Stephens College exhibit showcases one family's historical dress collection

Sunday, December 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
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Curator Laurel Wilson walks through the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection.

COLUMBIA — A year ago, Stephens College received an impressive clothing donation from George and Karla Hessenbruch.

George's maternal grandmother had attended Stephens, which prompted the couple to give the family's collection to the college. 


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Once stored in a wood trunk, the dresses and coats are now on display in  “Good Form: Dress and Decorum for the Woman of Fashion, 1873-1911,” an exhibit in Lela Raney Wood Hall that ends Sunday.

Elizabeth DeMaria, curator of Stephens College Costume Museum & Research Library, has been working with the pieces and trying to locate their origins.

The collection features 10 dresses and a set of dress coats all from one family. The labeled pieces of clothing show they are from Europe, with several from Germany. Those can often be identified by their elaborate braiding and pleats.

One dress in the collection is noteworthy for its historical value, DeMaria said. It was designed by the man many call the father of haute couture, Charles Frederick Worth.

“He claims that he freed women from the hoop skirt, but then he put them into a bustle,” she said.

The waists of the garments in the collection are typically 18 or 19 inches. The standard at the time was 22 to 24 inches.

Two extremes in society took pride in a small waist size — upper-class women and prostitutes, DeMaria said. A small waist was a sign that a woman’s husband took care of her and that she took no part in strenuous labor. 

The silhouette of the dresses in the collection is called the "Grecian Bend," according to Laurel Wilson, curator of the Missouri historic costume and textile collection. The corset was intended to straighten the spine, but in reality it had many of the same negative side effects as a normal corset.

Women’s posture was greatly altered by these new undergarments. Their chests were thrust forward, while their hips were pushed back, she said. This look was achieved by inserting a skinny piece of bone or wood, called a busk, in a corset extending from the chest to low on the abdomen and forcing the body into an “S” shape.

All of the pieces are embellished in different ways. Some have beading and lace while others are decorated with intricate pleating, which is why Wilson refers to much of the late 19th century as the period of "wretched excess."

"The extreme styles were laughed about, but at the same time followed," DeMaria said.

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