Monday, June 6, 2016

"Little Black Dress" at the Missouri History Museum

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

Last week, I visited the "Little Black Dress" exhibit at the Missouri History Museum and decided to make it the topic of my next "Ten Good Things" post. I can hear you: "But wait, history museum, dresses? Your posts are supposed to be about art!" Well, first, I am a textile artist, and I consider educating myself about all forms of fabric manipulation essential to my craft; and second, clothing is one of the most democratic of art forms - available to and approachable by nearly everyone.

Although many of us think about fashion on a regular basis, there is a growing appreciation that clothing can be high art.  The turning point was the Alexander McQueen retrospective, "Savage Beauty", at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011. Huge crowds turned out to see amazing creations that were the embodiment of McQueen's artistic vision. Museums are now realizing that the public appreciates beautiful, interesting clothing, not just for its historical value, but its aesthetic value as well.

Black and white "mod style" striped shoes, ca. 1960s. Made by Andrew Gellar.

It is easy to understand that something on display in a museum has achieved a mark of artistic recognition, but less simple to realize that our everyday wearable choices reflect the powers of our own creative expression. Perhaps this is because clothing is usually viewed as a generic item. Think again. Today, we are spoiled by choice. Most of us are not limited to some undies, a dress or two and a coat; a set of clothing that was the reality less than 100 years ago in the U.S. and still is in many parts of the world. We can obtain clothing in bright colors that were literally unknown decades ago. We can have ruffles and lace and buttons and zippers and beads and anything else we want. Such is our sartorial freedom that we can change the length of sleeves and hems (pants, dresses AND jackets) with every outfit. Most of us wear a variation of jeans and t-shirt daily, but the variety therein is also astounding.

Even so, there is always a vague sense of what is fashionable, what looks right in a particular situation.  That sense of appropriateness affects the decision of which shirt to buy, and then what pair of jeans and shoes we combine with it (how about those shown above?). That sense of what is correct has always been a mainstay of fashion. Designers have pushed and pulled us into new directions of personal expression, and viewing an exhibition like "Little Black Dress" gives us a window into our current choices as we decide what to wear each morning.

Silk dress with tulle and lace overlay, ca. 1918. Unknown maker.

Before I delve into discussion about my favorite items at the exhibit, I will point out that I requested images of those I thought were photographed to best advantage and would be easiest to view on a computer screen. All were photographed by Cary Horton; many thanks to the Missouri History Museum for providing them for this blog post.

The exhibit is arranged chronologically, explaining how the perception of black has changed since the Victorian era.  Beginning with black as a color of mourning, the exhibit showcases a series of Victorian-era dresses and mourning accoutrement. You are then drawn to gowns made at the turn of the last century, when public opinion began to associate black with style (e.g., the gown shown above), and further along to dresses for work and special occasions.

One of the mourning dresses (Two Piece Silk and Crepe Mourning Dress with Organdy Trim, 1875) typifies what comes to mind when we think of a typical Victorian dress (the idea of which has been colored by the popularity of the Steampunk movement). The dress is black, but also an extravaganza of ruffles, notched tucks and textured fabric. It is an interesting contrast to an adjacent dress (Two Piece Silk and Silk Faille moiré evening dress, ca. 1880. Made by Josephine G. Egan) that is flashier due to its fabric and beading, but structurally much less complex. For me, the comparison between the two dresses is interesting: one, supposedly somber and made for introspection, the other made for show, but the details of each somehow contradicting its purpose.

Velvet day dress, ca. 1919. Made by Chanel.

Chanel coined the term "Little Black Dress," and there are a few examples by her on display. My favorite was a simple dress embellished with a small ruffle around the waist and an apron of velvet in front. The silhouette is typical of the time, but translates well to the fashion of today. Modern women have an expectation of comfort in everyday wear, and this garment would deliver. You often hear the phrase "timeless" used for Chanel designs, and this is a perfect example.

Wool jersey dress, ca. 1960-1966. Made by Jane Franklin Juniors.

Along similar lines, it is interesting to note how many other dresses on display would be considered quite sharp today. The wool shift shown above has a spare, elegant cut with subtle, diagonal style lines across the front of the bodice that extend to the back waist. I think most would be hard pressed to date it accurately by visual inspection alone.  A nearby silk dress by Hattie Carnegie features a notched placard (the part that buttons) embellished with tabs of self-fabric. The 1950s were the highpoint for women's suits (in my opinion), and this is a good example; classy then, classy now, wearable anywhere. Here are two garments made over five decades ago. Obviously much has changed in the national aesthetic since that time. What aspect of these pieces of clothing makes them just as "right" now as then? It can't be the designs themselves, as they are quite different. Is there some minimum set of characteristics that make a garment appropriate for a situation? Perhaps someone has done the mathematical analysis of garment attributes and has an answer. (As an aside, I'll try to find out.) Still, it is an interesting question to ponder, and probably similar to what goes through our minds as we try to pick out something to wear for a particular event.

Bias-cut crepe evening dress with spaghetti straps, ca 1939. Made by Mainbocher.

Few people make their own clothes today, so some respect for what is going on inside these dresses may be muted. We often appreciate elaborate embellishments (pleats, beading, many seams) because we understand the amount of time required to produce these details. Less obvious, but more important, is what the dressmakers have done to create the shape of the garment itself. The dress in this exhibit that typifies the highest form of craft is visually the simplest. The bias evening gown shown above creates its body hugging silhouette with few seams and perfect control and understanding of the fabric covering the body within. There are no embellishments, just the quality of the cloth and the skill of the dressmaker on display. Contrast that with a modern sheath a few yards away  (Polyester spandex backless evening dress, 1999. Made by Arden B.), in which a nearly identical silhouette is created by utilizing spandex instead of skill.

Belted taffeta dress with added lace collar and cuffs, ca. 1949. Made by Traina Norell.

Another contrast of interest was between two dresses of a similar age. One is restrained, the other energetic. Both feature white lace as embellishment. The WWII-era dress (Rayon crepe dress with scalloped lace trim and bow, ca.1940) has a prim look. Its restrained style is softened with an abundant number of buttons along the bodice, lady-like gathered sleeves and a smidgen of lace on the breast pockets. The post-war Norell dress (shown above) features clever seaming to achieve its recognizable "New Look" shape. In addition to princess seams in the bodice, it has curved, hip-hugging panels that redirect and lower the gathers of the skirt . The result is greater control of the fullness of the skirt and less bulk at the midsection, both working to emphasize the idealized tiny waist of the era. The luxurious amount of lace at the collar and cuffs reinforces the feeling of exuberance of the time.

Sleeveless cocktail dress with pattern of cut velvet dots and velvet bow, ca. 1961. Made by Christian Dior.

My favorite dress of the exhibit was created by the House of Dior in 1961. Essentially a simple sleeveless shift, it would make anyone, 19 to 99, look great today. It features simple styling, but best of all, pockets. I had to spend some time examining this dress because the details are so subtle. For example, there are two pleats off center from the waist which form a gentle curve of fabric to mid-hip. In back of these curves, the pocket openings are perfectly hidden. Beautiful.

I'm already over the limit of ten good things, but I do have to mention two more. The mourning hair jewelry was great, but even better was the reprint of a Victorian-era book on how to make your own. The DIY movement was alive and well back in the day! Can you imagine losing a loved one, then sitting at home making a necklace from their hair? It boggles the mind. Also of interest is the collection of sewing tools. Similar variations of many exist today, but are not as beautiful. And don't pass by the deadliest buttonhole cutter I've ever seen.

If you've never thought of clothing as art, take an hour or so and enjoy this exhibit. When I was there, ninety-nine percent of the other visitors were women, but it needn't be so. Take a look guys, there is some interesting geometry and engineering going on in these dresses!
Little Black Dress” is on display at the Missouri History Museum through September 5, 2016 and entrance is free. Visit the Missouri History Museum website here for information about hours and other concurrent exhibits. You can also phone the Museum at 314/746-4599.
Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.

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