Fashioning the past

A collection of clothes spanning past centuries offers clues to future trends
Wednesday, November 12, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:47 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The newest styles on the runway today are a reflection of the past, so knowing what was in style centuries ago could help update closets for years to come. And Laurel Wilson is the person to ask about past fashions.

Wilson, a professor in the department of textile and apparel management, is the curator of MU’s Historic Textile and Costume Collection, established in 1967 by Carolyn Wingo to assist the department of clothing and textiles. Today, the collection continues to be an important part of the department.

The collection includes more than 5,500 women’s, men’s and children’s clothing items and accessories ranging in date from 1800 to present day. Household textiles, ranging from 16th-century tapestry fragments to 1960s tablecloths, are also a part of the collection, as are several ethnic clothing items.

About 300 pieces of designer clothing are a part of the collection, including Mary McFadden and James Galanos dresses. McFadden and Galanos are American designers who create haute couture clothing.

“Galanos was Nancy Reagan’s favorite designer, and he created many of the garments she wore as First Lady,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the Galanos dress is “a black wedding dress that cost about $20,000 when it was made.”

The collection boasts a large amount of women’s clothing, including a bustle dress, also called a plisse dress, from Prairie Home, Mo., and a Carmen Miranda dress from 1935. Miranda was a Portuguese-born singer, dancer and actress.

The clothing in the collection is delicate, and most of it is old and worn. It is stored on terry cloth-padded hangers and in acid-free boxes to preserve the fabric. Because the fabric is so fragile, it can only be handled wearing gloves.

The earliest item of clothing in the collection is a tightly hand-stitched hat from about 1800.

“The tighter and tinier the stitches, the longer it lasted,” Wilson said. Until 1848, all clothing was stitched by hand.

Most of the pieces in the collection come from people who not only give their old clothing, but also donate a part of their family history to the collection. Wilson knows the story behind almost every piece.

Because clothing is donated, most of it has been repeatedly washed and repaired, making the pieces undesirable to most museum collections that want clean, pure, unaltered items of clothing. Wilson said, “To me the imperfections show the real use. It shows something about how people coped. They used the clothing up. Children wore clothing until they grew out of it.”

Wilson’s main interest is working cowboy attire. She is interested in movies about cowboys and recently studied the clothing in the first movie ever made, “The Great Train Robbery,” which is a Western.

The most recent modern-day addition is a Jennifer Oulette felt hat from 1999. Oulette is an alumna of MU’s textile and apparel management program who now designs hats in New York. Her hats and bandies, or headbands, are sold at Barney’s New York and other retailers for more than $100.

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