December 18, 2010 in Features

‘Dress Code‘ through the years

Museum exhibition showcases women’s fashions from 1800s to today
By The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

From left, Laura Thayer, Valerie Wahl, Ginger Ewing and Gayle Foien show dresses from the MAC exhibition titled “Dress Code.”
(Full-size photo)

Map of this story's location

‘Dress Code’

What: An exhibition illustrating how clothing and fashion signal the changing roles and ambitions of women from the 1800s to the present.

Where: Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, 2316 W. First Ave.

Runs: Today through April 30.

Hours: Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Regular museum fees apply ($7/adults, $5/seniors/students, free/children 5 and younger)

More information: (509) 456-3931;

Laura Thayer, museum programs manager

The outfit: Concert gown, created around 1930, for Mary Bower. Made of silk organza.

Back story: Bower, a musician, taught music at Whitman College in Walla Walla for three decades, starting in the late 1930s. Spokane dressmaker Minnie Lewis designed concert gowns and other clothes for her.

“She would travel to New York once a year to sketch the latest fashions,” Thayer said of Lewis.

Notice: The “impossible blue” color. And how Lewis used the cut of the fabric to create decorative flounces.

“This was the ’30s and people couldn’t afford a lot of embellishments,” Thayer said.

Why it’s a fave: “I don’t go to fancy places,” Thayer said, “but if I were giving a piano concert, I would wear it.”

Ginger Ewing, curator for cultural literacy

The outfit: Designer waltz-length dinner dress, created in 1950, owned by Harriet Johnston Fix. Made of silk satin.

Back story: Fix’s father, Eric Johnston, was head of the United States Chamber of Commerce and president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

His prestigious national roles required travels far from Spokane. Fix wore this dress to a 1950 Los Angeles dinner for Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India.

Notice: The extremely small waist. And the candy apple green color.

“You’re hit in the face – bam – with the color,” Ewing said.

Why it’s a fave: “The dress is understated and very classy in a look-at-me sort of way,” Ewing said. “I could see myself in this dress.”

Gayle Foien, curator for lifelong education

The outfit: Homemade party dress, created around 1895 by Josephine Crouch Sweet. Made of cotton.

Back story: Josephine Crouch was 38 when she married William Sweet, a Freeman, Wash., farmer. She crocheted this late Victorian-era outfit to wear to social gatherings in the East when she accompanied her husband there on political business.

Notice: The thousands of labor-intensive stitches. The delicate buttons. The small shoulders and waist.

Why it’s a fave: “I can picture someone wearing this in a garden setting and feeling beautiful,” Foien said. “It looks very formal, very proper, but the dress feels light and airy, too.”

Valerie Wahl, museum collections curator

The outfit: Professional suit, created in 1947, owned by Janet Russell. Made of wool.

Back story: Russell moved to Spokane from Portland to teach home economics in Spokane schools.

Notice: World War II was over, but fashion designers still incorporated military styles – crisp lines, broad, businesslike shoulders – into women’s clothes.

Why it’s a fave: “I can picture myself wearing this and feeling like a million bucks,” Wahl said. “It’s well-made, tailored. I would feel very put together.”

Looking for inspiration while dressing up for holiday parties?

Consider visiting the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. The museum’s exhibition “Dress Code” opens today.

It features about three dozen outfits – some dressy, some practical – worn by women from the 1800s to the present.

Most of the “costumes” come from the museum’s collections, donated over the decades. Five are loaners, including Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s second inaugural gown, which she also wore to President Obama’s inaugural in 2009.

“Dress Code” complements “Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices” a major MAC exhibition about the 100-year quest for equality by Washington state women, which runs through May 7.

Clothes, an expression of the personal, also reflect the political realities in which women live out their private lives.

For instance, during the 1840s, early suffragists rebelled against the 15 pounds of corsets, slips and “hardware” in typical Victorian-era dresses.

They donned “Turkish” trousers, inspiring the Dress Reform Movement that exposed the negative health consequences of wearing corsets.

Fashion rebels were the exception, however. A major theme of “Dress Code” is how women have conformed to the ideal of the era they live in.

“We’ve nipped. We’ve tucked. We’ve scrunched,” said Ginger Ewing, the museum’s curator for cultural literacy.

“What do our clothes say about us?”

Four MAC women involved in the exhibit recently picked out their favorite “Dress Code” outfits. Enjoy their sneak preview.

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