I recently had the privilege of attending the opening reception for “Art of the Dress – the Artistry of Early Dressmaking” at the Jefferson County Historical Society History Center in Madison, Indiana. The exhibit, showcasing 28 gorgeous textiles from their collection, begins May 2nd and continues through June 30th of this year. The collection of dresses and bodices runs the gamut from day wear to evening wear and also features several fashion accessories such as hats, fans, purses, gloves and umbrellas. As an added bonus, three outfits from local private collections are on loan for this special exhibit.

I had a chance to catch up with JoAnne Spiller, Education Director and the inspiration behind the new exhibit, and here’s the back story of the beautiful items on display. Having undertaken a complete reevaluation of the Historical Society’s collections during Covid-enforced downtime, she and Director, John Nyberg, realized what a wonderful textile collection the museum owned. The time provided JoAnne with the opportunity to photograph roughly 100 of the pieces and design an initial exhibit illustrating the progression of fashions over time.

JoAnne showing areas of gently stabalized lace

Sifting through the collection’s archival storage boxes may have started JoAnne’s journey, but many more hours of notetaking, research and textile stabalization followed. Old mannequins were inadequate and could not accommodate the tiny-waisted dresses of earlier generations. (Seriously, who has a seventeen-inch waist??) New mannequins were ordered and sponsor support was pledged. Inherent “condition issues” of vintage clothing – especially several of the fragile lace items – required some tender repairs before the clothing items could be displayed. But despite the effort required to get the textiles “exhibit ready”, the project was clearly a labor of love.

JoAnne selected textiles and accessories for the exhibit with color in mind. “We were closed to the public for so long, and we wanted to have a ‘grand re-opening’ with something fun – frivolous and pretty”, she added. And fun it is! Attendees to the opening reception loved what they saw and spent a great deal of time admiring the incredible craftsmanship that created the beautiful garments on display.

My good friend, Georgie Kelly, has loaned two lovely vintage ensembles for the textiles exhibit. A curator’s dream, Georgie stores her family’s fragile treasures wrapped in acid-free tissue and stored in archival boxes. As a result, her family’s dresses on display are in excellent condition.

One of my personal favorites in the exhibit was an Edwardian era special occasion dress (1880-1890) featuring a very delicate tulle skirt with ribbon and lace detail. The bodice has a sailor collar with dropped, loose sleves ending in a lacy ruffle. Thanks to PicStitch, here’s a comparison of both the front and back views of this delightful dress!

I loved the “Art of the Dress” exhibit. Although I don’t have a collection of family vintage clothing, I have a wonderful photo collection showing the fashions worn by family members in the early 1900s.

Great Aunt Jessie in one of her hand sewn dresses

Growing up, I was surrounded by “the artistry of early dressmaking.” The women of both sides of my family were accomplished seamstresses who fabricated complex outfits. As a child, I was the lucky recipient of a host of beautiful doll dresses, dance costumes, and miniature versions of my Mom’s fancy 1950s “hostess aprons.”

I attended the “Art of the Dress” opening reception with three friends – Georgie, Julie and Linda. It was fun to browse the collection, read the full description of each outfit in the accompanying exhibit booklet, and talk to each other about our favorite dresses. “No touching”, but it was easy to get a good look at the intricasies of the embellishments – large satin bows, detailed beading, tulle flounces – and browse the display cases filled with hats, feathered fans and beaded evening bags. An evening well spent!

The Jefferson County Historical Society Museum is open Monday, Tuesday and Friday from 10am to 3pm. Stop by and enjoy this special exhibit – and bring a friend!

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One thing that makes my journey unique is that all of my interests are driven by a joyful and genuine curiosity. I delight in finding less expensive ways to make something or creative ways to enjoy something longer. Finding and creating joy - and sharing it - is core to who I am.