“I thought I would do something different,” says Rita Brown about her upcoming lecture on underwear.
Brown has spent a lot of time with foundation garments. She was at the Shaw Festival for 43 years, most of them as head cutter, executing the ideas of others. “I always said, ‘what’s on the page is on the stage,’” says Brown, referring to translating designers’ sketches into costumes.
She also spent a decade as head of wardrobe. “I was happy to go to work every day,” she says of her time at the Shaw.
Between 1996 and 2006 Brown had a fascinating side project, making paper reproductions of actual historical costumes. Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave sought Brown out, and they collaborated on a collection of life-size paper costumes retracing 300 years of fashion history.
“Papiers a la Mode” and Brown travelled to London, New York, Paris, Sao Paolo, Japan, Belgium and more. “It was enriching beyond anything,” she says of the experience.
A point of pride was seeing the collection at the distinguished Victoria and Albert Museum in London. One of her paper dresses and the original it was modelled on were displayed side by side in a glass case.
According to Brown, the museum’s curator said, “I know I should know this, but which one is the original?”
“You’re always looking for perfection,” says Brown of her work. She also admits to possibly being overly fastidious. “I have to say I’m a little OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). That’s why my seamstresses called me Millimetre Rita,” she says laughing, remembering how she would ask them to adjust a seam by a fraction of an inch.
“When I was working with Isabelle, she once said,” Brown recounts, mimicking a thick French accent, “‘you know, Rita, there is perfection in imperfection.’ That thought kind of gave me a little bit of leeway.”
Since her retirement in 2007, the 77-year-old has kept herself very busy. For the last 30 years she has been collaborating with designer Martin Kamer, restoring costumes from a collection that travels all over the world. She will often spend an entire day stitching one square inch of fabric, she says. “I am a very patient person.”
“This is what keeps me young,” she says of her handiwork.
Her hands have also been busy at the computer keyboard for the last decade as well. Brown has written a book, The History of the Lady’s Riding Habit, which is complete and in edits now, aiming to find a publisher later this year.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of underwear over the years,” Brown says of her experience at the Shaw. “You get to know what the silhouette is supposed to be.”
The framed costume sketches hung about her warm, comfortable, and book-laden study show the shapes undergarments aimed to achieve over the eras, with bustles and hoops, crinolines and more. Even in the ’20s and ’30s, when women flattened their chests and strove for a more boyish figure, undergarments were integral to the sculpting of the body shape.
When Brown lectures at the Niagara Historical Society and Museum next week, she will be starting at the beginning — Crete — then moving through classic Greek, the Romans, and the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, she says. She will discuss fabric, the shape of garments, and what was thought to be attractive throughout the eras.
Fashions have changed radically and subtly over the years, and the lecture represents two solid months of research, she adds.
“If you learn one thing, wonderful,” says Brown. “If you learn five things, even better.”
Exposed — A Brief History of Underwear will take place May 16, starting at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10, or free to museum members. A question and answer period will follow Brown’s presentation.
The museum will be launching a new exhibit at the same time, From Head to Toe, which explores fashion and clothing in the museum’s collection. It features about 50 pieces, most having never been previously mounted. Brown was also involved, as a consultant.
“We chose to do a fashion installation, so it was obvious to call on Rita for advice,” says Amy Klassen, the museum’s society administrator. “She has been a great resource for our collection.”
May has been officially declared Museum Month, says Klassen. She explains this is celebrated with unique programming and social media, culminating (but not ending) on May 18, International Museum Day. Admission is free to the public on that day, when the local museum joins others all over the world in a social media campaign to enhance awareness of the institutions and their importance. Klassen says this is particularly important this year, as funding for cultural entities is being cut across Ontario.