Exhibit displays social change through fashion

“Little Black Dress: A Fashion Evolution” explores how styles changed over the decades, reflecting shifting social norms and cultural values. Credit: WSHM

By John Larson

Does fashion reflect social and cultural values? A viewing of the exhibit “Little Black Dress: A Fashion Evolution” at Washington State History Museum would result in a resounding yes to that question. It examines the role of women in society through the evolution of the black dress.

At the entrance is a display case with a black form from 1906, showing how unrealistically slim a woman’s waistline was as a result of the confines of a corset. A quote from legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham on the wall reads, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”

Indeed, clothing serves both a practical need to keep a person protected from the elements, as well as provide a variety of social functions. The black dress has served as a status symbol to women from wealthy families, a uniform for servants and a useful form of clothing, fit for the office or a night on the town.

The exhibit is broken into decades beginning with the 1860s. Black was a color of mourning, with different rules for the two genders. Women were expected to wear black to mourn the passing of their husbands for two years, while men were only expected to wear black for three months upon the death of their wives. Queen Victoria of England began wearing black clothing in 1861 upon the death of her husband. The color was common in the United States as a result of the deaths of men in the Civil War. Crinoline was a common fabric, and a dangerous one, as its flammable nature caused many women to catch on fire while cooking.

A stage-type display features 11 dresses from the 1800s to the recent past. One was designed in the 1950s by Pauline Trigere for Seattle-based retailer Frederick and Nelson. Trigere designed clothes worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. This particular dress allowed middle-class women to dress like celebrities did.

Black was a popular color from 1914 to 1918 due to the death of soldiers during World War I. The corset began to fall out of favor during this time, as the steel in them was needed more for the war effort.

The 1920s brought the flappers, liberated young women who broke social norms regarding fashion and other topics. The term “little black dress” became popular from a design by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in Vogue during this decade.

The black dress became more utilitarian in nature during World War II, when many women went to work in factories and needed clothing durable enough to handle that environment. Hemlines rose in part to conserve material.

Teenage girls became a unique class of consumers in the 1950s. No longer trying to emulate their mothers, they began to dress like people they saw on television or in the movies. Christian Dior targeted upper-class women with his designs. Featured here is a dress by Suzy Perette, who responded to Dior’s work by designing dresses affordable to a wider range of women.

Audrey Hepburn, star of the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” ushered in a new era for the black dress in the 1960s. In this decade of major social change, a single, sexually liberated young woman was now glamorous, not scandalous. The exhibit has a dress worn by U.S. Representative Julie Butler Hansen of Washington.

The 1970s brought us disco and sexy, revealing black dresses. The 1980s brought a glamorous take inspired by television shows such as “Dynasty.” A dress from 1988 sold by Jay Jacobs, a Seattle-based chain of stores, was meant for teenage girls looking to make a fashion statement.

A number of display cases contain black accessories, from shoes to purses to hats, from across the decades. A room with mirrors and items on hooks is similar to a dressing room in a retail store, allowing visitors to strike a pose wearing hats or scarves.

A fashion show will take place at the museum on Oct. 18 from 5:30-9 p.m. with the runway show starting at 6:45 p.m. Gowns will be loaned by Glenna’s Vintage Clothing in downtown, Vanity Village on 6th Avenue and Ish Vintage Clothing and Costume of Bremerton. Volunteer models include Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, T’wina Franklin Nobles, president of Tacoma Urban League, and Patsy Suhr O’Connell, founder of Asia Pacific Cultural Center.

“Little Black Dress” runs through Dec. 5.

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