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Fashion forward, fashion backward

Through simple stitchery and rich haberdashery, MU's historic costume collection plots cultural shifts

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos courtesy of the MU Department of Apparel and Textile Management
  • Published: March 5, 2009
Fabric texture

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  1. Kimono with White Flowers, Gold Embroidery, c.1940s: A happi coat, a short kimono, is usually worn over other garments for festivals and parties. The asymmetrical floral design represents the most formal level of kimono patterning, homongi.
  2. Custom-Made Dress by Rosemary, Sikeston, Mo., c.1960s: As personal dressmaker to Betty Hearnes, the wife of Gov. Warren Hearnes, Rosemary designed numerous garments with clean, simple lines and intricate details, following the 1960s trend toward angular, A-line silhouettes.
  3. Girl’s Silk Dress, c.1850: This silk dress was worn by a child about 4 years old, when dress hems ended just below the knee.
  4. Camel and Burgundy Two-piece Dress, c.1881: Many brides were married in their “best” dresses that could be worn again in social settings, often in colors that varied from traditional white.
  5. Gown with Metallic and Velvet Accents, c.1910s: This gown was worn by Paulene Bohrer while she attended Central Methodist College in Fayette, Mo., from 1914 to 1916.
  6. U.S. Army World War I Uniform, c.1917: Wool uniforms were standard issue for the enlisted Army at the turn of the century. Corporal Yost received a U.S. Victory Medal worn on the chest.
  7. Men’s Tailcoat, c.1938: Glamorous dress became increasingly popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Men looked to Hollywood and books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for fashion inspiration.
  8. Paisley silk Dress with Black Jacket, 1925: This silk dress belonged to Margaret Long, a former resident of Missouri. Her marriage to Dr. James Park, also a former Missouri resident, took place on March 7, 1925 in Whittier, Calif.
  9. Pastel Gown with Lace Accents, c.1910s: This gown also features many details typical of women’s dress of the 1910s. Its silhouette of straighter skirt and fuller bust was common, as were the lace and ribbon decoration.
  10. Union Frock Coat, c.1861-1865: This regulation frock coat worn by Union soldiers during the Civil War shows heavy French influence. The rimmed buttons contain the Missouri State Seal.
  11. Girl’s First-Birthday Hanbok, c.1980s: The first birthday of a child is a special occasion in Korea. The colors in this hanbok symbolize good harmony and are believed to ensure a happy, long life.
  12. Mariano Fortuny Delphos Gown and Shawl, c.1925: Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo found inspiration for his Delphos series of pleated gowns from the Greek bronze sculpture The Charioteer in Delphi.
  13. Green Silk Second-Day Dress, c.1866: The three-piece silk walking dress includes fringe newly available from textile mills that were changing from war production to consumer materials.

Betty Hearnes went to great lengths to avoid fashion faux pas. When the former Missouri state representative and first lady wore an off-the-rack gown to an official function in the early 1960s, another guest clad in the same frock left the event in tears, mortified by the redundancy.

“Betty decided that rather than have that happen again, she would have her clothing custom made so other women wouldn’t have to worry about appearing in the same clothing she appeared in,” says Professor Laurel Wilson, curator of the MU Department of Apparel and Textile Management’s Historic Costume and Textile Collection. Hearnes became the loyal client of a Sikeston seamstress named Rosemary.

Some of Rosemary’s creations for Hearnes have found a home in MU’s costume collection, a gargantuan Gwynn Hall closet packed with more than 5,000 donated garments spanning two centuries, from an 1800 woman’s cap to new Moroccan attire donated by a visiting Fulbright scholar this year. It’s a dizzying and dazzling barrage of buttons and embroidery, twill and taffeta, representing everyone from 19th century Missouri farmers and Chinese court officers to modern couture-buying fashionphile brides.

About 75 of the pieces will be exhibited March 7 during History’s Closet in the Club at Old Hawthorne, a fund-raising cocktail reception and exclusive viewing opportunity.

A stitch in time

While designed to show off the collection and help preserve it as an educational resource, Saturday’s soiree doubles as lab of sorts for MU students. After researching 19th and 20th century Western dress all semester, the budding fashionistas organized a series of displays around themes such as “Fighting for Freedom” (military wear), “Playtime” (children’s clothes) and “Missouri Makers” (Show-Me State apparel), which can be viewed during History’s Closet.

For researchers, Wilson says, the collection is a priceless resource. It can inspire modern fashion design within a cultural context. It can give historians, students and the general public a personal, tangible connection to history.

“Dress is really a barometer of social change,” Wilson says. “You can look at dress and see attitudes. You can look at dress and see changes in technology. You can look at dress and see ideology. Dress really does show us, in person, how people responded – and respond – to the world around them.”

The extrication of corsets from most modern wardrobes, for example, may represent an easing of societal constraints for women.

Not so haute

MU’s collection includes finery from Korea, India and Turkey. It boasts a rackfull of high-end and couturier pieces by early-1900s Spanish textile visionary Mariano Fortuny, edgy Japanese trendsetter Issey Miyake and classic American designer James Galanos, whose clients included Dianna Ross and Nancy Reagan.

For the most part, though, it represents the middle-class, Midwestern United States, with historic pieces bequeathed by Missouri’s Faurot family and everyday apparel donated by MU faculty and students. Along with various vestments, the collection holds utilitarian textiles such as afghans and coverlets as well as 53 quilts handmade by members of the Cornett family from 1839 to 1949. Such down-to-earth apparel and accessories formed a department exhibition called “Everyday Through the Years.”

“It’s been one of my real efforts to bring in vernacular things,” Wilson says. “Some curators only focus on the high style, and I don’t think that’s very representative. We all wear clothing.”

Other features that set Mizzou’s collection apart from its counterparts at fellow universities include an unusually large number of men’s garments, a sizable sampling of student clothing and the curators’ foresight about what will be collectible. Taking in modern clothes bolsters the collection for years to come.

“My whole philosophy is to collect now for the future,” Wilson says. “The past starts immediately.”

History’s Closet takes place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at the Club at Old Hawthorne, 6221 E. Highway WW in Columbia. Tickets are $40. The event features a silent auction of items including orchids, jewelry, Mizzou Homecoming tickets and an American Girl closet filled with doll dresses. For details or to make a donation, call 573-884-5958.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012