A history of Red Deer — as told by the glamorous garments worn by residents to formal functions — is now on display at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
Glamour: Fashionable Red Deer shows a century of embellished party and wedding dresses, chiffon debutante gowns, and tuxedos.
The quality of the clothing tells a story of a community that was fairly affluent from the start.
This was also a fashion-forward city. The elaborate Edwardian silk and lace creation that Ella Parsons wore when she married Dr. Richard Parsons in 1905 wouldn’t have looked out of place in any drawing room or salon where demure women wore white gloves and enormous hats — from Toronto to Paris.
Lorna Johnson, the museum’s executive-director, said the garments on display are a reflection of the community, as newcomers had to have money to settle in this area.
Unlike in other parts of Alberta, where land was given free to homesteaders who committed to farming it, property around Red Deer was bought up by the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Co., and then resold at a profit to settlers.
Many of these newcomers expected Red Deer to someday become Alberta’s capital city, said Valerie Miller, the exhibit’s curator. Even if they started out living in a log cabin in Central Alberta, they brought their silverware with them — as well as their high quality garments.
Some of the more eye-catching items are: an exquisitely cut oyster silk flapper gown; a kelly-green polyester skirt/hot pants number that could have worn by Rhoda Morgenstern in the early 1970s; and a short formal off-white dress from the mid 1950s, embroidered with leaves and inspired by Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown.
Less showy is a black velvet dress worn by former MLA Irene Parlby when she addressed the League of Nations in Geneva in the early 1930s on the subject of women’s rights.
Miller noted that Red Deerians of the past had many occasions to dress up: for spring formals to Christmas and New Year’s parties and formal balls.
They remained connected to Edmonton and Calgary by rail in the early decades of the last century. Parlby would go up to legislature during the week and then come home for the weekends. Sometimes she would travel up to the big city and back in a single day.
“These were people who were on the move,” said Miller. Despite their small-town location, they were linked to the wider world through travel — such as the former mayor and his wife who went to London to attend the Queen’s 1953 coronation — as well as newspapers and magazines that informed their au courant tastes.
Miller was assisted by former museum director Morris Flewwelling in selecting garments from the MAG’s textile collection that were created or purchased from 1890s to the 1990s. The exhibit is just the tip of the museum’s 15,000 pieces, considered the fifth largest textile collection in the country.
Flewwelling said he helped to grow it during his stint as museum director because he feels clothing and gives a very personal glimpse of the community’s residents through previous decades.
Miller hopes local museum-goers will enjoy this rare sneak peak into the community’s closet. Glamour: Fashionable Red Deer continues until March 11.