Deep in a vault below the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, a small group of women from Kingston’s past are finally being given a voice.
The women, all members of the city’s high society from the 19th century, are being remembered through the clothes they wore.
Dress historian Elaine MacKay and textile conservator Emma Neale have been working at the centre under the 2015 Isabel Bader Fellowship in textile conservation and research. It is awarded every two years and sponsored by Isabel Bader.
The two have taken several ensembles from the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress and are restoring them to their former sartorial splendour.
A key part of the project is learning more about the women who wore the clothes. But researching women can be more difficult than finding out about their male counterparts, MacKay said.
“It is really hard to find anything out about historical women because they are the wives of their husbands, who are the important ones. You have all these men in the history books, but the women leave their clothes.”
Working on garments from the Kingston area allowed them to key in on several specific women who wore them, including Laura Roche, Eliza Gordon, the wife of Rev. D.M. Gordon, and Mrs. W.R.P. Bridger, the wife of a Royal Military College professor.
“They definitely have names and histories,” MacKay said.
They were able to find out a fair bit about Gordon, but Roche was harder to research, although they believe she was a United Empire Loyalist.
Bridger was also a bit of a mystery.
“Again, I haven’t found out very much about her, which is really frustrating,” MacKay said.
But they had enough of the women’s clothing to follow them through their lives and see the changes in fashion trends.
What they wore said a lot about the person, she explained.
“We project who we are through our dress, even if we are not aware of it,” MacKay said.
The women, and the other ladies in Kingston’s society of the time, played a key role in the city’s history, she continued.
“These women were really important; they were important to the community. They essentially started the hospital. They had all kinds of organizations taking care of the poor, and immigrants coming to Canada, when they were ill.”
Their community work wasn’t just some idle pastime of the rich, MacKay stressed.
“They were doing it as a serious business and I think we tend to forget that. Most people don’t know how much they actually did. They were real people. They don’t really have a voice, so this is another way of giving them that voice,” she said.
“It’s not just the history of these people, it’s the history of the community.”
Neale is from Australia and graduated in conservation only last December.
“It has been a real whirlwind and great for my career to kick off with a placement here in Canada,” she said.
Neale had been looking at specializing in textiles and has a background in working with military uniforms.
Coming to Kingston and working on the university’s collection has been a welcome change.
“To work on such nice gowns and beautiful, luscious materials has been a lovely learning curve for me.”
This is the first time Neale has been to Canada, so she got to experience Kingston’s winter weather and history at the same time.
MacKay has worked in theatre and film for years before getting her master’s degree in fashion from Ryerson.
“I have been a costumer from way back,” she said.
MacKay has gravitated towards historical clothing.
“I really like the idea you can learn about people at different times through their clothing.”
The dresses on which the two are working are made of silk, cotton or wool.
“The collection represents women of wealth,” Neale explained.
Only women of substance would be able to keep their clothing in such good shape. Everyone else at that time would simply wear out their clothes.
“It was important to look good and present yourself as an elite and as part of society,” MacKay said.
Alicia Boutilier, curator of Canadian historical art at the Agnes, said the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress was started in the late 1930s and early 1940s when the university drama department was established.
William Angus was the head of the department at the time and his wife, Margaret Angus, became the costume mistress for the actors in the various performances.
Part of her job was to collect donated clothing from the community for the students to wear.
“As she was doing this, she started to realize there were some real museum-quality pieces being donated,” Boutilier said. “And she thought maybe we should save these, not put them on the bodies of actors, but put them aside and create a collection at Queen’s of regional-based fashion.”
She remained curator of the collection until the early 1980s.
It eventually came to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in 2000, thanks to funds from Isabel Bader to properly house the pieces and bring in experts from time to time who could provide a better understanding of what the collection included.
“Bringing them here really allowed us to take stock of what we have and start working with it,” Boutilier said.
MacKay and Neale only had three months for their project, so the scope of their work was limited.
The plan is to have the final pieces photographed for posterity and future examination. There is no public viewing planned, although art centre members will get a chance to talk with the two experts about their work at a special event in April.
“We just had a fabulous time,” MacKay said.