A Rare Glimpse into the Life and Style of Olive Diefenbaker

The Diefenbaker Canada Centre is proud to bring back its latest in-house exhibit, Silk, Satin, and Strength: A Narrative on Olive Diefenbaker.

After spending years in the Diefenbaker Canada Centre’s (DCC) vault, the Centre is excited to once again offer a viewing of the many gowns and garments worn by Olive Diefenbaker. These items offer visitors a unique gateway to the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s world of fashion and a glimpse at the glamour of John Diefenbaker’s wife, Olive.

As the title of the exhibit implies, Olive’s dresses are undoubtedly great pieces of fabric, but they can also be viewed as extensions of her character: a strong woman who possessed qualities of great charisma and at the same time offered calmness under pressure, tied together for a profound sense of class. It comes as no surprise that her wardrobe represented this balance of elegance and expression.

“As the Prime Minister’s wife, Olive had accumulated a multitude of sophisticated wear that she sported to political engagements among the likes of Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Queen Elizabeth II,” said Heather Fraser, DCC Curatorial, Exhibits, and Collections Manager. “Being the recipient of the gifted clothing, the DCC proudly presents these artifacts as a retrospective glance to the times of someone as notable as Olive Diefenbaker.”

Before becoming the Prime Minister’s wife, Olive Evangeline Freeman had an established career as a high school teacher and later as director of child guidance in Ontario. A supportive and confident woman, Olive encouraged her students to lead and develop confidence in their abilities. 

One example was when a third-year student, whom Olive regarded as highly intelligent and therefore enrolled him in fifth-year history, was not very confident in this decision and claimed he didn’t like to push himself. His uncertainty was met with Olive’s reassuring nature that this was exactly why she was so confident in this decision, because he didn’t even need to push himself. This boy went on to lead the student body.

Olive pushed for the advancement of women’s rights, publicly backing the suffrage movement and would often create a loyal following of women while on campaign with John, even at train stations where they would go off in separate directions on the platform to each of their individual circles of press.

Olive was outspoken and upfront and she wanted her personality to be reflected in her clothing choices. Often hosting political gatherings at 24 Sussex, and attending political engagements, Olive was always dressed for the occasion.

In the 1950s, dresses that emphasized the hourglass silhouette of a woman’s figure became popular which can be seen reflected in the exhibit as Olive was an enthusiast of these form-fitting clothes. As the years progressed into the styles of the 1960s, gowns were more expressive, colourful, and attention-grabbing. Olive’s taste progressed with the times as seen in the many bright garments.

Evident in the exhibit, Olive loved to wear bright and colourful gowns, symbolic of the times and of her bright, charismatic personality. Notable gowns of colour in the exhibit include a silk body-curving emerald-encrusted forest green dress and a hot pink dress with blue wave shapes along the bottom, an unmistakable 60’s look.

While she was known to show off her garments, she never crossed the line of being over-the-top ostentatious. She was acutely aware of the fine line between making a statement and being pretentious. She made sure her clothing matched her personality well, including many different neutral colours to offer a balance amongst her wardrobes. “Whether it was hosting a party for major political figures or going on multi-month campaign runs with John, Olive was always dressed for the occasion,” says Heather Fraser, curator of the exhibit.

Many of the gowns presented at the Silk, Satin, and Strength exhibit offer a look back to the times of fashion in the period of Olive Diefenbaker. It speaks volumes to Olive’s taste, and while fashion trends inevitably shift and some of her garments show it, there are also lots that remain fashionable even by today’s standard. Heather Fraser, curator of the exhibit, highlights the cream-coloured dresses which present timeless silhouettes and neutral colours that remain in today’s world of fashion.

What can be seen as a glance into her personality, the gown and garments of Olive Diefenbaker at the DCC progress with the trends of the years they were in fashion while simultaneously remaining true to who she was—dynamic and full of character.

Visit the Silks, Satin and Strength: A Narrative on Olive Diefenbaker exhibit.

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