The Dundas Museum and Archives’ Silhouettes in Time exhibit is a journey through over a century of fashion history. Displayed in the style of an art gallery, the exhibit of garments from the 1790s-1890s is a textile sea of silk, ruffles, and rich hues, with pieces from the daughter of a former Speaker of the House of Commons and other prominent closets.
But beneath the detailed needlework and prestigious provenance lies a complex era that is as much on show as the evening gowns and floral waistcoats.
“If you look at the size of those dresses and the mannequins they’re on, people are under five feet tall, especially women,” said Sandu Sindile, the museum’s collection’s manager. “They had less protein in their diet, so they didn’t grow that tall.”
Sindile and his team ran into so much trouble finding mannequins small enough for the clothing in the collection that they were forced to build a waist out of construction paper and papier mâché for one particularly petite dress.
“I’m glad that I wasn’t born then,” said 73-year-old Mary Ellen Forsyth, who toured the exhibit. “This would be my great-grandmother’s era. Not all women would have beautiful things like this for sure. There’d be very, very few. Their lives would not be easy as well because they really worked from dawn to dusk no matter whatever class you’re from, because you had to be the woman of the house even if you had servants.”
Filling the dimly-lit gallery are homages to a bygone era of decadence and struggle. Ornate evening gowns line the walls, and in one corner sits the wedding dress of a bride who died only one week after wearing it. In front of many of the elaborate garments, which were all hand-made, is a plaque explaining their unique histories. But Sindile says that even those pieces from unknown origins have their stories to tell.
“There’s a lot behind this that we don’t know about, but we can just make some things up and imagine how it was to wear this dress, or who made this dress, or what happened to the person when she wasn’t there anymore. Was it reused by the family? Was it altered? It’s a lot to think about,” said Sindile.
The story every piece seems to have in common is one of elegance, and a time when style reigned supreme.
“It’s gone now,” said Kelly Brown, who visited the exhibit to feed her long-held passion for the era. “I volunteer at the Performing Arts Centre in Burlington and I get so disappointed when they have a big event and they come in their blue jeans. I remember the era where you came with your mink stoles and your long dresses. It’s just gone.”
Silhouettes in Time runs until February 13th at the Dundas Museum and Archives.