques