Back by popular demand, Madison, Indiana‘s Jefferson County Historical Society brings us another wonderful “The Art of the Dress” textiles exhibit. Leaping from beige to bright by the decade, ladies garments from 1850 to 1980 tell an evolutionary tale of fashion – changes in trends and styles, available fabrics and trims, fabrication techniques, and (of course) accessories. A backdrop of enlarged vintage photos from the Society’s archives provides further context for each time period. If you enjoyed last year’s “The Art of the Dress”, you won’t want to miss this exhibit. Many of us may see mothers, grandmothers, and perhaps ourselves in the displayed fashions.

[L to R] Two-piece marooon patterned silk, ca 1850s; White silk faille bodice (15.5″ waist!), ca 1850s; Gold & green checked bodice with unfinished pinked cuffs.
[L to R] Two-piece patterned silk dress & cape, ca 1860s; Three-piece tan silk morning dress, ca 1880s
[L to R} Butterscotch colored dress with long train over lace edge; Patterned cream colored silk wedding ensemble, ca 1898; Cream colored bodice with pastel appliqued vines, leaves & flowers, ca 1880-1890; Light green dress with embroidery, lace and needlework, ca 1910
[L to R] Crushed velvet drop waist dress with flower appliques, ca 1920s; Peach colored bias cut gown with green velvet accents, ca 1930s
[L t- R] Orange linen dress featuring knife pleats in the back, ca 1940; Light blue rayon dress with Peter Pan collar, ca 1950s-1960s; Deep orange Hollywood glam evening dress with sequinned neckline, ca 1940s; Linen-look sleevelss mini dress featuring brightly colored embroidery, ca 1960s; Asian-inspired lavender print dress, ca 1960s; Blue knee length lace dress, ca 1960s; Apple green silk dress with short trumpet skirt and yoke beading detail, ca 1950s-1960s; Bright yellow silk dress with overlay, ca 1960s
[Center] Bright orange maxi dress featuring bell sleeves and scallop crochet, ca 1970s
Amber Youngblood, Vintage Accessories Collector

Accessories have often played a role as important as the dress itself. Shoes, purses, hats – even gloves, fans, and umbrellas in bygone days – can dress it up, dress it down, and add your personality. Local accessories collector, Amber Youngblood, has graciously loaned a number of her vintage hats and purses for “The Art of the Dress.” She notes, “I started collecting vintage clothing, hats, jewelry and bags about 25 years ago. I remember as a yong girl being fascinated with some of my aunts who always looked so polished, and never left the house without a beautiful purse, or pin and hat. Vintage pieces were so artfully crafted and not mass produced, making them more unique, coveted and sought after. The attention to detail is not something you easily find in most accessories today. I love scouring vintage markets, shops and online to find a treasure.”

Ambers’ purses are shown in display cases throughout the exhibit. Some bags feature exposed metal frame openings and chains and are fully beaded to create pastoral scenes, flowers and even a bird. My personal favorites are the many European-made white seed bead covered purses in a variety of shapes and sizes. They also feature muted pastel embroidery surrounded by the beading. When I first saw these at the exhibit, I did a double take. They were made like one of my favorite evening bags I purchased on Etsy to take to a wedding!

She also has several wonderful hats displayed throughout the exhibit within the dress vignettes and inside the plexiglass display vitrines. Some are real characters!

Ah yes, my panne velvet hotpants jumpsuit in 1971!

Nowadays it’s difficult to imagine wearing the restricting garments of the 1800s with their tiny waists and lace-up corsets. As a young woman in the 1970s, it was a time when an unforgiving bias cut gown or a micro mini skirt didn’t frighten me. Today my “going out” struggle is predominantly comfort versus style, or basic black/neutral versus a pop of color. My Mom thought blue jeans were the worst, and I’m pretty sure she’d feel the same way about my beloved lululemon leggings. But is there a mother out there who hasn’t thought their daughter needed serious wardrobe assisance at some point? I doubt it!

JoAnne Spiller, Exhibit Curator, showing button detail

My photos in this post are strictly tip of the iceberg. If you enjoy history or fashion – and especially if you sew or do needlework – you will want to see the exhibit garments up close. Details matter in dress fabrication, and there are some wonderful examples of embroidery, beading, buttons and trim that adorn these fashions. My guess is that the exhibit with stay on past it’s close date, extended once again by popular demand. But mark your calendars now so you won’t miss your chance to see and enjoy this year’s “The Art of the Dress”. (Monday – Friday, 10am-3pm; Check Facebook for weekend availability announcements.) Regular museum admission of $5/person includes this special exhibit.

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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.