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Sim Salata - Collections Manager

18 Dresses for a Big Day this Fall

Sim Salata - Collections Manager

One of the best parts of my job is conducting artefact research for specific exhibitions and upcoming events.

For the past couple of days, besides responding to a huge surge of potential donation queries (spring cleaning and fall housing sales make collections exciting!),  I have been combing through our collection management software records, looking at the Grey Roots’ women’s dress collection, in order to find dresses for the upcoming fashion show fundraiser being held at Grey Roots on November 15th.

Of 137 dresses in the collection, we have chosen 18 for their range in era from 1899 to about 1980, colour, fabric and aesthetic attraction.  All of these dresses are in good to excellent condition, and illustrate how women’s fashion has really changed over approximately 115 years in Grey County.  These dresses won’t be worn, but will be displayed on mannequins in the foyer the day of the fashion show.  Seven of the dresses are wedding gowns, one evening gown was worn by Agnes Macphail when she met Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth in 1951, and one is a late 1800’s “tea gown” designed for elegant entertaining and lounging at home, while pouring tea for one’s guests.

The oldest dress to be shown, an 1889 red satin two-piece gown with a dogwood pattern over it, was worn by Margaret Taylor when she married William Henry Foulds on July 1, 1889, when she was 23 years old, likely in Sydenham Township or Owen Sound.  William worked aboard a Canadian Pacific Railway steamship, the S.S. MANITOBA.  Unfortunately, their marriage was short-lived, as he was struck with black diphtheria, and died in 1892, three years after their marriage, at the age of 28, leaving Margaret with their twins, Lillian and William, to care for.

The change in fashions is quite extraordinary in 115 years.  From custom and home-made dresses that are ankle-length and long-sleeved and heavy, there is a transition to the high-necked, belted and light-weight white lawn dresses of the early 1900s, and more factory-made items.  After World War I, the loose flapper-type dresses of the 1920s led to the baggy 1930s depression-style clothing styles, with very little to no extra decoration or frippery.  Women’s fashion styles followed men’s into the 1940s, when double-breasted and militaristic-type, fitted waist lines and skirts echoed the features of men’s World War II military uniforms.  The 1950s brought post-war wealth and prosperity, which is reflected in the use of yards and yards of lace, full skirts held up by layers of crinolines, the use of satin, and applying hundreds of seed pearls on wedding dresses of that era.

Agnes C. Macphail, the first woman elected to the Canadian Parliament, was presented to Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, when they were guests at Ottawa in October, 1951, wearing a long, all-black, heavy-weight silk evening dress with a voluminous skirt and a single velvet shoulder strap.  This dress is simply stunning and in excellent condition, as it was most likely, only worn once.  Luckily, we have a full-bodied mannequin that pulls off this dress very well.

After the 1950s, hemlines rise and things get simpler in response to a more relaxed social atmosphere.  They come down again with the hippie movement and surge of 1970s feminism.  So far, Grey Roots only has one wedding dress in the collection from this era.  We are looking for wedding dresses from the 1960s onward, that tell the stories of weddings that happened in Grey County.  If they are Grey County hand-made creations, all the better!

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