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Say Yes to the Dress
Victorian women put their own spin on the power suit.
By Jane Harrigan

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The Victorian ladies of UNH have gathered for a chat. They mill about on risers in a ground-floor room at Dimond Library, facing in all directions as they display their finery from perfectly pleated collar to elegantly draped bustle. They are a fashion show, a three-dimensional swatch of history, and a testament to the tough-minded long-ago instructor who brought them together.

The ladies are headless, yet they speak. And through the contemporary women who channel their voices, this is what they say: Do not underestimate us. You'd be amazed what we can do in these corsets.

Now listen more closely. Explore the display cases on the walls of the UNH Museum, and the shelves and cupboards of its storage area down the street, and you'll hear a tiny plea: Time is the enemy. Help us.

The ladies of the museum's "Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail" exhibit are not flesh but foam. They are mannequins custom-carved for each outfit by guest curator Astrida Schaeffer '99G, a costume historian whose life changed when she began listening to the tales textiles tell. "Good morning, ladies," Schaeffer says as she flips on the light in their room. She sees each garment as a woman with a story, and the stories together as a window into history.

Dale Valena '04, curator of the UNH Museum, shares Schaeffer's belief in the power of objects to bring history to life. "The more our lives become virtual, the more precious physical things become," Valena says. The library's Special Collections department preserves the documents that tell New Hampshire and UNH stories. The museum preserves the objects, including the 600-piece Irma Bowen Textile Collection, from which Schaeffer chose the dresses for "Embellishments."

The exhibit's particular slice of history is the Victorian era of the 19th century, when Queen Victoria defined taste on both sides of the Atlantic. Take, for instance, the white wedding dress, something rarely seen before Victoria wore white lace to marry Prince Albert in 1840. When that fashion news made its way to the United States, every woman of means suddenly wanted a wedding dress in a color nearly guaranteeing that she'd wear the dress only once.

Most of the women whose clothes wound up in the collection could not claim membership in that privileged class; they would have considered a one-day-only wedding dress the height of profligate spending. Their donated clothes, from housedresses to formal gowns, arrived on campus between the 1920s and 1940s in response to a request from Bowen, who wanted a hands-on way for her home economics students to study garment construction. People around the area brought her what they or their mothers or grandmothers had saved.

"Clothing that has been stored as a memento is a snapshot of the socially sanctioned norms of its day," Schaeffer says. "These garments tell stories." Sometimes she finds the stories through documents, especially if a family was prominent. An intricately gathered and pleated maroon silk dress in the exhibit, for example, belonged to the grandmother of former Gov. Walter Peterson. Family lore says it was her wedding dress.

Around 1890, Johanna Peterson "spent a good bit of money on that garment," Schaeffer says. She probably expected it to serve as not just her wedding dress but also her "best dress" for years. "I look at this dress," Schaeffer says, "and I see a young woman who wants to present herself a certain way to her new world: 'This is who I am and who I hope to be.'"

When a donation is not well-documented, Schaeffer launches her own version of "CSI." Call it Costume Science Investigation, methodically asking the fabric to surrender its truths. One elaborate dress is a knockout—brown and tan silk taffeta, each trimming the other in every combination of bow and band and pleat, so that the finished product looks far more sumptuous than a dress in two neutral colors has any right to look. The donation information said it was a wedding dress worn by a particular woman in 1850. But Schaeffer's research showed that the woman would have been too old for the dress's trendy style and trim contours. Additional sleuthing revealed more clues—placement of darts, construction of sleeves—that placed the dress firmly in the 1880s.

Scratching the surface of clothing to discover its secrets excites Schaeffer the way scratching a ticket to find a winning lottery number would excite someone else. Wandering the exhibit, she stops at a walking dress whose fabric, blue velvet woven onto a red ground, seems to glow from within, even after 120 years. Pure luxury—or so it appears. "But look!" Schaeffer says. She shows how the dressmaker used just enough velvet at the top for the dress to seem to have a jacket, and just enough at the bottom so it could pretend to have a full velvet underskirt.

"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."

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."

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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