By Caitlin Cohn, Collections Assistant at GMD, and graduate student in the College of Design pursuing a PhD in Dress, History, and Culture
This spring, one of the main projects I worked on was showing objects for History of Costume, taught by Dr. Marilyn DeLong. The course covered western dress from 1750 to the present. I researched the period, compared it to our collection and pulled objects that exemplified the era. I also researched many of the garments in order to provide more information about the apparel and the time period when presenting them in class.
Given the size of GMD's apparel collection, which contains over 16,000 objects, one of the challenges was deciding which examples would be most beneficial for the students to see. Ideally, I wanted to show typical styles from the era, so that students would learn to distinguish between time periods when looking at actual objects. However, I also wanted to show a range of styles to make it clear that there was variation even among apparel made around the same time.
GMD's collection, like many museum collections, mostly includes examples of dress worn by the affluent and also represents the garments that people did not wear through and chose to save. Thus, when I showed an elaborate silk dress from the 1880s, I was not demonstrating what your average woman wore. Rather, I was showing an example of what a wealthy woman could have afforded, which would have represented the style and silhouette that other women may also have imitated.
Looking at collection objects gives students a chance to see examples of what people wore in the past. Students can see details regarding materials and construction that are not visible when looking at images of garments. Paired with example showing the silhouette of the time, students gain a better understanding of what people wore and how they wore it, as well as how styles evolved.
Shoes, c. 1790, Gift of Mr. Robert Jaffee and Mr. Arthur JaffeeDress, Jean Patou, silk satin, 1928-1929, Gift of Curtiss ObergDress, silk, net, 1928-1930, Gift of Dorothy Duga; Dress, 1883-1889, silk brocade, Gift of Mrs. H. Sears Thomson