Who would have thought that a cheap cotton dress bought some 40 years ago would end up in a national museum?
I'm not one to keep my clothes for any length of time, but for some reason, this is one dress I never managed to throw out. I just kept leaving it in the closet.
Since I do freelance editing and translating for the Canadian Museum of Civilization, I came to realize from its exhibitions that my dress might have a place in one of its collections. So I sent photos of it to a curator and was invited to bring it in.
Following a lengthy process of appraisal and consideration by an acquisitions committee, the museum decided it wanted the dress and I donated it in return for a tax receipt.
As part of the process, Sheldon Posen, the museum's curator of Canadian folklife at the time, asked me to answer a few questions about the dress: Where and when did I buy it? How did I wear it? What had it meant to me at the time? What did it mean to me now?
The questions sent me on a nostalgia trip as I started jotting down my responses.
I don't remember exactly where I bought the dress, but it was probably in some boutique - or perhaps even on the sidewalk - in the market area of downtown Ottawa. The time would have been the late sixties or early seventies.
Batik is the technique that was used to draw the various motifs on the fabric. What appealed to me most were the words "peace" and "love" roughly outlined in large letters on either side. The words were accompanied by peace symbols, what I took to be a dove in the centre and embroidered flowers in an arabesque of leaves and vines. To close the open neckline were three simple shirt buttons.
I don't know where the dress was made, but in my mind it came from India. Indian philosophy and spirituality were in style at the time and represented an alternative to traditional Western values. The contemporary mood was definitely anti-materialistic.
Although I was married and had two sons who were born in 1968 and 1971, like many other women my age I did not want to live the life of our parents - settle down, buy a house and car and work our way up the social ladder. Indeed one took pride in not owning a house or expensive car or fancy clothing. We also rebelled against our strict religious upbringing and opted for what we called "universal" values.
There was freedom in the air and this is reflected in the dress. It is loose fitting and was worn with flat shoes - barefoot was even better - and preferably without a bra. Both men and women wore their hair long (men also wore beards) and dressed in natural, earth-tone fabrics. Cotton was in, synthetic fibres were definitely out.
I wore this dress easily and freely, at home to entertain or to go shopping or to the movies - anywhere and everywhere. If clothing mattered at all, it was as an anti-fashion statement, although this eventually became a style in itself.
At the time I bought the dress, I thought of it as the expression of a free, open attitude and of the new feminist culture. If it could be described in one word, that word would be freedom. Freedom from material possessions, freedom from the rigidity of strict beliefs, freedom to think openly and to question traditional values. This was the decade of the Vietnam War and many of us were anti-militaristic. The dress sums up that feeling: peace and love, flower power, return to nature, make love not war.
As it turned out, these are the very attributes that interested the museum. In one of his notes to me, Mr. Posen wrote: "For us the dress - its tie-dye fabric, loose, flowing design, iconography and socio-political message - is a piece of material culture that perfectly embodies the era it comes from."
And so the dress was filed in the museum's popular-culture collection under such keywords as "1960s," "hippie," "summer of love" and "fashion and politics." It could be displayed in an exhibition or website about the era.
What does the dress mean to me now? Having kept it all these years, I know there was something about it that meant a lot to me, although I didn't give it much thought until asked to do so by the museum. I believe it stands in my mind as a reminder of a way of life that I was privileged to experience and that had an enormous influence on my generation. That way of thinking has disappeared, largely because the realities of life have changed.
I realize now that it was a luxury to be able to be so carefree, compared to our parents who had lived through the Depression and to the generation that followed that had a much more difficult time than we did finding decent jobs.
The fact that the museum found the dress to be of interest as an expression of an era came as a bit of a surprise, but mostly as a bonus to me for a garment that had already given me so much pleasure. It is gratifying to know that there are places where our precious reminders of the past can go on living, and even start a brand new life.
Henriette Levasseur lives in Gatineau, Que.Report Typo/Error
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