From a curatorial perspective, finding a narrative from among the hundreds of dresses in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection that come from different donors and span over a century of fashion history is a challenge.
Garments represent important artifacts of material culture, giving evidence of the fashions and social history of a period. Museologist Susan Pearce describes the way objects can reflect our identity: "Objects hang before the eyes of the imagination, continuously representing ourselves to ourselves and telling the stories of our lives in ways which would be impossible otherwise" (qtd. in de la Haye 12).
Clothing is material memory, carrying the marks and imprint of its wearer. Quentin Bell described clothing as being so much part of one’s identity that “it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul” (qtd. in Dant 85). The clothing that is kept beyond its fashionable life often has “symbolic qualities” and holds “personal memories” for the owner (de la Haye 14). In a poetic essay by Peter Stallybrass entitled “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning and the Life of Things”, the author describes how the clothes of his late colleague Allon White triggered sensory memories. “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits” (36).
If I draw on my obsessions as suggested by curator Maria Luisa Frisa, those centre on the traces of the former owners of these garment within the archive itself. Very few pieces have any associated photos or letters, making those that do have fragments of their history as evidence take on even greater importance, especially as some of them are extremely fragile. In my work, I've discovered: the wedding dress worn by Mary Suddon for her wedding in 1955 to Alan Suddon, an important collector of historical costume in Toronto, along with a box of bodices and gowns from the late nineteenth century donated to the collection by Alan Suddon; a set of three gowns designed in Paris and worn to the coronation of King George V; and, a Balmain gown labeled “Marie Antoinette” c.1957 donated by socialite Somer Rosenberg.
There are also many historic pieces from the turn of the century that lack provenance but which bare traces of their former owners, in the faint stains of sweat under the arms, in the worn patches on the elbows, and in the shreds of silk that threaten to disintegrate into dust. Yet there is a haunting beauty emanating from these pieces, an uncanny reminder of the former owners.
Curator Judith Clark's reference to the "double loss of life" in terms of "the garment without its body, and the garment out of sight, embedded within an archive" (from The Concise Dictionary of Dress which has no page numbers) haunts me. In fashion exhibitions, the viewer almost never sees the archive. Garments are typically presented in a pristine state and evidence of the wearer, in terms of stains, rips or tears, would make a garment ineligible for display.
It is this gap that excites me. The first time I went behind the scenes in a museum, at the musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris in Paris, my heart literally pounded in my chest as treasures in storage were revealed to me. Only a small fraction of a museum's collection can be made visible to the public. And now when I examine an unmarked bin in the archives or can share a garment to a student related to their research as part of my job as Collection Co-ordinator, I get that same heady frisson of excitement. This is what I want to share in an exhibition....
Dant, Tim. Material Culture in the Social World. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1999. Print.
De La Haye, Amy. A Family of Fashion: The Messels: Six Generations of Dress. Eds. Lou Taylor and Eleanor Thompson. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2005. Print.
Stallybrass, Peter. "Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning and the Life of Things." The Yale Review 81.2 (1993): 35-50. Print.