Dress is one of the most important ways we have of making a statement about ourselves, and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University wants to expand the horizons of our wardrobes.
When dress historian Carolyn Dowdell approached Alicia Boutilier, the Agnes’s Chief Curator and Curator of Canadian Historical Art, in 2022 about doing some dressmaking patterns from the Centre’s garment collection, Boutilier got thinking about the possibility of these patterns being used by the community again in fresh and imaginative ways. The Agnes possesses a collection of around 1,700 historical garments, and Boutilier is always looking for new ways to engage the public with that collection.
“The collection itself has origins in theatre,” Boutilier said, explaining that community members in the 1940s donated heirloom clothing to the theatre department at Queen’s. Costumer-turned-curator Margaret Angus designated some of these garments as museum quality and preserved them in a collection, which was sometimes featured in historical pageants. By the 1970s, that collection fell under the care of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
“We continue to find ways of growing [the collection] mindfully and making it accessible,” Boutilier went on. “I wanted to open it up [because it] is in our vaults and only gets displayed once in a while. The collection is regionally based already, in that it came from Kingston community members… and this [project] was a way of sending the dress collection back out into the community.”
The project is called Patterns for All Bodies (PfAB). Garments from the dress collection are being repatterned for digital download, along with instructions for how to adjust and construct them. The hope is that, in doing this, PfAB will not only bring to life the historical process of dress construction to honour the hands that originally made the garments, but also make their patterns available so that anyone can make the clothes, or have them made, for their own body.
“Dress is familiar to everyone, and it’s also performative. It’s how we express ourselves, and we all use dress as a way of self-expression,” said Boutilier. She wanted to use the project to “shake up notions about dress being gender-based.”
Thus, when thinking about repatterning and performance, Boutilier said it seemed logical to reach out to Kingston’s drag community.
“The drag community has a deep history in the Kingston area, too, and it’s very strong. And to recognize that other performativity has its history and bring those two together — it just seemed to make so much sense,” she shared.
Boutilier approached drag entertainer Rowena Whey, who got enthusiastically on board right away and reached out to fellow performers Tyffanie Morgan and Dare de LaFemme to help.
“For this pilot project,” said Boutliier, “there were garments that we had in mind and [we] invited them to ‘drag them up’ — to envision how they would work — and then we would make them according to their vision and give [the garments] to them to use in performance.”
Having been invited to re-inhabit the garments, and working with local dress historians, makers, and conservators, the drag artists chose their fabrics and embellishments and determined how they would like to wear, accessorize, and perform the garments made for them.
All of that work is being celebrated on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in a very special way, with a sold-out ‘Historical Costume Ball Drag Show Fashion Pageant Spectacular’ featuring the three performers, who will showcase their bespoke garments. The Agnes crew will also unveil the behind-the-scenes process and launch the first patterns for free download in a new online exhibition on Digital Agnes.
“We have a very robust digital platform that we’re launching on Digital Agnes, on our website, where you can download the patterns and… watch videos about the process of preparing for this project,” Boutilier explained, adding that there will also be interviews with a conservator and a pattern maker.
At the celebration, attendees will be encouraged to wear their own most fashionable finds and creations while they enjoy the big reveals of the new garments and the drag show to follow.
“We’ll just really celebrate the possibilities with fashion,” said Boutilier.
“In Kingston and the area, there is this history of dressing up, with re-enactment and historical pageants and drag. We really embrace these performative, theatrical moments of being able to define ourselves and also inhabit different identities.”
This event also launches a weeklong series of activities in collaboration with the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University.
On Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024 from 2 to 4 p.m., ‘My Storytime, with Jas Morgan and Tyffanie Morgan’ will feature screenings of two short films: Kingston Is Burning (1995, directed by James Fowler) and Miss Tyffanie: Extreme Close-Up (2008, directed by Sandra Jass, with Jessica Lindal and Matt MacLellan). Following the screenings, attendees are invited to stay for in-person conversations with Jas Morgan and Tyffanie Morgan, as they look back at the making of the films and reflect on drag history, fashion performance, and queer activism in Kingston. Drag artists and community members are invited to attend and share their stories, too.
Then on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, Agnes will host You Ain’t ‘Scared of Me’ … You Hate Me: An Academic Drag Queen’s Critical Race Theory-Informed Response to Today’s Dragphobia and Transphobia, an in-person talk event with Dr. Tommy Mayberry from 12 to 2 p.m.
All events are held at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 36 University Avenue. Further information can be found on the Centre’s website.