On Aug. 25, 1896, the day she became a McClung, Nellie Letitia Mooney wore a ginger cotton brocade dress with "leg of mutton" sleeves — so called because they’re shaped like those greasy legs of lamb eaten at ye olde renaissance faire.
The gown was adorned with a wraparound fitted bodice, a velvet sash and bows, along with beaded accents, custom-made for the young teacher, budding writer, politician, and women’s rights advocate at the local dressmaker’s shop in Manitou.
One-hundred-twenty-five years later, and 70 years after its owner’s death, McClung’s dress is back in Manitou, worn by a mannequin in her former home.
Well, sort of.
The original is kept in Saskatoon, at the Western Development Museum, rarely put out on public display and not easily accessible for replication purposes. So how did such a precise recreation of the former Nellie Mooney’s gown — which she wore when she wed Robert Wesley McClung in Wawanesa, near her parents’ homestead in the Souris Valley — end up back in Manitou?
"It was a labour of love that took the better part of five years," says Barbara Biggar, the co-chair of the Nellie McClung Heritage Site. And like love, it was not easy.
They had no pattern. They had no access to the original garment. Of course, they had no living wedding guests to provide first-person accounts of how the gown flowed or rested. They also had no measurements.
As is often the case, some dusty pictures and an old newspaper clipping provided some clarity, and led the bridal sleuths to retired Saskatoon journalist Ruth Millar, who had worn the original dress back in 1965. No more hemming and hawing; it was time to start thinking about the hemming and stitching.
Longtime seamstress Joanne Rodeck offered her services, and the sartorial revivalists sought to add Kristina Maitland to their growing cadre. Maitland, a historic costumer for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, came on recommendation from the Costume Museum of Canada, Biggar says. To the proposal, Maitland said "I do."
After years of legwork, the gown started to have legs in the early winter of 2020. Then, as weddings were postponed and cancelled, the matters of the re-creation of the wedding dress — pattern creation and fabric selection — were relegated to Zoom.
It took 18 months, but Rodeck, Maitland, Biggar, Bette Mueller, Gillian Potvin and Diana Vodden’s big project was finally ready for its debut on at the heritage site on June 25, also known as Nellie McClung Day.
The gown rendered is an extremely detailed replica of the original, with all the accoutrements designed to be removed for later wear. As Biggar says, until relatively recently, a wedding dress was not considered a single-day outfit, but a closet staple: practically made, designed to be worn as anniversaries rolled by.
But McClung’s leg-of-mutton-armed dress doesn’t stand alone at the heritage site: it’s joined by gowns representative of the days of yore — the oldest is from the Dominion Day 1867 wedding of Cecilia Davidson — and days more recent, such as the 2009 dress of CTV newscaster Rachel Lagacé, as part of the I Do! exhibition, which started last week and which is part of Manitoba 150 celebrations across the province. Other gowns on display include those worn by former MLA Carolyne Morrison, Babs Asper, Gail Asper, and Bette Mueller, the first and still only female principal at Nellie McClung Collegiate in Manitou. There are too many to list.
The gowns were originally supposed to be shown in a fashion show, but during a pandemic, that idea wasn’t so fashionable anymore.
Historically, there’s much more to the wedding dress than just white fabric, Biggar says. White dresses weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now until the 1960s, and in many cultures, colourful dresses are the norm: Anna He’s 1999 wedding get-up is a traditional two-piece skirt with a jacket of red and gold, considered lucky colours in China. In the broader North American wedding world, the styles of gown brides wore were closely tied to the era they were made in.
"When you look at the collection, you see the changing styles and at the same time the changing context of Manitoba," says Biggar. A collection from the Depression era showed brides wearing their "Sunday best" instead of new duds, reflecting economic hardship. Another bride made her dress by hand for her 1942 nuptials, with her husband, on leave from the RCAF, wearing his blue uniform.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Treaty 1, the exhibit also features a collection of contemporary dresses paying homage to some local Indigenous ceremonial traditions, loaned by designer Edna Nabess of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation. Those dresses are made with tanned deer hide and feature intricate beadwork. Nabess also loaned a small collection of artifacts used to make dresses before contact and colonization, including porcupine quills, fish scales and caribou tufts.
"This is about more than dresses," says Biggar. "It’s about the women who made this province strong."
And if you’re lucky, your tour guide might by Manitou’s Tyler Johnson, who’ll escort you wearing a top hat and tails. It really sets the mood, he says.
Entry is $10, but is free to anyone under the age of 17. The McClung site is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at www.nellieshomes.ca. Manitou is located 150 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. Trying on the dresses, though it may be tempting, is not permitted.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.