Shafiq Beig, Mary Jo HaddadTailor Shafiq Beig designed a new robe to be worn on ceremonial occasions by incoming UWindsor chancellor Mary Jo Haddad.

Tailor sews tradition into new chancellor’s gown

Master tailor Shafiq Beig believes sewing is like poetry, and UWindsor’s incoming chancellor Mary Jo Haddad is his latest muse.

“It was such a pleasure to work with someone like her,” Beig says. “She appreciates the history… She has an eye for my work.”

Beig, assistant production manager at Harcourts custom robemaker in Toronto, has created the gown Dr. Haddad will wear as she confers degrees beginning May 28, when she is officially installed as UWindsor’s eighth chancellor. As Dr. Haddad is the first female in the school’s history to hold the post, it was time to reimagine the square, polyester “tent” her male predecessors wore, Beig said.

Beig, who writes poetry about people he admires and injustices he sees in the world, has had a hand in the ceremonial gowns worn by opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Canadian icon Stompin’ Tom Connors as they received honorary doctorates. He dresses the judiciary, the clergy, choirs, and members of fraternal organizations around the globe and he has been commissioned in the past to make historically accurate military uniforms displayed in museums.

Dr. Haddad, whose father was a tailor in Lebanon before immigrating to Canada and opening a butcher shop in Windsor, remembers the day she travelled with the University’s interim president Douglas Kneale to the nondescript brick building on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto, where Beig oversees a team of 30 workers. They brought with them the gown outgoing chancellor Ed Lumley had worn for the past 12 years.

“The female didn’t exist in the mind of the people who designed these,” Beig said.

Now, the pattern he has designed for Dr. Haddad will be the one used for all female chancellors in the future. The colour, fabric, and embellishments may change in keeping with the tradition of the institution, but the shape and style will be the same, he explained.

The tradition of wearing a robe at convocation dates back to 12th century, when the first universities were founded in Europe. The wearing of the gown signified that graduates were set apart from ordinary citizens. Harcourts has been making them since 1842.

The length of the gown relates to status, Beig explained. Dr. Haddad’s five-foot-ten frame will carry a gown that is four inches from the floor. That’s standard for chancellors, he said. The hems of those with doctoral degrees should be 10 inches from the floor, Beig said.

Dr. Haddad will wear a scarlet robe, in keeping with the traditional colour worn by chancellors at the University of Windsor. It is made of silk and rayon damask imported from England. The silk is lightweight and breathes, while the rayon adds lustre, Beig explained. Set off with gold trim, the gown’s fabric and trim features an oak leaf pattern, signifying strength, honour, knowledge and nobility. It has an elbow-length, slit-cut sleeve which Beig described as airy, comfortable and “more feminine.”

While designed to honour a 900-year-old tradition, the gown has some important modern features — interior pockets with small openings for wires for when Dr. Haddad is outfitted with a microphone. Beig included side pockets, as well, for carrying a cellphone and other necessities.

Dr. Haddad saw the gown for the first time at the end of January during her first fitting. It was, in her words, “perfect.”

While Lumley eschewed wearing a hat, they are traditional for chancellors, Beig said. Dr. Haddad will wear a traditional black beefeater, also called a Tudor bonnet, with a gold tassel. It was a style suggested by Beig.

Beig was born in India where he studied law before setting off to England to study fashion design. He came to Canada as a young man and landed a job at Harcourts doing alterations. He has worked at the company for 30 years and prides himself on hiring immigrants, focusing in recent years on Syrian refugees.

Dr. Haddad said she feels lucky to have encountered Beig on her journey to becoming chancellor.

“I’ve always been a strong proponent of finding your passion and doing what is meaningful in life and what gives you great reward.” Beig has done that, she said.

Beig said outfitting chancellors exposes him to people of “great substance.” Beig, whose poetry has been acknowledged in the Ontario legislature, said encountering Dr. Haddad may provide fodder for a future poem.

After receiving her nursing degree from the University of Windsor, Dr. Haddad dedicated her career to children’s health. She was the president and CEO of the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto. After retiring at the end of 2013, she founded a consulting company, MJH & Associates, providing strategic leadership and healthcare advisory services.

While she lives with her husband in Oakville where they raised their three children, she still considers Windsor home.

“It’s my hometown. It’s my alma mater. It’s the place where I grew up as a professional,” she said. “Windsor served me well and launched my career.”

Dr. Haddad landed a job as a nurse in Michigan with a college diploma. While working, she returned to school earning a bachelor of nursing degree from the University of Windsor, then a master’s degree from the University of Toronto. During her time heading SickKids, she was recognized for her leadership and commitment to children’s health with honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from Windsor, Ryerson University, and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

“To be chancellor is an honour,” Dr. Haddad said. “It’s an honour to be in the presence of young people who are launching their careers and receiving their degrees and graduate degrees. It’s inspiring and I’m so proud to be a part of that.”

─Sarah Sacheli