Dressing up an historic collection
A treasure trove of Canadian history – the extensive and valuable costume collection that makes up the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress – has a new lease on life thanks to the generosity of Isabel Bader, LLD’09.
The Milwaukee, WI, resident has emerged as a guardian angel for the costume collection by providing funding for a new research fellowship that links the collection to both the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (aeac) and the world-renowned Master of Art Conservation Program, which is the only one of its kind in Canada and one of the best in the world.
Says Caterina Florio, the inaugural recipient of the Isabel Bader Research Fellowship in Textile Conservation, “I’m excited for this beautiful opportunity given to me. The Fellowship offers a unique collaboration, the chance to work with Master of Art Conservation students and professors, a great sharing opportunity, and the occasion to work with such an interesting and rare clothing collection.”
Florio, who arrived on campus in January, has a Master’s degree in textile and costume conservation from the University of Florence in Italy. She has held conservation internships in Poland, Italy, and Malta and has worked for various museums, public archives, and university collections, including the Royal Ontario Museum and the Bata Shoe Museum.
Florio’s project, which is called “Textile Conservation and the Museum Public,” will focus on conservation practices as part of the museum experience. “I’m interested in how costume treatments are received and interpreted in exhibitions and to what extent contemporary visual cultural expectations influence both the ethics of and level of conservation intervention,” she says. Specifically, she is interested in how visual imperfections – stains, quirky alterations, mismatched buttons, etc. – all of which represent an accurate historical record, affect how the public perceives and tolerates the costumes.
Florio divides her time between the climate-controlled subterranean vaults where the costume collection is kept, and a studio in the Masters of Art Conservation program. In the studio, she works alongside Masters of Art Conservation students and Emily Higginson, the Isabel Bader Graduate Intern in Textile Conservation. Florio and Higginson are cooperating on restoration projects for an upcoming show called Adornment.
Scheduled for August 13 until next May 13, Adornment will pair accessories of 19th- and early 20th-century with contemporary works of art. Alicia Boutilier, Curator of Canadian Historical Art at the AEAC, and co-curator of Adornment, says, “The research will bring together textile conservation, collection and display.”
The Isabel Bader Research Fellowship in Textile Conservation will be awarded biennially. This is not the first time Bader has aided the collection. In 2003, recognizing its historical and artistic significance, she provided a generous donation that funded rehousing of the collection, conservation treatment of key works, an exhibition, and a publication entitled, Beyond the Silhouette: Fashion and the Women of Historic Kingston, by M. Elaine MacKay (Kingston, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2007).
The costume collection, one of Canada’s finest, includes more than 2,000 items, some of which date as far back as 1791. Though predominantly made up of women’s dresses, the collection also includes some men’s wear, coats, children’s clothing, and a variety of accessories. Many of the pieces were donated by Kingston households, often with information about their original owners. The collection tells a compelling story of the social and cultural values of Kingston, a city that has played a significant role in Canada’s history. A December 2010 story about the collection in the prestigious British publication, The Art Newspaper, highlights the growing interest in and significance of this unique collection.
For years, the collection was kept in the Department of Drama, where it was curated by Margaret Angus, LLD’73. She arrived in Kingston in 1937 when her husband, Dr. William (“Doc”) Angus, LLD’90, was appointed the sole professor in the Drama Department. Margaret Angus became the first official curator of the collection in 1963 and held that post until her 1985 retirement. Despite her best efforts, without funding, the collection, grand and impressive though it was, remained stored in less than ideal conditions.
The Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress has come a long way from its humble origins as a small collection of cherished possessions originating in closets and storage trunks of many of Kingston’s finest old homes, to the storage racks in the Drama Department, to the vaults in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre where it is now a significant and large collection of international interest.
“The Collection of Canadian Dress is a completely unique research resource,” says Prof. Krysia Spirydowicz, Director of the Masters of Art Conservation program. “This project represents a perfect opportunity for shared initiatives between the Masters of Art Conservation program and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.”
The research fellowship in textile conservation is just the latest initiative at Queen’s that Isabel Bader and her husband Alfred Bader, Sc’45, Arts’46, MSc’47, LLD’86, have supported. Over the years, the couple have been among the University’s most dedicated and loyal friends. The Baders are the lead privatedonors for construction of the University’s new waterfront performing arts facility, having provided $22 million of the project’s $63-million capital cost. As a result, the facility, due to open in the fall of 2013, will be named the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts.