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Dressed to the nines

Dalhousie program puts “in costume” in a whole new light.


After a tortuous nine-day crossing on rollicking, stormy seas, the Sarmatian finally docked at Halifax. Even after keeping to her cabin for two more days recovering from a queer stomach, the princess still felt wan.

However, time to be up and dressed. So, heeding obligations towards her new people, Queen Victoria’s sixth child Princess Louise yielded. Over chemise and drawers, her corset was laced, cinching her waist – remember, it’s 1878. Then bustle, followed by underskirt, full silk overskirt and form-fitting bodice, bonnet and veil last. Not to outshine her husband in black Windsor uniform bearing the Scottish Order of the Thistle, she was in sobering black. For he, Marquis of Lorne, on Sir John A. Macdonald’s watch, was to be sworn in as Canada’s Governor General.

Why such minute details of dress? Each year, students in Dalhousie University’s costume studies program put on a fashion show where historical characters of a past Haligonian event are presented, catwalk-style, to the public. The “royal visit” was mounted in April 2010; due to a sabbatical, the 2011 event was skipped. But no worry, students are now preparing, passionately and seriously, for next April’s storyline: the centennial of Titanic’s sinking. Students also have the opportunity to hone their skills in costuming productions presented by DalTheatre.

Located within the department of theatre, the costume studies program covers both theoretical and practical ground. Archival research is crucial to reconstruct clothing and past fabrication techniques. Students also learn the social and cultural implications of costume. Associate professor and department chair, Roberta Barker, gives examples: “What is beauty for different people in different times and places, and why?”

Besides receiving an academic education, students delve into the fine points of craftsmanship: drafting, draping, stitching. “For our historical stagings, costumes are fabricated couture-style, each piece of clothing created for only one person,” says associate professor Lynn Sorge-English.

Dalhousie initiated the four-year honours BA in theatre (costume studies) six years ago. The program is rooted in its two-year diploma program given since 1976. Graduates might work as costume designers in theatre or film, or historians of period dress, or undertake museum studies. One graduate even opened a bespoke tailoring shop.

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  1. Krista Bennett / November 14, 2011 at 18:43

    This article is really disappointing.

    I am looking at a stunning dress yet the accompanying text offers absolutely no information about it. Princess Louise attended at her husband’s swearing in as GG in Halifax, 1878. Is this the inspiration for featured dress? This glorious red and cream silk gown is hardly the somber black number mentioned . . .

    Additionally this dress, and all the undergarments listed in the article, represents months and months of work, including learning the drafting and construction skills to produce it and the painstaking research into the construction, fabrics, the general culture of women’s dress of the period and the specifics of the dresses worn to this event.

    Who’s work is this?

    Why aren’t the productions rights of the student regarded with the same respect as the photographer’s right to be acknowledged?

  2. Leo Charbonneau / November 15, 2011 at 08:17

    Our sincere apologies to Ms. Bennett. It was an unfortunate oversight on our part that the information was missing in the photo caption, which we have now rectified.

    Here is some additional information on the dress: Ms. Bennett is modelling the gown and underpinnings she created for Annie Thompson, wife of John Thompson, Attorney General of Nova Scotia, later to become Sir John Thompson, the fourth Prime Minister of Canada. Ms. Bennett also portrayed the character of Annie Thompson in the show, mounted in April 2010.

    And, if it’s any consolation to Ms. Bennett, we think the dress is gorgeous.

  3. Krista Bennett / November 15, 2011 at 09:51

    Thank you for the extra information!

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