Stephens College gallery, speaker honor American spirit

Thursday, October 4, 2012 | 2:05 p.m. CDT; updated 6:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 4, 2012
"Civic Virtue: Wearing Red, White and Blue", a new exhibit at Stephens College's Historic Costume Gallery, uses clothing to explore changing time and civic engagement in the United States.

COLUMBIA — One of Monica McMurry's favorite pieces in the Stephens College Historic Costume Gallery's latest exhibit isn't a costume at all: It's a hollowed nut that opens to reveal dozens of tiny black and white pictures.

"That's the St. Louis World's Fair in a nutshell," said McMurry, director of the Costume Museum and Research Library at Stephens.

If you go

What: "Civic Virtue: Wearing Red, White and Blue," an exhibit of garments and accessories at Stephens College

When: Through Dec. 9. Gallery hours are 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and from noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Where: The Historic Costume Gallery, on the mezzanine floor of Lela Raney Wood Hall, 6 N. College Ave.

Admission: Free.

The nutshell is among many items on display at "Civic Virtue: Wearing Red, White and Blue." Seventy-four mannequins fill the gallery, including full-length Victorian-style dresses from the late 19th century and a blue silk romper, circa 2010, by Jason Wu, designer of Michelle Obama's inauguration dress.

The garments and accessories are divided into four categories: Matters of State, Community Good, Equal Rights and Honoring Our Past. McMurry said all four demonstrate "the idea that you're part of the citizenry and part of the change that will happen within your own community."

The theme of civic virtue was continued with a visit to Stephens by alum Julie Reiser, president and co-founder of Made In USA Certified, a nongovernmental organization that confirms products are American-made for companies. On Wednesday evening, she gave a speech at Stephens called "Red, White and Blue is the New Black".

Reiser got the idea to start the organization after working on a magazine focusing on the same topic in 2004. She said that in interviewing "hundreds" of U.S. manufacturers, she noticed a pattern of outsourcing jobs overseas.

"What I heard the U.S. manufacturers telling me was, 'We need help,'" Reiser told the audience at Lela Raney Wood Hall.

Another concern kept coming up in Reiser's interviews: Smaller, U.S.-based companies had to compete with larger companies that could claim their products were American-made even if they weren't. With Made In USA Certified, Reiser seeks to sort out whose products really match the claim of being "Made in America."

Made In USA Certified uses an auditing system to confirm that a product is truly American-made. The product's components must virtually all be of U.S. origin and be substantially manufactured in the U.S. to get the certification.

Attendees of Reiser's speech said they thought it was important to buy items that are made in the United States.

"It's a way of supporting the economy, and it does need support," Gene Kelly said.

"I consciously look for the 'made in the USA' label," Sharon Schattgen said.

Reiser incorporated the organization with her husband in 2009 and said she has seen an increased interest in buying American-made products since then. She cited a Women's Wear Daily report called "Made in America" as evidence of the buying American movement catching on.

"When Women's Wear Daily does a 10-page spread on 'made in America,' times are a-changing," Reiser said.

The garments in "Civic Virtue" also demonstrate changing times through clothing. McMurry cited a high-neck, floor-length gown from 1876 juxtaposed with a red, white and blue shirt and high-waist jeans with rhinestones from 1976 as an example.

"This is from the '70s and that is from the '70s — they just happen to be 100 years apart," she said.

The clothing on display runs the gamut from white suffragette dresses from the early 1900s in the Equal Rights section to more everyday women's clothing in Honoring Our Past. Bradley Meinke, guest curator of the costume gallery, said this clothing was typical of women, many of them mothers, who held down the homefront during wartime.

"Mothers were the symbolic force that held families together during the world wars," Meinke said.

The symbolic aspect of red, white and blue clothing was not lost on attendee Betsy Rall, who said the colors made her think of patriotism and the Fourth of July.

"I think it's just part of who we are as Americans," Rall said.

In addition to production factors such as quality control, Reiser said patriotism and pride in America are part of the reason why Made In USA Certified has sparked interest in companies.

"Pride is coming back," she said.

Pride can come in the form of buying American-made products or by saving a little piece of history like a nutshell housing photos of a world's fair.

"That's the kind of little tchotchke thing that people would've ended up throwing away, but somebody, for some reason, thought that thing was cool enough to save," McMurry said. "And I'm glad they did."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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