by Natasha Thoreson
In 1991, Zandra Rhodes was commissioned to create the Chicago Marshall Field's flagship store holiday extravaganza display. The year's theme was Cinderella, so the London-based designer crafted 12 larger-than-life sparkling ball gowns that were then mounted on custom-made gold mannequins to tell the famous rags-to-riches story. After the holidays, the dresses eventually made their way - via Marshall Field's, Dayton's, and Target - to the Goldstein Museum of Design.
Twenty-three years later, the unique dresses were introduced to me and four of my classmates in Dr. Marilyn DeLong's Material Culture and Design course. For the next year, Dr. DeLong, Mary Alice Casto, Seoha Min, Harini Ramaswamy, Meghan McKinney, and I worked together to research the dresses and the department store holiday display phenomenon. Our work will be published in an upcoming issue of Fashion, Style & Popular Culture. Here are some of the group's reflections on the process of working on this project at the Goldstein.
Dr. DeLong: I first encountered the Zandra Rhodes dresses when they were donated to the GMD. They were fantasy dresses with historic references - not the usual donation. They offered insight into the theater involved in department store displays with their exuberant materials, frills, and glitter.
Mary Alice: Upon first seeing the dresses, they seemed quite costume-like though hard to determine where such a costume might be worn, they were so over the top.... the detail work for the painted designs on the fabric I always thought was spectacular.
Dr. DeLong: The opportunity to research the dresses came when I taught the Material Culture and Design class. They offered an interesting comparison with the Zandra Rhodes artifacts already in the GMD historic costume collection and, as it turned out, the research completed by the students was worthy of publication.
Seoha: We had intense discussions regarding the objects and everything about the objects. It was really helpful because it is important to have different people's perspectives to analyze the hidden meaning of one object. Moreover, it was really an opportunity to learn how to collaborate with classmates.
Harini: This gave me the opportunity to analyze the different cultural influences, surprise elements and "the Zandra oomph" that manifested in her clothes. Zandra's dresses simply reflected her identity - a fun loving, expressive, one-of-a-kind designer with a vivid imagination. Her dresses also reflect that she is bold and adventuresome. She often breaks the rules and is unafraid to embrace the unconventional.
Meghan: Finding photographs of the original Zandra Rhodes display proved to be next to impossible! It predates the widespread use of the Internet by enough years to make it difficult to find photographs online, but it didn't take place so long ago that people are beginning to scan photos as nostalgic items from their pasts.
Harini: Putting myself in the shoes of a child, I would be really enchanted and fascinated to witness the original display. As a child, I remember being drawn to fairy tales and this would definitely be something memorable.
Mary Alice: I think the original display must have been the stuff of fairytales and fantasy as they were intended, everything to make a little girl smile.