Meet the fashion archeologist whose Canada 150 dress is fit for 1867

Patrician Preston calls herself a fashion archeologist — someone who takes antique, two-dimensional pattern designs and brings them to life. (Submitted by Patricia Preston)

While everyday technology like smartphones will be used to capture celebrations of Canada 150, one Nova Scotia woman who calls herself a fashion archeologist is commemorating the milestone in a different way.

Patricia Preston, who has a background in linguistics, history and some costume making, designed and sewed a flowing white and red dress accurate to the fashions of Canada’s confederation in 1867.

“That was quite a job,” recalled Preston from her home in Annapolis Royal, the town near Canada’s first European settlement.

“This was a labour of love. I don’t often do this sort of thing.”

From page to sewing table

Preston primarily makes replicas of period-specific patterns. From her “fairly large collection” of French fashion magazines dated from the 1860s to the 1930s, she’s been making and selling patterns since 2007.

“It’s what fashion writers call fashion archeology — to go back in time into old archives and find old designs and basically bring them back for the world to see,” said Preston.

“[The magazines] were never intended to last 100 years or more.”

Canada 150 dress

Preston plans to wear the dress at other events in Nova Scotia this summer. (Submitted by Patricia Preston)

The magazines supply her with pages of superimposed patterns and couture (dressmaking) terminology. She said it takes a special combination of skills to bring them into the present.

Preston said she’ll indulge in making a full garment occasionally or by special request.

Red and white was ‘fashionable’

The pattern for Preston’s Canada 150 dress comes from a French magazine called La Mode Illustrée dated July 1, 1866, she said. The design is inspired by an antique photo album brought to her attention through the local historical society. A resident had found the old photos in their home and was about to throw them out.

“From my understanding and knowledge of history of costume at the time, white and red was a common colour scheme — it was a very fashionable colour scheme,” said Preston.

The finished product is made of cotton Jacquard fabric and silk and took more than a week of five-hour days to complete.

“I looked all over the internet for the right red. A Canada flag sort of red. A clear pure red,” she said. “All the trim is hand applied.”

There’s always next time

Preston said because those French designs were republished in other magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, the style and colour of dress could very easily have been worn by a woman in Annapolis Royal in 1867.

“[The designs] had pretty wide distribution, even in the 1860s,” she said.

Preston said the dress was made for Canada 150, not just for July 1. She plans to wear it later in the summer during the Tall Ship Festival in Halifax and other events.

Canada 150 dress

Preston said it took her a long time on the internet to find the right colour of red silk. (Submitted by Patricia Preston)

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