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Costumes reveal Manitoba's social history

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From the 1920s flappers’ buckets to 1960s’ pillbox, the changing style of hats shows how our society has developed over the past 100 or so years.

 
While some might not see a link between clothing and history, Margaret Mills, of Headingley, knows there is a strong connection. As the Costume Museum of Canada’s coordinator and commentator for its heritage fashion revue, she informs revue audiences about how evolving styles reflect changes in men’s, women’s and children’s lives.


"It really talks to the era and style of the life they were living," she said.


Started in 1953 by Women’s Institute members in the Dugald area as a fundraiser, the heritage fashion revues pre-date the establishment of the museum by 30 years. When a museum was built in Dugald in 1983, the original clothing was kept for display purposes, and replicas sewn by University of Manitoba home economics students were used in the fashion revues.


"We have about 120 replicated outfits now," said Mills.


The last revue, held as part of the annual Festival of Trees and Light in Manitoba Hydro’s head office, was the 748th.


However, the museum itself hasn’t fared as well over the years. Gaining national status in 1993, the collection that contains about 3,700 items was moved from Dugald to Winnipeg in 2007. A combination of high rent and low attendance forced it to close in 2010.


"It’s been difficult," said Mills.


She and other volunteers scrambled to find proper storage for the large collection that contains a blue and white silk taffeta dress with matching shoes circa 1765. They were pleased to have the board of Winnipeg’s Millennium Centre invite them to use the former bank building’s vaults as a storage place. A few renovations were done to ensure that the collection is kept safe.


As well as facing storage problems, the museum members also had to pay down a deficit.
"All of the money from the revues is plowed back into the museum," said Mills, adding that they are now in the black.


Contributing to their previous difficulties was the lack of a web site to advertise their events and entice groups to book revues. Mills is pleased to report that a new web site at www.costumemuseumcanada.com was recently established, and she hopes that it will help increase bookings that dwindled down from an average of about 18 a year to five in 2012.


The ultimate goal of Mills and the museum’s other dedicated members is getting the money needed to once again open the museum’s collection to the public. But they realize that private and public funding is tough to obtain.


"We’re taking little steps now," she said.


Mills said while not everyone is aware of the collection’s value, when the museum was open, visitors who were knowledgeable about clothing came from around the world.


"We have a treasure on a national scale here."


In the meantime, as well as the fashion revue, the museum offers a hat show showcasing headwear throughout the years and also has portable educational exhibits.


Mills said they can tailor a small exhibit to match an audience. For example, they put together a collection of aprons to display at a seniors residence.

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