Looking through the lens of fashion, the latest exhibit to open at the Schenectady County Historical Society juxtaposes history with contemporary ideas.
In “Redesigning Fashion: Transgression & Identity in Women’s Historic Dress,” garments from SCHS’s sizable collection are paired with modern interpretations made by students in SUNY Oneonta’s fashion and textiles program.
“We’ve done fashion exhibits in the past and I just wanted to do something a little different and really bring it into the 21st century,” said Susanna Fout, the collections and exhibitions manager. “It’s very important for us to try to relate history to the modern viewer because a lot of people [think] ‘It’s not relevant to me today,’ but fashion definitely is. We live in a society where, for better or for worse, we’re forced to wear clothing every day. We have to wear clothing in order to participate in society.”
It’s a sentiment that seems more pertinent than ever this year given the changes in mask mandates. The idea for the exhibit, and the partnership between SCHS and SUNY Oneonta, started well before masks were top of mind.
Fout planned to have students come to the SCHS to see the historical garments in person, however, that wasn’t possible because of the pandemic. Instead, she found ways to digitize the garments, all of which were donated by Schenectady County residents over the years, and had students select which pieces they were most inspired by. Students researched the history of their selected garment and created a contemporary piece informed by the historical one.
The connection is perhaps most evident in Kaiya Harris’ take on a 1920s era flapper dress. The century-old garment hangs loosely on the dress form, with intricate beadwork on the waist and hips as well as beaded fringe on the sleeves. Harris’s dress is a more form-fitting style, with an art deco black and gold pattern with a beaded fringe along the hem.
“While fashion in the 1920s was used to subvert traditional gender roles for women, today it seems that fashion is becoming less and less gendered,” wrote Harris in a statement.
Not too far away is one of the earliest garments in the exhibit, a royal blue dress from 1860, with a full skirt and tailored bodice with capped sleeves. On display with it is a two-piece dress from Alexandria Tyo, who took the full skirt aesthetic and shortened it. She also designed a lace-up corset for the top, a garment that progressive women shed in the 19th and 20th centuries but in the 21st, many have reclaimed.
Further along in the exhibit is a 1901 dress that’s reminiscent of the Gibson Girl era. Its grey fabric features lace and embroidery work along the bodice and the skirt. In a redesigned look, Alexa Rivera created a pair of black shorts and a pleated cropped top with a black fringe on the sleeves.
Beyond the garments, the exhibit features early sewing machines, including an 1830s era cast iron Howe sewing machine.
“Up until the 1920s, most clothing was produced at home. There were some [ready to wear garments] available but for the most part, people were making everything at home,” Fout said.
There are also historical curling irons, fans and other accessories, along with 20th-century women’s magazines. These detailed the beauty standards of the day, which have long since been subverted, as evidenced by the modern-day garments in the exhibit.
While there were plenty of challenges in pulling “Redesigning Fashion” together, including a shortage of elastic and other materials, Fout is happy with the way it turned out.
“I was very surprised not even by the garments but [the students] were very thoughtful in how they interpreted them and very thoughtful in what they wanted to express. I’m very happy with the way it came out,” Fout said.
“Redesigning Fashion” will be up through Nov. 13 at the Schenectady County Historical Society. For news about upcoming events and more information visit schenectadyhistorical.org.
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