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The Vintage Runway - Dating and Preparing a Gown for Exhibition

Pt 1 - Dating

As part of the preparation for the upcoming Vintage Runway exhibit at Oshawa museum, it is necessary to date, stabilize and clean – (if appropriate), items of clothing that are going to be on display. That said…the Oshawa museum have many items of clothing that were worn by people from Oshawa all through the city’s history. One such dress is this one….

The dress is attributed to Alexandra Luke – who was one of the founding members of the Abstract Artist group known as the Group of Eleven. She originally painted in the style of the Group of Seven, but moved to abstract execution around 1930. Her claim to fame is her tireless work to gain recognition of Abstract art in Canada. She was married to Clarence Ewart McLaughlin in 1929. Clarance is the grandson of Robert McLaughlin – founder of the McLaughlin Carriage company which was eventually bought by General Motors in 1918.

Before I talk about what went into stabilizing and mounting the gown for exhibition (that’s my next post) – I would like to talk about the process I went through to settle on a date of construction.

I’m thinking this gown was originally constructed in 1912 or there abouts. The reason I’m thinking this time period is the construction of the neckline, type of lace used, dress shape and fabric.

The neckline of 1900 was very high. Over the next 10 years, the neck line dropped further and further until it was common to see bare square or rounded necklines. Our LACE neck is still very high, but it covers the skin in a square neckline.

The lace that was used, is called Needle lace. Needle lace is typically made of linen threads and looks almost like heavy crochet. Although needle lace has been around for millennia, there was a renewed interest in its use in the early 1900’s. That particular iteration of Needle lace was hallmarked with a pretty little “flower” that linked the lace motif pieces together. This places our dress around 1910 (in fashionable circles)

The next piece of evidence….the dress shape….

Although the front of the dress is a v waistline, the rest of the garment shape lends itself to the Directoire or Empire line. The Directoire shape is a less pronounced S bend silhouette. With an “s” bend silhouette, the bust is thrust forward and the rear end is thrust backwards, thus giving one an “s” shape. The Directoire shape appeared around 1907 and disappeared just before the beginning of the first world war. So our dress definitely fits into a silhouette timeline sometime between 1907 and 1914.

Lastly, the fabric….our gown is made of black Norwich Crape , which is the modern equivalent to crepe de chine. Norwich crape gained its popularity in the early 1900’s as it had a lovely drapability that lends itself nicely to the fashion of the day. (1910) Also, and of interest…… it was popularly used for Mourning clothing.

I had a lot of questions about the dress itself and ended up having an extremely interesting conversation with the museum curator with respect to the dress history and where it might be placed in time. I can readily place the dress construction on a time line between x and y date, but….its important to remember that Oshawa was not the fashion capital of the world in the early 1900’s, consequently our fashions tend to be a bit behind the times. Its also possible our lady is not the original wearer. There is some evidence that the neck line and the bodice have been changed or updated somewhat. People were not as quick to dispose of an item of clothing when it falls out of fashion as they are today. “Disposable” clothing is a fairly new concept. So even though this gown has a pre WW1 silhouette, its quite possible that it was "redone" post WW1. The bodice design and lace configuration can go either way of WW1 and then adding 5 or so years for the design to catch up, would place the dress right around the time our wearer would be of an age appropriate for a dress of that level of sophistication.

That said….from a dating point of view….I think its safe to say the gown is of the Pre WW1 period minus 8 or 10 years. BUT.... Further research needs to be done.

Check my blog next week where I’m going to talk about the process of stabilizing the gown for display.

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