Say Yes to the Dress
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"Elaborate fabrics, intricate designs—and incredibly parsimonious use of materials," she says. "Clothing reveals its time. For the 19th century, what comes through loud and clear is how crucial it was to present the self as controlled, correct, put-together. The more embellishments, the more of a statement is being made."

Brian Smestad
BACK STORY: A coat from 1894, part of "Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail" at the UNH Museum through March 22.

While Schaeffer was doing her clothing sleuthing, master's candidate Gillian Cusack was doing some Irma Bowen sleuthing. Her research has added new dimensions to the story of the clothing's collector. Irma Bowen earned a degree from Columbia and never stopped taking courses in art, handicraft and history. She acted in plays and designed store interiors for Macy's. Though she lived a life of the mind, Cusack says, Bowen was also intensely practical: She raised her sister after their parents died, and she dedicated her career to helping women prepare for the working world.

"Irma remained single her whole life," Cusack says. "She was very opinionated about politics and women's role in society, with a wide range of knowledge and experience in the arts." When Bowen arrived in Durham in 1920, many women on campus were gravitating to the new home economics department. In those days, Cusack says, people added economics to words the way we add technology today, to indicate the very latest thing. Home economics was the "scientification" of running a household.

Along with her practical goals for students—sewing their own clothes to save money, dressing like professional women rather than farm girls—Bowen maintained lofty ideals; she wanted to inspire her students with the best of art and architecture. The donated dresses became hands-on teaching tools. Today, because the dresses are old and delicate, the museum has to maintain a hands-off policy. But the collection is still teaching.

The "Embellishments" exhibit includes touchable panels that illustrate how to make each kind of decoration—piping, ruching, applique and more. And just as in Bowen's day, the dresses are influencing students' thinking.

Last semester, Tamsin Whitehead's women's studies class read about what women did in order to meet the beauty standards of their era. The thought of bustles that impede sitting, or walking dresses in which it's hard to walk, horrified them almost as much as the thought of the dreaded corset.

Then the class went to the library, met the Victorian ladies and "admired those fabulous dresses," Whitehead says. The point of a walking dress was not to walk easily, Schaeffer explained, but to be seen walking. And not just seen but heard: Part of a walking dress's allure was the sound of fabric rustling as its wearer moved.

Schaeffer brought corsets from the collection for the students to look at—and a few reproduction corsets she'd made, to try on. She told them things they hadn't expected. For instance, it was considered good parenting to put a child in a corset, to ensure correct posture and development. Victorian men wore corsets too, especially if they were "of a certain girth."

Women viewed corsets not as torture, Schaeffer says, but as a way of ensuring the perfect fit. The Victorians were accustomed to clothes inhibiting motion. "Even so, they lived complicated physical lives," she says. "I always try to dispel the 'fainting lady on the couch' myth. Sure, tight lacing did happen sometimes, but so did . . . life."

Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

Valena and Schaeffer aren't sure what the collection's future holds, nor are they sure what additional treasures may lurk among the 600 garments and accessories. One of the pieces in the worst condition, a shapeless blue and white striped linen dress full of stains and holes, turned out to be so rare that it wound up featured in the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. A homespun housedress from the 1700s, it owes its rarity to its worn appearance. Usually a stained, patched garment would wind up in a rag bag. Textile scholars were thrilled to discover the dress in Durham.

Like that housedress, the Irma Bowen Collection is a survivor. When it was stored in the museum's first home in the Field House, the room flooded from a plumbing leak. Then the museum sat closed for a decade, during which red dust from the indoor track coated everything, and most of the inventory records disappeared.

In the last 15 years, Schaeffer has spent thousands of hours, many of them unpaid, studying Irma Bowen's legacy and trying to ensure that the clothing is stored properly. She and Valena dream of creating the New Hampshire Dress Project, a digital database of textiles owned by nonprofits around the state. "Textiles are so fragile; textiles really need help," Valena says. "That's the urgency about this."

In the meantime, the collection will achieve what it can within its constraints—just as Irma Bowen did at a time when faculty women were not permitted to use the Faculty Club. Already Bowen's story has helped persuade Cusack to change course in her 50s and follow her passion for history. The collection has helped Schaeffer find the courage to leave a salaried job and start Schaeffer Arts, where she custom-creates mannequins and period clothing and consults for museums.

Textiles teach, Schaeffer says. "We can never know what it was like to live in the past, but clothing is a very humanizing way of understanding history."

"Amen, sister," the ladies seem to say as Schaeffer leaves the exhibit room. But the only audible voice is hers. "Good night, ladies," she says, and turns off the light. ~

Jane Harrigan was a journalism professor at UNH for 23 years. She can't sew a stitch, but her Italian immigrant grandmother embroidered Mamie Eisenhower's inaugural gown, which today is on display in the Smithsonian.

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