Museum's 'Ladies' display features vintage Victorian styles
Admittedly, I don't have much sense when it comes to dressing with the trends. I rock blue jeans and graphic tees almost every day of my life. I rarely chop my long dark hair and the blow dryer and hairspray only come out for really special occasions.
So when I told my husband I wanted to put together a ladies' fashion exhibition at Washington County Museum, he literally laughed out loud.
Despite my gross lack of vogue expertise, I set out on my quest with a true heart. Surprisingly, researching and designing our two-part exhibit, called Ladies of the Valley, turned into very fruitful learning experience.
The biggest lesson: Victorian fashion of the 1800s was more about pleasing the eyes of potential husbands and less about function or comfort. Innovative Edwardian trends between 1900 and 1910 signaled a much-needed abandonment of the corset and from there styles changed pretty drastically. Designers and tailors finally began to listen to the needs of actual women, who were now entering the work force in droves, due to difficult wars and economic crises.
First, I want to encourage our members and public to experience the current exhibit before it ends. Ladies of the Valley: Part I (1860-1900s) will continue to run through the end of August.
Local women are showcased as early pioneers, expectant mothers, seamstresses and laundresses. We also see high-class society ladies, travelers and artists, and of course those once-ideal Gibson Girls. Visitors get a feel for the feminine beauty and softness of Victorian fashion while learning how styles of dress changed through each decade. Sewing machines and steamer trunks, locally made vintage quilts, Sears catalog advertisements, photographs and fine-art pieces all help to create context and inspire the imagination.
Ladies of the Valley: Part II (1910-1950s) will open to the public on Sept. 20. This exhibit will represent Washington County women in the first half of the 20th century. Displays will have the same design layout as the current exhibition, but will feel much more modern and industrial. Style changes will be more drastic and noticeable, as growing female independence allowed for more utilitarian designs and lightened fabrics, like chiffon and jersey cotton.
Typewriters and other office machinery, electric home appliances, hair salon items from Hillsboro, war bond posters, Montgomery Ward advertisements — and, of course, more local photographs — will show how technology and trends affected women during this period.
Creating any exhibit is always personally thrilling. It is such a pleasure to learn about a subject and see the picture I imagine come to physical fruition. For Ladies of the Valley, we focused on pulling all the beautiful images first, to get a feel for the local women being represented. My student interns were directed to locate all the objects in storage, gently clean them up if needed and take photos. The clothing is also pulled out, tagged with its catalog number and a reference decade, and then hung on plastic hangers padded with museum quality foam.
If there is no sufficient information about a piece of clothing or other artifact in our collection, I have the intern research its maker's mark online or in reference books. Then they use that data to update the catalog and create labels about the objects for display.
While interns are doing the object work, I put together a map of the exhibit layout. Then I research, write and graphically design the text panels, plus order any needed materials and work with our Education team to provide interactive activities. Later, I will transport the artifacts and materials from our storage to the public space in Hillsboro, so everything is ready when the time comes to do the installation.
During the first half of September, we will take down the current exhibit, repaint the space and platforms, re-drape all the mannequins with the dresses for the new decades, and set up each section chronologically with matching artifacts and images. Hopefully, it all goes as smooth as it sounds.
I look forward to presenting the next section of Ladies of the Valley to the public in September and watching the response. Check out the online WCM calendar for other upcoming exhibits as well. We will be presenting a display about local ghost hunting in September and October to go along with our After Dark evening event, which will be held on Halloween. We will feature some super-creepy, haunted items from our collection, talk about where you can go in the county to find ghosts, and tell scary stories. For the winter season, we will feature children's clothing and toys and talk about the different holidays celebrated by our diverse local community, such as Christmas, Kwanza, Ramadan and Hanukkah.
Stay tuned for my next column in September, in which we will discuss the history of the local Native Americans in the Tualatin Valley, called the Kalapuyan Atfalati. It is important to explain some of the differences between their culture and that of the tribes of the Columbia River, as well as talk about ways to honor the rich history that they work to preserve today.
Liza J. Schade is Curator of Collections & Exhibitions at the Washington County Museum. She writes an occasional history column for the News-Times. To visit WCM, go to: washingtoncountymuseum.org.