Until April, our feature exhibit is called The Vintage Catwalk, looking at interesting fashions through the years. Featured in this post are artefacts in our collection (that may or may not be on exhibition), and with St. Patrick’s Day later this month, the theme of the artefacts is green!
Be sure to visit the exhibition before it closes!
Note, the skirt appears to have repairs/changes through the years, especially notable when you look at the bottom hem.
Green hats, including one from Scouts Canada.
From inside our 2017 feature exhibit Celebrating 60. Our earliest donation included this green suit, owned by Premier Gordon Conant.
Finally, our most notorious green textile – the arsenic green dress. This dress, part of the collection of our exhibit partner The Costume People, was dyed with copper arsenite; the dye often proved fatal for the wearers and especially for the women who worked directly applying the dyes in the manufacture process. Our summer student Lauren shared the story of these dresses in a post last summer.
When arriving back at the Oshawa Museum this summer, I entered into the midst of construction of our newest exhibit, The Vintage Catwalk. Surrounded by a dizzying array of patterns and colours, one artefact easily stood out in my vision. Morbidly fascinated, I stared at the Emerald Green ball grown only a few feet from me. It was vibrant, captivating, beautiful and oh so deadly. I knew what it was in an instant as the vibrant colour betrayed its poisonous nature to me – a killer dress or, as some would call it, an arsenic dress. Many of you will know, if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m a lover of the macabre artefacts that grace the Museum’s exhibit space, so it should be no surprise when I present this one to you as well.
The history of fashion has been riddled with dangerous and deadly materials, dyes and procedures. There were aniline dyed socks that caused swelling in the wearer’s feet and lesions and bladder cancer in the men who made them. Celluloid combs that were used to decorate hair could explode when heated. Lead make-up caused ladies’ wrists to deteriorate until they could not raise their hands. And Hatters suffered from paranoia, trembling, cardiorespiratory problems and early death caused by mercury poisoning – the very substance used to give the lasting shine and smooth texture to fur hats.
But nothing in this hazardous history was as dangerous as the brilliant green dyes that bathed Victorian London. One variation of the pigment was created in 1814 in the German town of Schweinfurt by the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company. Brilliant and jewel-like, the chemists dubbed their new creation ‘emerald green.’ Along with this shade there were many others being made, ranging in a variety of green hues, all of which used arsenic as their base.
Due to the recent introduction of gaslight into homes, party goers and home owners were scouring for bright fabrics to stand out at events and in the house. While the candle light of the past hid the drab colour that came from natural dyes, gaslight only made the material look more miserable. The population flocked to the new and stunning green shades on the market; where there were once muddled browns and muted yellows now were shinning and jewel like hues to enchanted the eye. Soon arsenic products infested homes all over Britain. Wallpaper, carpets, clothing, shoes, gloves, accessory boxes, and fake flower wreaths were all brushed with the toxic substance. More importantly still, the dye was brushing off on people. It was a brush of death for many.
The wallpaper in nurseries and bedrooms could lead to the death of the inhabitants as the gaslight atomized the arsenic into the air. Those who wore the green-tinted dresses and accessories experienced hair loss, nausea, green-tinted hands and blisters, all from the slow absorption of the arsenic through their sweating skin leaching the toxic dyes from the unsealed fabric into a person’s skin. While these side-effects seem atrocious, they were nothing to what the workers in the fabric factories faced. Things like anemia, headaches, sores, scabs, discolored hands and nails, nausea and lesions (to name a few) plagued the people who made them and transformed them into consumable goods.
In the 1860s, at the height of its popularity, there was a sudden revolt against the use of the colouring agent when a 19-year-old factory worker in London died horrifically from arsenic poisoning. This event sent the public into a fear frenzy. Soon countries like Scandinavia, Germany and France (who had been doing their own investigations of the products) banned the substance outright. Britain placed restrictions on the use of arsenic in products but in the end, there was no formal ban, and the true change came from informed consumers.
The legacy of arsenic can still be seen in the arsenic-phobic attitude that is prevalent in fashion houses like Chanel. It is said that Coco Chanel’s infamous black and white colour palette was influenced by an aversion to ‘natural colours,’ like green. To this day some seamstresses in the Chanel fashion house believe that green is a colour of ‘bad luck.’
While these fascinating fashion fixtures are fabulous to behold one must always remember their fatal nature. Arsenic can still be found in artefacts today, though in much smaller amounts than when they were made, like the dress we have on display, or the dress owned by the Ryerson school of fashion, which was displayed at the Bata Shoe Museum as part of their Fashion Victims exhibition.
Mounting a historic dress can be challenging, even for the experienced dress curators and conservators. Inappropriate handling is one of the main causes of damage to museum objects. Handling should be kept to a minimum; the risk of damage occurring can be reduced by good preparation before, during, and after the historic dress has been mounted.
The condition and structure of the historic dress should be carefully analyzed to determine if it has any structural weaknesses, previous damage, or fragile surfaces. The condition of the dress will inform how to safely display the piece, or even if it can be displayed at all. Ensure to consider its stability against environmental conditions and mounts while on exhibit.
A properly dressed mannequin is important for both the visitor experience at a museum and the artefact/garment itself. The correct style of mount should be chosen, whether it is two dimensional or three dimensional. For our display at the Oshawa Museum, we have chosen three dimensional mounts using mannequins in various shapes and sizes to create the correct silhouette. It is important to remember when working with mannequins and dressing historic garments that it is not the same as dressing a store mannequin. At a store, the mannequin is automatically the correct silhouette and the garment is new and can withstand the stress and handling.
When mounting historic garments, a mannequin should be chosen that is significantly smaller than the garment. First, carefully measure the garment and ensure to take the time to measure properly. Measure the entire bodice of a garment, not just straight across the chest. Carefully measure all the way across the inside of the garment, following the curve of any space created for the bust.
Once the proper mannequin has been selected, it is time to start building out the mannequin so the historic dress is well supported throughout. Supplies to build out mannequins include white cotton sheet, pantyhose, quilt batting, cotton twill tape, flexible fabric measuring tape, scissors, and straight pins. A well-dressed mannequin should go unnoticed by visitors. This means the visitor will focus on the historic dress itself and not on how it is displayed. A poorly mounted mannequin can distract the visitor from focusing on the garment and its story.
The final stage is to ensure the proper silhouette is created. This primarily comes into consideration with women’s and children’s clothing during certain periods. Through the addition of appropriate under structure, the garment will be fully supported. This is completed through the use of petticoats (antique or reproduction) from different time periods, for example, small pillows for bustles, and fabric tulle or netting can be used to create a 1950s crinoline or a 1830s full skirt.
Be sure to watch our social media channels for a glimpse behind the scenes in the upcoming weeks as we prepare for our upcoming exhibition, The Vintage Catwalk!
When I first started my co-op, I knew I would be here during the change of exhibits within Robinson House. What I did not know is how active I would be in the instillation. I expected to take predetermined artefacts and put them in predetermined places. However, what I got was almost the exact opposite.
Melissa Cole has been super amazing and allowed me to pick multiple of the artefacts that are going into the exhibit. I have chosen cameras, pottery pieces, medical instruments, photos and even quotations.
The entire process is much harder then it seems. You would think that it is as simple as picking some artefacts and laying them out nice and pretty; while that is actually what happens, it is hard. “The bigger artefacts go in the back and the smaller in the front, right?” Wrong. “These two are similar colours so they go on the same side.” Nope. “I can do this in half an hour and then get to the other project I am working on.” You wish.
While figuring out how to best display artefacts is difficult, so is choosing them. While some artefacts have dear little places in our own hearts, we also have to consider which artefacts the community wants to see. I may love one for one reason where someone else dislikes it for the same reason.
The other aspect of picking artefacts that makes doing so difficult is that there are so many. I want to pick them all. If I could, I would put all 300+ cameras on display. However, that is an insane number of cameras and so only nine or ten can actually go out! That is only 3% of that entire collection. See where the difficulty lies?
Another cool thing about the new exhibit is how the two halves of my co-op are coming together. I get to promote it on social media, and even design activities for visitors to do while taking tours!
I hope that all of you who come to see the new exhibit Celebrating 60 Years enjoy viewing it as much as I enjoyed helping with its creation. This amazing exhibit runs from April to November 2017.
This blog series comes from our dedicated and awesome Visitor Host staff, and topics range from favourite artefacts, thoughts on our latest exhibits, and anything else in between!
Kathryn’s Favourite: Granny Cock Portrait
Harriet, you often catch me of guard when I am in front of you in Guy House in the board room; your piercing eyes are always calling my attention.
Your eyes speak volumes to me; Harriet your story is one of being so brave, and determined. Yet the deeper I consider your eyes you are trying to tell me something different aside from facts.
The facts are impressive though; you a widow at age 59 travels in 1846 by boat from England to Canada and let me say you were an old woman by that year’s standards. Please excuse me Harriet! You travelled with your daughter and son-in- law and yes, the voyage was exceptional long and miserable and yes, many people died from either small pox, dysentery or measles.
Then once you got here there were no fine shops to buy another pretty delicate lace bonnet that you cherished or even the fine slippers that you are wearing right now. That wool shawl would have been perfect here, warm and practical.
Harriet Cock, I know you were scared as your eyes really tell me so; however, who would not be afraid travelling in 1846 to a new world! You took the risk; you came here as a pioneer and believed in this country. Our country, Canada
Granny Cock, thank you.
You are my treasured artefact and champion here at The Oshawa Museum.
Caitlan’s Favourite: The Music Box
There are many very interesting artefacts throughout the houses at the Oshawa Museum. It is a treat to see them, especially when you know that they still work. On a rare occasion one of our music boxes plays. It has not seized up, nor is it broken. Many items over time would have been damaged in one way or another preventing them for further use or are to delicate to risk trying to play. This item is an exception. Done with care a few times a year this music box fills Henry House with sound. This sets it apart from many other items in the houses.
By playing the music box you can be given a small taste of what life would have sounded like at the time. Just the practice of winding it and knowing how much sound it would produce and for how long creates a greater depth of understanding of people’s lives. It is a favorite artifact of mine for this reason. It provides an understanding that cannot be presented simply in writing thereby creating a fuller understanding of the lives people lived.
My favorite artefacts would have to be two letters, one from Thomas and the other from Lurenda. I love them so much because of the content of them, that being the marriage proposal and acceptance. It’s strange to think, at least now, that you would be able to propose to someone in this way, and with barely knowing the other person as well. Two letters led to one big family, which led to even more interesting letters between Thomas and his children. Seeing the start of the family in black and white makes you realize how much has changed between then and now.