In a fast fashion world, we slowed down to find period pieces for the Denver Art Museum’s Suited exhibit.
If you always wanted to have a walk-in closet, the fashion storage at History Colorado might just be your dream space. Our collection has about 7,500 pieces with dresses, hats, shoes, and accessories. There are plenty of designer items, but even more day-to-day pieces that capture what life (and fashion) was like for Coloradans through the years.
There are so many interesting pieces, from children’s play clothes to Ute Tribal regalia. And we relish any opportunity to pull these items from storage to show them off. That’s why we found ourselves in the Reading Room of the Stephen H. Hart Research Center on a snowy February day in 2021. The tables were draped with pieces we had pulled from our archives for a very special request from the Denver Art Museum (DAM).
The topic of conversation: women’s uniforms and workwear. Florence Müller, Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art, and Jane Burke, Curatorial Fellow for the department of Textile Art and Fashion at the DAM, were putting together an exhibit that would showcase women’s clothing from 1880 to 1949. (That exhibit, Suited, is on display now at the DAM.) The theme focused on menswear-inspired pieces that demonstrated an evolution of women’s clothing. This changing style of clothing could be a physical way to show how female empowerment was taking hold of culture both mentally and institutionally during that time period.
The Denver Art Museum’s collection focuses more on contemporary and couture pieces, whereas History Colorado tends to focus more on historic and everyday pieces, with high fashion peppered in. This potential collaboration could show how our collections could compliment one another’s and build on a story that needed telling. With the style and time frames in mind, History Colorado’s team selected approximately thirty pieces. These were strewn (carefully) about the research center. After a couple hours verifying dates, names, and garments, Melissa de Bie, History Colorado’s Director of Collections Access and Senior Registrar, posed an idea: Would you be interested in touring our storage, to see if anything else may work?
Up on the fourth floor awaited rows and rows of unexpected treasures; seeing the clothing in person made us realize that there was a hidden “type” of clothing that none of us thought about, and that was perfect for the Suited exhibit: uniforms.
Going through our stacks of uniforms, some amazing pieces stood out—including one of the pieces presently on display in Suited (more on that below). Understanding that our military uniforms have usually been interpreted with an angle towards military history, to now “see” them in the context of women’s fashion opened our eyes to how incredible our collection of military garments truly is.
After many more meetings and consultations, we began prepping the objects for shipment (albeit a short trip). This involved taking extensive photographs of the garments to document their overall condition and look. The images were provided to the DAM along with a “condition report,” giving a narrative to the images and letting staff know if there were any particular areas of concern to watch out for during the transfer and exhibit preparation process. For this loan, the team took a total of 987 images!
Once the clothing pieces were conditioned, Kimberly packed them in boxes by chosen outfit. For the World War I American Red Cross (ARC) uniform and the motoring duster coat, additional clothing pieces were selected to complete the looks. For instance, for the ARC uniform a shirt and tie of the same era and style were borrowed, and for the duster a whole ensemble was included: petticoat, skirt, blouse, motoring hat, and goggles. The pieces were all of the same era, even if they didn’t originally go together to create each look—and even if visitors wouldn’t see most of the elements.
Of the thirty pieces lent for the exhibition, two of our favorites are the American Red Cross uniform and the motoring duster coat. You can see these and the other seven ensembles on display at the DAM through March 6.
The American Red Cross uniform was worn by Helen Marie Walsh during World War I. She worked as an ambulance driver in the 1st Division of the Red Cross Motor Corps shortly after graduating from North Denver High School in 1919. She was also the first violinist in the Denver Symphony Orchestra for a number of years.
The motoring duster coat was donated by the family of Francis Staunton, who lived from 1899 to 1989. It is unlikely that she wore the coat, as it is dated from around the turn of the twentieth century so it was probably worn by one of her female family members. She was also instrumental in preserving her parent’s ranch, the Staunton Ranch, and donating it along with other parcels of land as a state park that people can visit today. This rare piece shows that women were becoming more independent and participating in activities that were, up until this point, for men.
When the show concludes, the DAM will repack the objects with tissue in boxes and return the items to History Colorado’s custody where Kimberly will review the condition reports and images taken by the DAM. Once reviewed, the objects will return to storage where they will get some much needed rest after their much deserved time in the limelight.
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