After a tortuous nine-day crossing on rollicking, stormy seas, the Sarmatian finally docked at Halifax. Even after keeping to her cabin for two more days recovering from a queer stomach, the princess still felt wan.
However, time to be up and dressed. So, heeding obligations towards her new people, Queen Victoria’s sixth child Princess Louise yielded. Over chemise and drawers, her corset was laced, cinching her waist – remember, it’s 1878. Then bustle, followed by underskirt, full silk overskirt and form-fitting bodice, bonnet and veil last. Not to outshine her husband in black Windsor uniform bearing the Scottish Order of the Thistle, she was in sobering black. For he, Marquis of Lorne, on Sir John A. Macdonald’s watch, was to be sworn in as Canada’s Governor General.
Why such minute details of dress? Each year, students in Dalhousie University’s costume studies program put on a fashion show where historical characters of a past Haligonian event are presented, catwalk-style, to the public. The “royal visit” was mounted in April 2010; due to a sabbatical, the 2011 event was skipped. But no worry, students are now preparing, passionately and seriously, for next April’s storyline: the centennial of Titanic’s sinking. Students also have the opportunity to hone their skills in costuming productions presented by DalTheatre.
Located within the department of theatre, the costume studies program covers both theoretical and practical ground. Archival research is crucial to reconstruct clothing and past fabrication techniques. Students also learn the social and cultural implications of costume. Associate professor and department chair, Roberta Barker, gives examples: “What is beauty for different people in different times and places, and why?”
Besides receiving an academic education, students delve into the fine points of craftsmanship: drafting, draping, stitching. “For our historical stagings, costumes are fabricated couture-style, each piece of clothing created for only one person,” says associate professor Lynn Sorge-English.
Dalhousie initiated the four-year honours BA in theatre (costume studies) six years ago. The program is rooted in its two-year diploma program given since 1976. Graduates might work as costume designers in theatre or film, or historians of period dress, or undertake museum studies. One graduate even opened a bespoke tailoring shop.