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Exploring historical dresses and the women behind them

Kingston Heritage
30 March 2015

We often chose clothing that reflects our personalities and the way we are feeling at the moment, but it is possible to learn about a person’s personality and their history simply by analyzing their garments? That is what dress historian Elaine MacKay and textile conservator Emma Neale wanted to find out – and they’ve learned a lot over the past three months.

“The project is to look at women’s clothing as a way of putting together a biography about them,” explained MacKay, a long time dress historian. “We assume that clothing reflects who we are and we wanted to turn that around and see if it works the other way too, and it does seem to pretty well.”

MacKay worked on the project with intern and textile conservator Emma Neale; they are recipients of The Isabel Bader Fellowship and Internship in Textile Conservation and Research, which is awarded to two successful applicants every two years and sponsored by Dr. Isabel Bader. The duo started the project by choosing a couple of garments from the expansive Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, which includes more that 2,500 items.

“Some of the pieces really spoke to us and one was even beyond repair, but we wanted to see what we could do,” said Neale. “My background is in military clothing, so this was a big change for me and I certainly learned a lot about silhouettes and the different women who wore them.”

Their work included research into a gown worn by Laura Roche at her coming out party, Eliza Gordon’s new dress as she embarked on a new chapter of her life wedded to Rev. D. M. Gordon, and an outfit owned by Mrs. W. R. P. Bridger, wife of a Royal Military College professor.

“The most interesting thing I learned was that you can in fact tell a lot about a person from how they dress,” said MacKay. “We’ve had a lot of great discoveries. Each piece is very unique and has its own story and that is so special.”

The project has also been very special for the art gallery itself. While the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress is a permanent collection at the centre, it usually doesn’t receive so much attention, especially when it comes to conservation.

“The program not only gives us fresh eyes and the ability to bring in expertise that we don’t have in house, but it also allows us to restore items that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” said Alicia Boutilier, Curator of Canadian Historical Art at the centre. “These pieces are all regionally based and it really shows the variety and lushness of clothing that women were wearing in Kingston in the 19th century.”

MacKay and Neale have been sharing their work with Queen’s students and others in the museum community over the past few weeks, but there are no plans for a special exhibit to showcase their work. Instead, they hope to publish their work and they hope others benefit from it.

“There is very little written about this period of dress in Canada, so it is important to get the work out there,” said MacKay. “The exposure is also wonderful for the collection moving forward and we hope more people are interested for that reason.”

For more information on the project an the permanent collection visit www.agnes.queensu.ca

Mandy Marciniak
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