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Blue dress that caught the eye of Prince of Wales goes on display

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An elaborate dress that caught the eye of a future king, and made its wearer something of a celebrity in her southwestern Ontario town, has gone on display at the Elgin County Museum in St. Thomas, Ont.

Susan Paul, the 21-year-old daughter of a St. Thomas businessman, wore the pale blue gown on Sept. 13, 1860, to a ball in London, Ont., held in honour of Queen Victoria's eldest son, the Prince of Wales — later to become King Edward VII.

The prince, the most eligible bachelor in the British Empire, was in the midst of his two-month tour across British North America — the first official royal visit to what is now Canada.

The ball was a glittering affair at London's Tecumseh House hotel, and Paul's family "was noteworthy enough to have received an invitation," says museum curator Mike Baker.

"The interesting part of the story is I think the prince ignored his dance card, which had been set up pretty stringently, and opted to take this girl out in the floor because, hey, she's wearing a great dress."

Paul's father commissioned a St. Thomas seamstress to make the costly silk garment, which features a lace-up bodice, a tiny 18-inch waist and a huge crinoline skirt.

"I don't know how close the prince could have got to her, since the skirt must be a couple of feet out in every direction," said Baker.

According to a contemporary report in a Montreal newspaper, cited by University of Toronto historian Ian Radforth in his 2004 book "Royal Spectacle" about the prince's tour, the guest of honour danced with "great vigour" at the ball and his "example seemed to inspirit afresh the already gratified dancers."

Paul's dress, mounted on a mannequin, is the star attraction in the new exhibition "Treasures From the Vault," which presents items in the museum's collection that have been kept in storage.

It was last brought out briefly about five years ago for the museum's 50th anniversary exhibition, said Baker. At one time it was also part of an exhibit at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum that highlighted dress styles of different eras. "It's a perfect example of the 1860s crinoline period," said Baker.

The colour has barely faded over the past century and a half, but some of the detailing in the bodice has come loose and the skirt's tulle covering is slowly deteriorating.

"The dress is pretty fragile so we don't get it out (of storage) often."

Paul herself is known in St. Thomas not just as the wearer of the famous dress, but also as someone who became an accomplished artist and a leading figure in an art society in the early 20th century, said Baker. She never married, living in her parental home not far from the museum's present location. She died in 1925.

"Treasures From the Vault" runs until Aug. 30. Artifacts in the exhibit range from an 1885 penny farthing bicycle assembled in Brantford, Ont., to a working popcorn maker from the 1930s. There's also a gold medal that was presented by the U.S. government to a lifesaving crew in Port Stanley, on the north shore of Lake Erie, for rescuing an American coal hauler in the 1890s.

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Online: http://www.elgincounty.ca/museum

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