Graduate, Suffragist, and Community Builder: Exhibiting Libbie Coy’s Wedding Outfit
In 1884, Libbie Coy became the first woman to graduate from an institution of higher learning in Colorado.
The wedding ensemble consisting of a matching bodice and skirt worn by Elizabeth “Libbie” Coy (1865-1944) when she married James W. Lawrence on June 19, 1890, at the Coy family farm in Fort Collins, Colorado, is on view through June 2020 at the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University. In 1884, Coy was one of the first three people to graduate from Colorado State University, though at that time it was known as Colorado Agricultural College. She was also the first woman to graduate from any institution of higher learning in the entire state. Land grant universities like CSU expanded opportunities for post-secondary education for women across the nation.
Coy was very active in the Fort Collins community and at the university, where she worked as an instructor after graduating. Her most lasting legacy at CSU is co-founding the alumni association, which gained her the honors—during CSU's 150th anniversary celebration—of having a campus street renamed after her and posthumously receiving the Founders Day Medal on February 11, 2020. Her medal is also on exhibit at the museum. She was a leader of civic engagement, including as a founding member of the Fort Collins Woman’s Club and within the women’s suffrage movement at the state and national levels.
Coy’s wedding ensemble, on loan from the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, ties together the Avenir Museum’s Spring 2020 exhibitions celebrating the 100th year of the 19th Amendment and the 150th year of CSU. In our exhibition R.E.S.P.E.C.T. the Dress: Clothing and Activism in U.S. Women’s History, we examine the relationship between women’s fashion and women’s rights. Weddings are an important part of many women’s lives, and bridal wear remains significant in American culture today. The fabric used to make this ensemble was probably originally an off-white shade, and has not yellowed over time as is typical of many cotton fibers because it is made from a lightweight wool rather than cotton. The tradition of brides wearing white is actually a relatively recent one, becoming the standard only in the 1920s and 1930s. Prior to this, many brides chose a non-white dress that was easier to keep clean and could be worn again as a best dress for special occasions. When Coy got married in 1890, white dresses had risen in popularity but other colors were still acceptable. The blousy puffs at the top of the arms, called leg-of-mutton sleeves, were extremely fashionable in the late 1880s and 1890s.
The stains on the bodice and skirt are probably mostly from the times she wore it, though a few may be due to storage conditions or aging over time. It is difficult to determine the exact causes of staining without taking multiple samples and doing extensive scientific testing of the chemical makeup of the fibers. You might also notice some small holes where stains or moths have damaged the wool fiber of the fabrics over time. The ensemble was donated to the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in 1941, and has since been stored in museum-level conditions to help preserve it. These include temperature and humidity controlled environments and storage materials that are inert, meaning they cause minimal to no harm to the preservation of the materials the items are made from.
Museums do not usually attempt to restore objects to their original condition, as this can often cause further harm or requires replacing heavily damaged original materials. Instead, conservators and collections care specialists work to stabilize objects to make sure they can withstand exhibition and storage without active further damage to the object. That is why this dress was not wet-cleaned to attempt to remove the staining. However, a stain at the front bottom of the skirt caused the ribbon trim to deteriorate and come loose. A small piece of thin fabric called illusion was carefully hand sewn over this damaged area to protect the remaining ribbon and prevent further damage to it.
Bringing Libbie Coy’s wedding ensemble out for exhibition at the Avenir Museum required coordination and knowledge from several people. Staff in the Office of the President conducting research about CSU history alerted us to its preservation at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. We examined the bodice and skirt carefully with their collections staff to determine if it was stable enough for mounting on a mannequin for exhibition. Everyone agreed that the condition was good, and the Avenir Museum offered to do minor stabilization with their permission. A community volunteer who is an expert seamstress tightened loose threads and buttons, and carefully steamed and stitched the silk illusion over the damaged trim on the skirt hem. We also took three small fiber samples from a loose section of the ruffled trim on the bodice suspecting it may be a synthetic material that was added decades after Coy’s 1890 nuptials. By burning the fibers we determined it is natural silk, and therefore likely original to the bodice.
After stabilization, a volunteer and current graduate student from the Department of History dressed the bodice and skirt on a mannequin, carefully adding padded support under the sleeves and skirt. Museum staff installed the ensemble and a printed reproduction of Libbie Coy’s portrait from the University Historic Photograph Collection of the Archives and Special Collections at Morgan Library. Information about Coy and about the history of wedding apparel was contributed by university researchers and a graduate student in the Department of Design and Merchandising. And a current student in the Department of Journalism and Media Communications photographed the ensemble in the exhibition case.
When she graduated at age 19 in 1884 Coy said, “May we remember that the ideal is not built in a day.” Her lifelong dedication to CSU and to her community both locally and nationally are embodied in this statement. The Avenir Museum is grateful for the collaboration with others from the university, local museums, community members, and to History Colorado’s blog for helping us share Libbie Coy’s legacy and marking her contributions to the realization of two important stories in Colorado history – the 19th Amendment and Colorado State University.
Libbie Coy’s wedding ensemble and Founders Day Medal are on view until June 27, 2020, at the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising located at 216 E. Lake Street in Fort Collins, Colorado. The museum is free and open to the public Tuesday thru Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The museum has free evening programs on March 12 and April 23 related to women’s rights activism and the politics of fashion. You can visit the museum's website to learn more about program topics and speakers.