Sunday, May 20, 2012

Field Dress

Last year I was invited by curator Patrick Macauley to be one of five artists to participate in 1812-2012: A Contemporary Perspective this spring at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.  I was flattered to be asked, because Patrick Macauley is a wonderful curator who has always been generously supportive of my work.  Each artist was to propose pieces based on their individual experience and interpretation of the theme, and I was excited because the premise for the exhibition was right up my alley:

'Time passes slowly. How we remember and how we understand the past is always in question. This exhibition invites five contemporary artists to explore the War of 1812 through its historical complexities and bring forward a contemporary perspective.'

As I've been recently exploring through the lens of natural dyes how our deeper past can shape the future and as  I've always been fascinated by my own family's history (which is rooted in its immigration to Canada between 200 and 400 years ago), I was particularly keen.  The War of 1812 in particular is an important part in that story, as several of my ancestors can trace their settlement in southern Ontario to the period following the war.

 We always visited Canadian historical sites as part of our holidays when I was a child, including battle sites like the Plains of Abraham, and various forts dotted around the country, especially as my younger brother was fascinated by the stories of Generals Brock, Wolfe and Montcalm.  I loved our family trips, but I was never enthralled by the stories of these historical wars. Perhaps this was because at old forts I could never see myself in these places that were the realm of men.  Women's contributions were absent there, or at least quite behind the scenes.  I preferred our visits to historic homesteads and living museums like Upper Canada Village where everyday life was being reenacted:  cooking or dyeing wool over an open fire, or eating horehound candy sticks from the general store held much more appeal.   However, in the War of 1812, there was one woman whose story, whether entirely true or not, has become quite legendary in the history of the formation of Canada: Laura Secord.

The story is this:  

'The Secords had been ordered to billet American soldiers in their home. On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura and her husband James overheard an American plan of an impending attack on British forces. The Americans were planning an assault against Lt. James Fitzgibbon at Beaverdams. With that position captured, the Americans could control the entire Niagara Peninsula. Upon hearing the plan, the Secords knew that Fitzgibbon must be warned. Injured at the Battle of Queenston Heights the previous October, James could not attempt the journey. Despite the danger and harsh unsettled country, Laura decided she would go to warn Fitzgibbon.

'Her journey along a 32 km (20 mile) treacherous route took more than 18 hours to complete. Fearing discovery by American patrols that were in possession of that part of Niagara, Laura Secord daringly made her way to DeCew house on the outskirts of Thorold. The dangers of such a journey were many - wolves, wildcats and rattlesnakes were common in the peninsula at this time, as were unfriendly Native forces. A woman walking alone toward enemy lines risked being arrested or even shot. Overcoming exceedingly hot temperatures and wild, unsettled land, Laura trekked through thick woods and across unbridged streams, tattering her slippers and leaving her feet blistered and bleeding.

'At Beaverdams, Laura encountered Native forces who were allies of the British. Upon hearing her news, they accompanied her to DeCew house where she was able to deliver her vital message to Fitzgibbon. As a result, the Native forces, under the command of John Norton and Dominique Ducharme, ambushed the invading Americans and defeated them at the Battle of Beaverdams, June 24, 1813.

'Although Laura was due much of the credit for the victory, her heroism was soon forgotten. It wasn't until 1860, almost fifty years later, that Laura received recognition of her act during a visit by Edward, Prince of Wales. She died in 1868 at the age of 93 and is buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery. In 2003, the Minister of Canadian Heritage designated Laura Secord a
Person of National Historic Significance for her heroic actions during the War of 1812.'

(from the Laura Secord Homestead page of the Niagara Parks Commission)

With the bicentennial of the war, there have been many artists exploring the story of Laura Secord, not the least of whom is Barbara Klunder, whose incredibly beautiful exhibition Laura Secord:  The Paper Cuts was shown at David Kaye Gallery last November.  Initially this gave me some reserve in telling my version of the story. However, I persevered.

Pondering the blurred lines between historical fact and fiction, how in the present we interpret the past, romanticize and embellish it and these narratives that bring the past alive,  I decided to construct a costume for Laura Secord. With this costume, I wanted to emphasise while the regency period was a period of relative freedom in women's dress, women still had to contend with layers of petticoats and undergarments that restricted their activities, which makes Laura Secord's journey even more remarkable.

The pieces are based on garment patterns intended for historical interpretation and reenactment from Sense & Sensibility patterns.  To remain true to the period, I sewed every stitch of each piece by hand, learning, in the process, just how laborious clothes-making was before the sewing machine.  No wonder clothing had so much more value historically.  In my research, I also discovered many fascinating facts about the history of clothing, the most titillating of which, is that women did not typically wear any sort of underpants prior to circa 1830-40, just petticoats, sometimes as many as four or five, depending on the time of year. 

The piece, Field Dress, c.1812, is constructed as an historical artifact, supposing that, Laura Secord's journey was immediately recognised as a historically important contribution, and the clothing she wore to undertake her journey was preserved.

Artist Statement:

Field Dress, c.1812.
These artefacts comprise the costume famously worn during one lady’s perilous and circuitous journey made the 22nd of June, 1813, under the heat of the summer sun, over some twelve miles of wood, swamp and miry road between the village of Queenston and Beaver Dam, etc.

FIELD • [noun ] an area on which a battle is fought : a field of battle.
DRESS • [as adj. ] denoting military uniform or other clothing used on formal or ceremonial occasions : a dress suit.

History is a study subject to interpretation, in which narratives become scattered and muddied, skewed and biased, altered and embellished, strewn and gathered, unpicked, and patch-worked back together.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is in many ways, the bicentennial of an immigration that shaped my own family’s history. My English and American ancestors settled in this land, Southern Ontario, and here, we have remained, for the last two centuries. Some were soldiers during the war, given land in exchange for their service in the war; others were Englishmen granted land after the war in order to strengthen and expand the geographical reach of the Upper Canada.  In the early days of settlement, often wholly unprepared for living in the near wilderness conditions, settlers endured back-breaking work and laboured to survive in a harsh climate, with few conveniences at their disposal. Landscape shapes the character of the people that inhabit it; the land leaves traces upon us as we traverse it, through fields, woods and rivers.

1812-2012:  A Contemporary Perspective continues until July 15, 2012 at York Quay Gallery,  Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West, Toronto. 

This work is generously supported by Harbourfront Centre and the City of Toronto Museum Services as part of a citywide programme for the Bicenennial Commemoration of The War of 1812. 


  1. you are amazing. this work is amazing. amazing amazing amazing.

  2. Dear Thea,
    You make such beautiful things! Thanks for sharing your experience and feelings. That's the best part I like. I think you'll be blessed. Believe in yourself!
    Angela - last place of visit

  3. You have shared very nice information regarding Field Dress. Really I got some new things from here.Thank you!

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  4. I keep my fingers crossed for you and for creating new texts.