Students channel vibrant music hall era with lavishly crafted garments

Historical Dress Presentation showcases Costume Studies student designs

- April 12, 2023

Costume Studies students display their pieces at a rehearsal for this year's Historical Dress Presentation. (Nick Pearce photos)
Costume Studies students display their pieces at a rehearsal for this year's Historical Dress Presentation. (Nick Pearce photos)

Get ready to hop in the wayback machine: It’s that time of year again when Dal’s talented Costume Studies students help transport you back to an earlier era with their hand-crafted creations.

This year’s Historical Dress Presentation, happening tonight (April 12) at 7:30pm in the new Joseph Strug Concert Hall, will take attendees back more than a century to 1903. Get tickets now.

With guidance from Dr. Perin Westerhof Nyman, their Aesthetics of Historical Dress instructor, students will be showcasing designs made with period-accurate materials. Dr. Westerhof Nyman chose the show’s time period, but gave students creative freedom beyond that.

“The students are invited to pursue any theme or avenue of research that appeals to them,” she says. “Then, once I have a clear picture of where everyone is taking their projects, I try to find a theme or narrative thread to connect them together for the show.”

In this case, the narrative that emerged was one that harkened back to music hall and variety show performances popular at the turn of the 20th century. The show’s title, The Gilded Fountain Music Hall: A Celebration of Costume and Performance in 1903, is both a play on the name of the Fountain School of Performing Arts as well as a nod to what Dr. Westerhof Nyman notes as “the grand, often fanciful names given to music hall theatres in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

“This year, many of the project proposals touched on the history of our own field — costuming for theatre and other types of performance and 'fancy-dress' —and then it also turned out that we were going to be the first show of this type in the new Joseph Strug Concert Hall.”

Creative freedom in motion

Someone eager to share the results of her hard work is fourth-year student Tess Martin. Martin has created a 1903 fencing ensemble entirely of historically accurate materials as per course restrictions.

“[The ensemble] includes a matching black velvet skirt and shirtwaist, which is a top, and a quilted vest that was the historic safety measure,” says Martin.

“The combinations, corset, petticoat, skirt, shirtwaist, and vest are all made of cotton. The type of fabric varies greatly. A lot of what I use is a standard cotton that you might buy for quilting, but the skirt and shirtwaist are a black cotton velveteen which provides a nice feel,” she adds.

Martin, pictured below right, acknowledges that her project sits outside the show’s theme, but that the freedom afforded to women of the era through sports is aligned with the show’s aim of underscoring the carefree feel of the era.

“This era is before the First World War, before the Great Depression. People were having fun and I think our theme . . . highlights some of the exciting parts of Edwardian life,” Martin says. “Showgirls, fancy dress, Can Can, ball gowns and more. It's going to be an amazing night!”

The show does more than just provide a visual treat for audience members, Martin stresses. 

“I think an important part of this presentation is allowing people to engage in a side of history that is often overlooked,” she says. “Fashion history, dress history and material culture are so downplayed in academia, but it's an amazing part of history that provides so much context about the lives of people.”

“Being able to look at a garment and learn details about generations of people who wore it, how it was altered and geographically where it comes from allows historians to make a rich addition to what we know about history.”

Teamwork is essential

Dr. Westerhof Nyman emphasizes that it has taken many months of hard work from dedicated people to bring the show to life, including from members of the Costume Studies department and across the Fountain School of Performing Arts. 

“I have vital planning support and amazing hands-on help from my Costume Studies colleagues Anneke Henderson, Julia Copp, and Emma Sickert,” she says. “I'm incredibly grateful for the work that everyone is putting in so that we can highlight our students' final-year projects.”

The Gilded Fountain Music Hall will leave audience members questioning their preconceived notions of historical dress, as well as serve as an inviting opportunity to show appreciation for the skill and creativity of the Aesthetics of Historical Dress students.

The Gilded Fountain Music Hall: A Celebration of Costume and Performance in 1903 takes place Wednesday, April 12 at the Joseph Strug Concert Hall, 1385 Seymour St., at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available from the Dalhousie Arts Centre box office and online at


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