Fashioning the New Woman: 1890 – 1925, DAR Museum

When it comes to travel opportunities I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit of an opportunist.  Last week I found it necessary to pay a visit to my 93 year old uncle in West Virginia, and I realized I was just a few hours away from Washington, DC.  I had hopes of visiting the city later this summer as there were two exhibitions I really wanted to see.  Instead of waiting, I made a quick trip into the Capital for a day of museum hopping.

First on my list was the Museum at the Daughters of the American Revolution.  That might seem to be an odd place for a fashion exhibition, but the museum has a very nice collection of historic costume, much of it coming from member donations.  What really sold me on a visit was their online exhibition showing the highlights.

The focus of the exhibition was how the changing roles of women led to changes in fashion.  Just a glance at the introductory exhibit tells the story of how the highly styled gown of 1888 slowly changed into the sleek and streamlined 1925 evening dress of sequins and beads, a change made necessary by the more active lifestyles women were leading.

I’ve said it before, but I really do prefer a clothing exhibition that has an historic perspective, rather than one that tries too hard to convince me that fashion is art.  The combination of fashion and history and women’s social issues was to me, an irresistible combination.   The curator presented us with a timeline that showed the changes that took place over the course of the thirty-five years that the exhibition covered, and she included in the notes the things that were significant about each garment.  You could see the bustle disappear, the waistline change, and then disappear.

I also loved that this was not just dresses, but included accessories that included hats, shoes, stockings, bags, and jewelry.   It was interesting to see how the shape of shoes changed as they became visible as skirts rose from the floor.  And many of the dressed mannequins had appropriate hats and shoes to go with the dress.  Also included was a good selection of undergarments.

The day I visited I was there when the museum opened, and when I left, an hour and a half later, there had been only four other visitors to the museum.  Those of us who have been to the big “blockbuster” shows put on by the major museums can appreciate what a better experience this is than having to manage your way along a long line of other viewers, with the exhibits passing by like a moving show.  Here you could stand and contemplate, compare and revisit the entire show at will.  It is the very best kind of museum experience.

Another big plus is that most of the items were not behind glass, so you could get a good view.  And the museum has a very liberal photography policy, with made me happy.

And now for the tour…

The exhibition got off to a great start with this lovely creation by Charles Frederick Worth, 1888.  Think of it as the “before” photo.

And this silver creation would be the “after.”  There was no information on the maker, but it is a spectacular dress.

Click to enlarge

I thought this was a great idea – an assemblage of the typical things in an upper class lady’s wardrobe, circa 1900-1905.

A large case containing accessories had a great selection of stockings…

and gloves…

and handbags.

The notes pointed out that the game of golf had become so popular that it was often used to market items that may or may not have been used for the game.

I loved these socks, partly because I have a pair of gloves that have the same ruffled trim.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of 1920s anklets before.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The timeline was quite informative.

One of the highlights was this lovely dress from the Paris couture House of Doucet.

I’m sorry this shot of the details is so poor, but I had to show it anyway.  What looks like a black inset is actually gold mesh, now tarnished.

Click to enlarge

If there was a weakness in the exhibition, it was that there were only two garments from the 1920s.  There seems to be something missing between the last two garments; a dress from 1922-23 would have filled the gap.

There was an exhibit on WWI uniforms…

and clothing worn by suffragettes.

During these years, more and more women were attending college, and here we see three facets of the college woman’s wardrobe:  classroom, gym, and graduation.

The gymsuit is circa 1905.

Woman were also participating in sports, and so specialized clothing was becoming necessary.

The skirt has a hidden pocket in the lining at shin level that holds golfballs.  And note the sweater vest that is so similar to the one pictured on the muffler box shown above.

This was identified as a golf cape – a popular item for golf and for the college campus.

This 1890s sports sweater was one of my favorite items in the exhibition.

The pair of canvas tennis boots are the earliest pair of Keds I’ve ever seen.

And finally, a nice riding habit and wool bathing suit.  I’m not so sure that it would have been a good idea to actually try to dive while wearing it though!

The DAR Museum is located on the corner of 17th Street and D Street.  It is open Monday through Saturday and there is also a fantastic history library and rooms decorated in historic styles.  Fashioning the New Woman will be open until August 31, 2013.

26 Comments

Filed under Museums

26 responses to “Fashioning the New Woman: 1890 – 1925, DAR Museum

  1. A very interesting tour you have provided for us. Thanks.

    The red stripe sport sweater you liked? Was it from the same time period as the mutton sleeve dresses? (I think they are called that…right or wrong?)

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  2. “I’ve said it before, but I really do prefer a clothing exhibition that has an historic perspective, rather than one that tries too hard to convince me that fashion is art.” YES! That is perfectly said. =)

    Thank you for sharing the exhibit! That gold mesh must have been amazing before it tarnished! I think my favorite things are the silver beaded dress at the beginning and that red sweater – I don’t know that I ever thought about women of the late 1800s wearing sweaters but I love it!

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  3. I loved this post because I felt as if I were there in the museum right with you. Seeing the clothes up close must have been awesome – that beaded 20s dress is gorgeous. It blows my mind how contemporary-looking it is. Timeless.

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  4. Fashion Witness

    Thank you so much for taking time to give us a virtual tour — those of us on the west coast (& limited travel budgets) would not have seen these marvelous clothes without your generosity!

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  5. The exhibition seems to be very well thought and displayed. It’s amazinf how they manage to offer such a complete range (including accessories) of attires and present it in a thoughtful way, including historic background. Their online exhibition is just great, both as a taster and for those who can’t visit. Being one of the few visitors surely had made for a nicer experience, on the other hand it’s a shame that so few people are attending such a good exhibition that surely has involved huge research and organisation work. I wish they had more public return for their efforts :) Thank you for the highly interesting post.

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    • Yes, it was a shame that more people were not there to take advantage of it. I do know that there have been special programs for the public and for special groups like the Costume Society of America, and they had a very nice guest book full of visitors’ comments, so I’m hoping attendance was better than it seemed to be the day I was there.

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  6. Karen Antonowicz

    What a fabulous tour! Thanks so much for providing these wonderful photos!

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  7. What a wonderful exhibit–and your commentary is superb. How interesting that they spend so much time documenting sports.

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  8. Oh, thank you for this! What a great exhibit. Yes, completely agree with you that an exhibit that gives you a sense of the history of the clothing is SO much more interesting. I love the red striped sports sweater, the silver sequinned 20s dress…and that Doucet dress! Incredible.

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  9. I won’t be able to see this exhibition so also appreciate the tour. I’m curious about the stockings (I like the black embroidered ones) which are decorated even though they wouldn’t have been seen? That striped sports sweater is fabulous!

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    • Some of them would have been seen, as skirts began to get shorter in the 1910s. And college women wore their skirts a bit shorter than usual because they needed more mobility. The two plaid pairs are of the type that were worn for hiking and outings, often with knickers.

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    • Also, though, the late 19th century was just a time in which Things Were Decorated. Many corsets were embroidered as well, not to be seen, just to be enjoyed by the wearer. Petticoats that were not meant to be seen, at least not for more than a split second, were regularly laden with very deep flounces of lace or embroidery.

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  10. Wow! What a great exhibition! I would like to be lost there :-)

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  11. Pingback: The First Ladies at the National Museum of American History | The Vintage Traveler

  12. Edward Maeder

    BRAVO to Curator Alden Obrien for her inspired and brilliantly conceived and executed exhibition. No one has any idea of the months of preparation that go into a display such as this, research, conservation, mounting the garments…it’s beyond a ‘labor of love.’ THANK you for enriching our lives with such a thoughtful and inspiring exhibition!

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  13. Thanks so much for your extensive, appreciative, and insightful, well-informed commentary! We do have some noontime curator-led gallery talks on June 12, July 17, and Aug 21. And absolutely, credit for how great the clothes look goes to Newbie and Colleen!–Alden O’Brien, curator of the exhibit

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    • Alden,
      Thanks so much for posting. I appreciate your kind words about my review. I’ve seen a lot of fashion exhibitions, and this was surely one of my favorites!

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      • mutual admiration society! So glad you liked it. As you know and acknowledge, it’s a lot of research and hard work and it’s great to see that people are enjoying it so much.

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    • Deborah

      Alden
      Thank you so much for posting these pictures. The exhibit is beautiful and so reflective of all the dynamic historic, social, political,… events during those years. We particularly appreciated the photos of the accessories.

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  14. Jane Edgar

    Wow!! The only comparison I have to these photos is my tour of the V&A Museum in London and its Textiles Department. I have guides of the V&A and many books on historic embroidery and dress, particularly of the Tudor period, and this exhibition is exciting! Kudos to Alden for a beautiful job!
    Jane in Milwaukee

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