Costume museum displays haute history, including royal nightie, tablecloth

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WINNIPEG - Tucked away on the edge of Winnipeg's historic exchange district is probably one of the few places that attracts fashionistas and serious cultural historians alike.
In a large, brick, studio warehouse sits the country's shrine to fashion - the Costume Museum of Canada. With rotating exhibits, displaying everything from Victorian underwear to an homage to the little black dress, the museum takes a modest 10,000 visitors a year on a tour through Canada's textile history.
Not only are some of the clothes works of art in their own right, but museum curator Jennifer Bisch said they are often overlooked as pieces of our shared history.
"We don't necessarily think of clothing as an important historical artifact and I think it's because it's so prevalent," Bisch said. "But, because it's so prevalent, that's what makes it important. If you think about it, we are rarely without clothing or textiles. Almost every second of our whole lives, we are somehow surrounded by clothing or bath towels. We're hardly ever completely naked."
That goes for royalty as well.
The museum's collection includes a tablecloth from the court of Queen Elizabeth I, as well as some of Queen Victoria's more intimate apparel. The museum owns one of Queen Victoria's nightgowns - made of the "finest cotton I've ever seen" - a pair of her stockings and even a pair of "split drawers," although those royal knickers are not on display.
"I just felt weird about showing the Queen's underwear," Bisch said.
Each article of clothing reveals not only something about the time in which it was worn but also something about the person themselves.
Bisch points to a piece of clothing in an upcoming exhibit that belonged to a little girl. In the back pocket they found a melted piece of chocolate, tucked away for safekeeping and ultimately forgotten.
"Clothing artifacts are very intimate," Bisch said.
"They tell you a lot about the actual people that were wearing them. I can't think of any other artifact that tells you so much about the person. You can actually see what they looked like. They betray their body shape. There are stains on some of them that tell you what they might have done in those clothes."
The story of social history is also told through the evolution of women's clothing. Dresses from the late 18th century all feature 23-inch waists, some with built-in lace-up corsets and intricate layers of skirt, bustled and embroidered.
They are lovely to look at but indicative of a woman's place during the 18th and 19th century, Bisch said. The 20-inch waist was not just the result of a crash diet and a tight corset but rather a lifetime characterized by physical limitations, both in diet and activity.
"We look at the old dresses and they are gorgeous. The construction is so much nicer than a lot of the clothing we wear now," Bisch said.
"But if you think about putting yourself into some of those pieces, you can see just how restrictive they were and how your life as you know it today, physically, couldn't happen in those clothes. Just taking the bus, going for a bike ride - that would have been hard stuff in those clothes. We've come a really long way."
The museum is running two new exhibits through January, 2010; one displaying the favourite pieces picked by volunteers and another displaying "foundation" garments used by women through the ages to achieve their desired shape - which usually involved that slim waist.
"It's about shape and controlling what you've got and sculpting it into a certain silhouette," Bisch said of the exhibit, which includes such things as whalebone corsets.
The most popular modern-day corset, the Spanx body shaper, won't be on display but it is for sale in the museum's gift shop.
Beyond the museum's ever-changing exhibits, the warehouse is also home to a library housing Vogue magazines and other fashion bibles dating back to the 1930s. There are regular craft sales, clothing swaps and fashion shows.
In one corner of the museum is a knitting area where needle aficionados can contribute a few stitches to the multi-coloured communal scarf.
Sewing enthusiasts can also trace dress patterns dating back to the 1800s if they want to make an authentic piece of their very own.
But Bisch warns amateurs to beware.
"You should know what you're doing because the patterns that we get now have instructions. These ones don't."
Last but not least, for the child in all of us, the museum offers a dress-up closet for visitors to try on hats, shoes and other clothes. It's a nice treat at the end of a tour where visitors are forbidden from touching the delicate fabrics on display, Bisch said.
"It's hard to go through something that's so textile-based and not touch," she said. "It's a good release at the end."
The museum receives no money from the federal government but gets some from the province of Manitoba and relies on admission fees and private donations for the rest of its budget.
If you go . . .
Address: 109 Pacific Ave. Located near the Red River, behind the Warehouse Theatre and the Centennial Concert Hall.
Hours of operation: Monday - Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m.-4 p.m.
Admission: Adults: $5, Seniors: $4, Students: $4
Phone: 204-989-0072
12:08ET 23-11-09

Organizations: Costume Museum of Canada, Queen's, Spanx Warehouse Theatre

Geographic location: WINNIPEG, Canada, Manitoba Red River

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