Evelyn Tuck: pioneer of independence, producer of flair!

Evelyn Tuck has always been a woman ahead of her time.

Let’s look back, please, to the Great Depression, the 1930’s, and Barrie was as deprived as anywhere. People helped each other when and where they could. And Evelyn Tuck returned to Barrie to open a milliner’s shop. After a decade of apprenticeship in Toronto, where she designed and produced fashionable hats for fashionable ladies, Evelyn returned home to ply her trade on Barrie¹s main street–Elizabeth, it was called then.

Today, the Evelyn Tuck Shoppe is at 58 Dunlop St W, now the west half of Garner Sports. But in the 1930’s it was a three part shop, long and narrow, with wooden plank floors, a wooden ramp up to the door with show windows on both side of the entrance.

Imagine, if you can, on the west corner of Dunlop and Mary St McCullough’s Grocery Store. On the east corner was Williams Jewellery, then Graham¹s Butcher Shop, then Frank Dutcher’s Grocery and then Miss Tuck’s Millinery Shoppe. And in those windows were hats, hats, hats… glorious hats, silk lined, with just the right angle to obscure one eye, a feather to grace a demure cheek… an era when eroticism was subtle.

Evelyn Tuck sold hats to the “best” people in the country. Precious creations, designed in the front display room and sewn under natural light in the back workshop, packed in an Evelyn Tuck designer box and shipped from the train station which was then just down the street. Evelyn made custom hats and with her Toronto connections, she had loyal customers across the country.

And the ladies of Barrie society flocked for the perfect accent for a new frock. Easter was a huge season for Evelyn, as ladies purchased their new dresses from Mae Lucas, just down the street, or from Stransmans, or from Frank and Maisie Murphy¹s Sally Shop.

Evelyn took on her own apprentice eventually when Norma McFadden joined her. They were quite a team.

The master milliner travelled to Toronto to fit her customers. Evelyn’s shop was a destination location for people, and until the mid 70’s, Miss Tuck’s was a celebration of finery.

Rayner McCullough grew up behind Miss Tuck’s shop, kitty corner to his parents’ grocery store and just behind Miss Tuck’s workshop window. He looks back at her long career, spanning 40 years in Barrie¹s downtown, and says she was well ahead of her time. “She was a shrewd business woman, no doubt about it.” Evelyn came from a family of entrepreneurs… her sister Marjorie ran the hair salon inside Evelyn’s store, The Regina Curl Shoppe. Her brother, Nipper, had an infectious second hand shop. Her brother Hartley was a chiropractor. Her father was a builder.

For an unmarried woman in the middle part of this century to achieve the fame and independence that was Evelyn Tuck’s is a huge achievement. And Evelyn gravitated to other independent business women as her social circle. Lucretia Rowe, Mamselle Shopoff, Margaret Childs (the two forces behind Ovenden College), Margaret Stewart, Bea Lucas, Evelyn Gray, Gladys Fell (who owned the Silks Shop), Norma Berry, Sheila Dusome, Lena Honsberger (who owned Lena’s Lingerie on the main street), Marjorie and Blake Underhill, Frances Davie, and Audrey Green, who modelled Evelyn’s hats, Bart Simmons’ coats, and Stransman’s dresses at every fashion show held in town.

Women who were ‘unclaimed treasures’ [Lucretia Rowe’s phrase for her lifelong bacheloress status] were fiercely independent and highly celebratory. Imagine the excitement when Evelyn Tuck called Ernie Alexander in 1957 to build her own house. She bought her lot, at 110 Collingwood St., and Ernie constructed the home she lived in until this year. Parties, celebrations, barbecues! Mamselle was up on Codrington St in a log cabin, famous for her home made wine; Margaret Childs was at Big Bay Point producing prolific paintings; Lucretia was holding together the entire Progressive Conservative community from her house on Puget; Margaret Stewart was on Blake St.; Mrs Delaney, a superbly turned-out, time-sensitive professional, did Evelyn’s books.

What was so important about a hat? Audrey Green expresses it well. “It completed your outfit. It was style. It was colour. It was the accent of an ensemble. The angle. The shape of the brim. Hats were of major interest to women. Hats were fun.

“Evelyn was a great promoter. She worked really well at this. She worked every night, doing her designs, sewing, packaging, shipping. She cared for her father at his home on Dundonald St until she built her own home.”

And then hats took a fashion dive. In the early 70’s, bare heads became acceptable at church, and women abandoned hats as a fashion staple. Evelyn Tuck was in her 60’s. She retired.

Today, Evelyn is 96 years old and living quietly at Victoria Village, overlooking Queen’s Park, the scene of so much of Barrie’s major entertainment in the old days. And her generous nature continues as she makes notable donations to Victoria Village. Her most recent gift was the purchase of a fine piano and two seats and a keyboard for more portable functions. In celebration of music, of singsongs, of a simple era when someone played and others sang and companionship had no price.

Those of us today who take independence as our right, have much thanks to give to Evelyn, to all her ‘unclaimed treasures,’ her friends,

Thanks, Evelyn!