How can fashions from the past inform an understanding of history, especially the history of a woman’s place in culture? Co-curator Suzanne Ehrmann expounded on the connection in a private tour of “Fabulous Fashion—Decades of Change: 1890s, 1920s, & 1950s” currently on display at Pasadena Museum of History. Ehrmann, who has a master’s degree in textiles and clothing, has curated several exhibits as a PMH volunteer, including “Mad for Hats” and “I Do! I Do!”
“My background was in current textiles, so the museum has given me that extra background in history,” she said. She and co-curator Dr. Elizabeth Smalley chose the specific decades when there were major changes in fashion. The exhibit is arranged as a sort of timeline, starting to the right in the south gallery with morning clothes and undergarments and continuing counterclockwise and on into the north gallery through evening wear and outerwear. Display cases add artifacts of the eras to trace history through housekeeping tools, advertising, personal care items and accessories.
Of the dozens of garments on display, only one was borrowed and one purchased for the exhibit. The rest came from among the more than 3,000 garments in PMH archives. Garments are stored with layers of acid-free paper in acid-free boxes in a temperature and humidity controlled vault. The accession number labels use special ink on special paper and handlers wear gloves and forego nail polish, makeup and jewelry. Donors must have items professionally cleaned before bringing them in to decrease the chance of contamination.
In the 1890s, Ehrmann noted, women were moving from the black worn by Queen Victoria, who was mourning her husband’s death, and American women of the Civil War era, who were mourning their loved ones. Synthetic dyes, which were developed in the 1830s and ‘40s had become stable by the ‘90s and were used in fabric. The Industrial Revolution brought machine-made trims into popular use.
“It was the Gay ‘90s,” Ehrmann said. “People had more money to spend. The garments we have in our collection are from people who had money.” In part, this is because wealthy women, who changed 20 or so times a day, only wore their clothes a few times. Those who did not have money wore their clothes out. Men’s clothing is also harder to come by, because men’s fashions did not change as quickly.
Women in the ‘90s wore several layers of undergarments—underwear, a corset, several slips and petticoats. The total weight of an outfit was around 24 pounds. Stays of whalebone or metal were used in both the corset and dresses, and the women cinched in. “Fainting couches were real,” Ehrmann said. “Men designed everything. It keeps women so they are not free.” Servants were necessary to do the work restricted women couldn’t. Wardrobe malfunctions were avoided by making sure hardware that held in those stayed jackets didn’t pop open, such as alternated hooks and eyes on each side of the placket.
Fabrics were cotton, linen, wool and silk which were often printed in many colors and intricate designs and jewelry was fashioned in the Art Nouveau style. Capes, rather than overcoats, were popular to accommodate oversized sleeves and some dresses sported white collars and cuffs that were removable for easy washing.
In the ‘20s, clothing moved from handmade to being sold readymade. Due to the restricted amounts of materials available during and after World War I and women’s increased independence, the shape of dresses changed. Women went to speakeasies, got the vote, bobbed their hair. The shorter, straight up-and-down silhouette of ‘20s fashions allowed for freedom of movement and undergarments were less structured, but the Art Deco jewelry was heavier.
“It was straight, but not simple,” Ehrmann said, pointing out appliques, lace, intricate and time-consuming tambour beading, gathers and gorgeous cascades of fabric. Synthetics were still in the early stages of development, so the natural fabrics of the ‘90s were still used. Fabric designs tended to be monochromatic or, for fancy evening wear, burnout designs created through the devoré process of using a chemical gel to burn away cellulose-based such as cotton from a protein-based fiber background, such as silk.
“The ‘50s packed it in again,” she said, noting the padded bras, girdles and Merry Widows women wore under their shirtwaist dresses. The men were coming home from World War II, when women wore straight, shorter skirts with shallow hems to accommodate a fabric shortage. With more fabric and synthetics available, stockings became nylons and dresses were fuller with self-covered belts and buttons. “When the men came back, the economy needed to sell products,” and those products targeted women in style, color, and function.
Women, who had worked during the war, needed to be restricted to the home again, taking care of their husbands and children, Ehrmann said. One example is the location of the zipper: In the ‘40s, many styles had side zippers that made it easy for a woman to get in and out of her dress. In the ‘50s, the zipper moved to the back, because “your man was going to help.”
Selling products also took the form of designing items specifically for the ladies. Coloring in marketing was developed in the ‘50s; pink was especially important. No longer could a husband and wife share a shaver; hers had to be a pink Lady Sunbeam. Later, the princess phone was developed, with the most popular color being pink. Enameled jewelry in bright colors and whimsical designs came into fashion, along with sweater guards for the ubiquitous cashmeres.
From tea-time to speakeasies to the cocktail hour and cigarettes, women’s activities changed with their dress, and the greater historic events of the times were reflected in choices made by women and by the men who designed their clothing and items for household and personal use. “Fabulous Fashion” brings a fresh awareness to feminine life beyond fashion, to the vagaries of freedom and restriction. The exhibit is on display through Feb. 14, 2016 at Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St. at Orange Grove Blvd. in Pasadena. Galleries are open Wednesday through Sunday, Noon to 5:00 p.m. and there is free parking in the museum lot or on Walnut. Admission is $7 per person; museum members and children under 12 are free.