Costume exhibit shows past influences on fashion

Maralyn MacKay readies dresses from the 1880s to the 1970s for the Costume Museum of Canada’s latest exhibit. THE PROJECTOR/ Rachel Carlson

Maralyn MacKay readies dresses from the 1880s to the 1970s for the Costume Museum of Canada’s latest exhibit. THE PROJECTOR/Rachel Carlson

Bits of metal wedged between wooden floorboards glimmer under fluorescent lights. They’re evidence of Winnipeg’s once-thriving garment industry, said Maralyn MacKay

“When a sewing needle broke or got dull, the workers would throw them on the floor,” said the long-time Costume Museum of Canada volunteer. “That’s how you know this was a garment factory.”

The one-time factory at 296 McDermot Ave. is now home to the museum’s Fabricating Fashion: How production changed our clothes. The exhibit, on now until Oct. 23, showcases items from the museum’s 35,000-piece collection. Gowns, trousers and blouses all the way from the late 19th century to the present will reflect changes in garment production from domestic hand sewing to off shore factory production.

The exhibit curates an important material history we take for granted, said MacKay.

“There’s a lot to think about in terms of social history, economic history, political history and also industrial history,” she said. “We wear clothes all the time and don’t think about it.”

Volunteering for the museum is a labour of love for RRC apparel design student Margaret Zellis-Skiba.

“I’ve always been interested in fashion, design and creating, so it seemed like a good fit for my interests,” she said.

And while the small details of buttons and loop stitches are the sum of a garment, they also weave a fabric of history, said Zellis-Skiba.

“People often think of fashion as being frivolous without giving any thought or consideration to how the technological changes and societal changes affect what we wear,” she said. “During the First World War many women supported the war effort by working at jobs that until then were only held by men. Clothing with bodices and large skirts weren’t practical for them, so the clothing changed with peoples’ lifestyles.”

MacKay said she hopes people will visit the exhibit and take away a lesson about contemporary culture and the rise of disposable fashion.

“Every garment you put on has a story,” said MacKay. “Somebody who made it, somebody who made a lot of money off it, somebody who really suffered making it and somebody who didn’t value it when they wore it. And that’s the story now.”