Courtney Nelson has a passion for clothing, and she is willing to steam dresses for eight hours just to get hands-on experience.
Nelson, a senior at Stephens College from Keystone, Colo., has spent the past six months helping organize Stephens’ fashion department exhibit, “For Better, For Worse: The Dress, The Woman, The Life.”
The right opportunity
In the spring of 2003, with her junior year almost over, Nelson knew she needed an internship to get a job after graduation. Her plans quickly changed when her boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, and she had to leave Stephens for the second half of the school year.
Nelson didn’t want to leave for an internship, so she made a proposal to the fashion department at Stephens to do her own exhibit, but the gallery was booked for the 2003-2004 season.
At that same time, Monica McMurry, curator of the Fashion/Costume Research Library at Stephens, was looking for an assistant to help her with the exhibit she was planning.
In September 2002, McMurry found out that Stephens’ was chosen to be featured in the Costume Society of America’s 2004 Historical fashions calendar, “The Wedding Dress.” McMurry decided to use the wedding dress as the theme for the exhibit because of the calendar.
Collecting and researching dresses
Nelson jumped on the opportunity to help McMurry. To prepare for the exhibit, she contacted alumnae and friends of the college to ask for dress donations. She also researched the history of the wedding dress, which she would later compile into a 25-page paper. When she arrived back at Stephens in August, she had more than 30 sources for her research and had spoken with alumnae across the country about their wedding stories.
“I cherish the opportunity to have made many connections outside of campus and with many of our alumnae,” Nelson said.
Nelson said that although the exhibit had its stressful moments and put a strain on her sleep, the good far outweighed the bad. She discovered she now wants to go to graduate school for museum studies. She said she also gained experience in caring for garments, steaming gowns, fitting gowns to dress forms and learned organizational skills.
The wedding exhibit is open to the public through Nov. 7 and features dresses dating back to early 1900s. Nelson’s research paper was broken into individual booklets on the history of wedding dresses for each decade from early 1900 to the present. McMurry said the exhibit wouldn’t have been as successful without Nelson.
“The long-term commitment she has put into this project is astronomical,” McMurry said.
What's next for Courtney Nelson?
Nelson submitted an abstract to the Costume Society of America for a presentation at its annual meeting in Houston next May, which McMurry said is a huge accomplishment for any student.
She plans to graduate from Stephens in May with a bachelor of science degree in fashion marketing and management. She will use the skills she obtained from the exhibit to work in a museum doing costume exhibits as well as researching and writing for scholarly journals and magazines.
But for now, Nelson is working to submit her current research for publication and is entering in various student research conferences and contests. She is thankful for what she learned and accomplished.
“I am quite impressed with myself and my ability to make lemonade out of life’s lemons,” she said.