Anne Bissonnette, PhD, Associate Professor, Material Culture and Curatorship, and Curator, Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Josée Chartrand, MA, Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre, MacEwan University
Katelin Karbonik, Graduate student, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta, and Museum Professional
Dress history is often viewed by the general public through outlets such as film and theatre. In most cases, theatrical costume design is done without strict historical accuracy in mind, but this is seldom understood by audiences who often have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction. The study of dress outside of stage and screen is also under-acknowledged. What can we learn from historical clothing artifacts and how is this knowledge used? The series Dress & Escapism aims to provide answers to these questions by exploring different aspects of dress history and dress interpretation. From rigorous observations and reproductions of museum artifacts to the artistry of costume design, we explore sartorial expressions and their potential effects on the audience.
In the words of Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage,” but the stories we tell may be carefully crafted by the garments worn. Stage and screen performances are collaborative efforts that create visual microcosms, which typically deviate from historical accuracy in favour of aesthetics more easily understood by contemporary audiences. Dress is a non-verbal form of communication used by skilled costume designers. A young man in an elaborate 18th-century style ruffled shirt, coat, and knee breeches can easily be read as a prince: there is very little need for historically accurate wigs, posture or stylistic rigor for the message to register. In many cases, adhering strictly to historical accuracy can detract from character development, registering as old-fashioned or even absurd to modern eyes. Current fashion and aesthetics also impact the design of “historical” productions, and many successful dramas, such as Downton Abbey, in turn, affect audiences’ collective imaginations and understanding of history. Our constructed past is alluring yet worthy of re-assessment.
Clothing has the power to speak of the social, cultural, and political but this message is often fragmented. Nonetheless, dress research can lead to a wide array of insights on apparel and surface design and technology, textile production and trade, and museum practices. Museum artifacts function as finite time capsules that can be read in different ways. In an exhibition setting, a series of objects can be curated to communicate certain information. The exhibition series will address research biases, reflexive practices, and experiential approaches not often used in academia, such as learning about history through the making process. This may allow those outside the field to understand the challenges of studying dress artifacts, the subjectivity of the process, and the creativity involved.
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Part 1 of 3
Dress Artifacts & Curatorial Practices
A Virtual (and Evolving) Exhibition
Anne Bissonnette, Lead Curator
Josée Chartrand and Katelin Karbonik, Consultants
June 30, 2020 – June 30, 2021
In Part 1, half of the objects exhibited are historical artifacts from the Anne Lambert Clothing and Textile Collection, while the other half are reproductions used to better understand historical dress and to push boundaries of knowledge in the field of dress history. The six case studies help present different avenues of study and the strengths and limitations that go into the research and the visual display of objects.
A large part of the work presented in Part 1 was conducted in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta. Many investigations into different facets of fashion and dress are the result of graduate student work: some as part of their own research and others as part of graduate assistantships under Dr. Bissonnette. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided funding for Dr. Bissonnette's project entitled “A Revolutionary Decade: Fashion & Material Culture in the 1790s.” The aesthetic and embodied changes in late eighteenth-century fashion are thus a focus of the exhibition.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition will be presented online. This has changed the nature of the project to take advantage of what virtual exhibitions can offer. We seek to reach a larger audience that can help propose new ideas to address diversity in the display of dress, present new historical evidence, or bring in new perspectives allowing the exhibition to evolve. For the next year, the website will evolve as feedback is received and new evidence emerges and experiences are shared.
 Malgorzata J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, "Broadcasting the Past: History Television, ‘Nostalgia Culture,’ and the Emergence of the Miniseries in the 1970s United States,” Journal of Popular Film & Television 42, no. 2 (2014): 81-90.
 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7, Line 139.
The curatorial team would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for their help and support:
- At The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Tracey Gulden, Collections Manager; Neil Hurst, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles; Mark Hutter, Master Tailor; Marianne Martin, Visual Resources Librarian, Rockefeller Library; Kaitlyn Gardy Weathers, Associate Registrar for Loans and Exhibition.
- At The Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young and Legion of Honor: Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, and Jill D’Alessandro, Curator in Charge of Costume and Textile Arts.
- At the Kent State University Museum: Sarah J. Rogers, Director.
- At the University of Alberta: Vlada Blinova, Collections Manager, Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection; Adam Dombovari, PhD, Program Coordinator, Kule Institute for Advanced Study; Lori Moran, APO & Lecturer, Department of Human Ecology; Cathy Myles, Director, Risk Management Services - Insurance & Risk Assessment; Geoffrey Rockwell, PhD, Director, Kule Institute for Advanced Study; Rowayne Salvador, CCS, Customs Compliance Coordinator, Customs Services, Supply Management Services; Patricia Siferd, Graduate Student; Tammy Tang, CIP, CRM, Risk Analyst, Office of Insurance & Risk Assessment, Risk Management Services.
- Sarah Woodyard, MA.
Support for the exhibition was also provided by a KIAS Dialogue Grant from the Kule Institute for Advanced Study and a CIP Artist Project Grant by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.
This exhibition also draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The following individuals have contributed to Dr. Bissonnette’s research thus far: Josée Chartrand, Meg Furler, Peggy Isley, Katelin Karbonik, Patricia Siferd, and Sarah Woodyard.