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SEE THIS: Civic Virtue

Centuries of star-spangled fashions in one Stephens College exhibit

Jaime Henry-White

November 1, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

A timeline of red, white and blue attire and accessories span the walls of the mezzanine level of Lela Raney Wood Hall at Stephens College. The American flag and its colors wrap around mannequins in the form of head scarves, dresses and platform shoes.

WHEN: Through Dec. 9
Thurs., 5:30-8:30 p.m.
Sat. and Sun., 12-3 p.m.
COST: Free
CALL: 876-7220

Members of the School of Design and Fashion have worked to produce their fall exhibit, “Civic Virtue: Wearing Red, White and Blue,” which consists of 77 items from centuries of American fashion.

Some displays are grouped chronologically and others by theme, including a section dedicated to daily first ladies’ fashion. Monica McMurry, the dean of the school, takes a moment to adjust an extravagant white hat and explains that the exhibit exemplifies the virtues of citizenship and patriotism inherent in the colors of Old Glory.

“Red, white and blue as colors, over time, have traditionally lent themselves to an expression of nationalism,” she says.

McMurry is quick to point out that she and the students who assembled this exhibit were guided by the tenets of civic virtue, which include volunteerism and citizenship. But they also added their own ideas about patriotism, namely equal rights for women. This inspired a number of pieces from the early 20th century circa the passage of women’s suffrage. Bradley Meinke, a guest curator at the museum, says the series of white and lacy dresses reveal the progression of a woman’s silhouette from 1904 until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920; the clothing becomes looser in part due to the collective advances of the suffragette movement.

Proceeding through the exhibit to more modern pieces, McMurry laughs when she spots a pair of high-heeled shoes draped in the stars and stripes. “I knew I just wanted them in the collection,” she says. “They’re very irresistible. I had to buy them.”

The collection is large and packed tightly into the relatively small white space. It takes about a half hour to appreciate the totality of it. Donors provided most of the pieces, but some are part of the museum’s permanent collection, such as the from cumbersome dresses that were worn in the 1860s. Others are on loan from designers, including a flashy American flag dress that was popular among actresses after 9/11. Most of the clothing consists of donations from friends of the collection or Stephens alumnae.

“They find us in the most random ways,” Meinke says. “We’ll host an event, and somebody will come in and they might bring their sister, aunt, mother, cousin, whatever, and she’s like, ‘You know what? I’ve got my mother’s such-and-such.’”

The dresses are a treasure trove of American fashion spanning decades, movements and generations. It is a tribute to red, white and blue attire itself and also to the individuals who shaped the course of fashion throughout American history.

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