Cincinnati Art Museum – Behind the Scenes in the Costume Collection

Last week I had the great pleasure of attending the Costume Society of America’s Midwest Region annual symposium. I usually try to go to the Southeast Region’s meeting, but this year I had a conflict with the date, so when I learned of the Midwest’s meeting in Cincinnati I made plans to go. Especially enticing was the promise of a behind the scenes tour of the historic clothing collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Over the next few days I’ll be writing a lot about the symposium and the fun I had. But more importantly, sprinkled throughout my posts will be snippets of the types of learning experiences that make CSA meetings so valuable to an amateur like me. Not that I was ever made to feel like a non-professional, as this was one of the friendliest and most accepting of groups I’ve ever encountered.

One of the sponsors of the symposium was the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the coordinators were Cynthia Amnéus, curator of clothing and textiles at the museum, and Adam MacPharlain, curatorial assistant in the department.  They did a great job of giving attendees a look inside the museum’s outstanding costume collection.

Above is Amnéus, who led us through a selection of items she had pulled from the collection. First up was this Tina Leser jumpsuit, dated roughly to the 1960s. The museum has been trying to pin down a firmer date, so if you have ever seen this garment in an ad, they would love to hear from you. It just goes to show that even the experts can use a little help from time to time.

Look carefully to see how the front opening to the jumpsuit zig-zags. And on the back were two more buttons, which had been replaced at sometime in the jumpsuit’s life with red buttons. The museum was able to have copies of the originals made to restore it to the original look.

Here’s a real treasure – a mid 1920s wool tweed Chanel. A lot is written about how Chanel took the fabrics associated with the clothing of her lovers and translated them into fashion for women, but a tweed Chanel of that early era is something I’d never seen.

In reply to a question about the construction, Cynthia gave us a peek inside, to see how the dress was not lined, and the workings of the bound buttonholes were left exposed.

The museum has a good and still growing collection of modern Japanese designers. This is an early Issey Miyake.

And here are three of the Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons in the collection.

This beautiful gown was made by Ann Lowe, the Black dress designer who made Jacqueline Bouvier’s dress for her wedding to John Kennedy. The dress, along with another from the same woman’s wardrobe, is unlabeled, but the donor, the son of the woman who commissioned the dress, said that Lowe was the maker of both. We all know that sometimes family stories get the facts wrong, so the dress was “attributed to Ann Lowe” until another dress, similar in style and make to the second dress and which did have the Ann Lowe label was donated to the museum. From studying the three dresses, it was confirmed that all were made in the same shop.

And here is the labeled dress that helped confirm that the others were actually designed and made by Ann Lowe.

The Cincinnati Art Museum has been collecting fashion and textiles ever since its founding in 1881. Consequently, there are many items from the oldest families in the region. And while there were many garments collected through the years, there was not a costume curator until the 1960s. The old collection card describes this garment as a corset cover, but (and do correct me if I’m wrong) this sure looks like a corset to me. It was added to the collection in 1958 and without a curator of clothing, mistakes were surely made.

Isn’t it lovely? According to the card. “Tan sateen corset cover embroidered with flowers, made by Sadelia Sweet ( Mrs. Levi A. Knight) of Madisonville, Ohio, before 1860.”

We were also shown a man’s garment, this circa 1770 man’s suit from France.

Click to enlarge

I always marvel at this type suit, and the embroidery on this one is exceptional.

Have you noticed the closed white cabinets in the background of my photos? These are actually rolling storage racks that unlock and open, but then close tightly against each other in order to conserve space. After looking at the selected garments, Adam opened up the racks to give us a glimpse in at the 18th and 19th centuries.

This is only a small section of one of the opened racks. There were also garments hanging on the right side as well.

Click to enlarge

I didn’t count the racks, but there were quite a few, with the antique dresses arranged chronologically, and the more modern clothing arranged alphabetically according to the designer.

And a big thanks to the Cincinnati Art Museum for hosting this tour.


Filed under Museums

23 responses to “Cincinnati Art Museum – Behind the Scenes in the Costume Collection

  1. Oh my, what a treat for you. That tweed Chanel! The “corset cover”, how beautiful. And the French man’s suit is unbelievable. As to the first photo, the jump suit, all I can say is “no comment.” I am old enough to have worn it new, but I would not have. I was more the torn levis and fringed jacket type.
    bonnie in Provence


  2. Christine

    Thanks Lizzie. Super sweet eye candy for those of us who share your interests but don’t get these opportunities. Jaw-dropping fabrics, designs and embroidery. Love this post!


  3. Oh, what a wonderful opportunity for you, Lizzie! Beautiful garments, beautiful details. (Have you been watching The Collection on Masterpiece/PBS?)


  4. Oh thank you so so much! I am leaning in with my nose on the computer screen!


  5. Your wonderful blog is an oasis of civilization in a troubled world. Your posts restore me.


  6. Dee

    How lucky to experience something like that! To be let (relatively) loose in a costume or textile collection would be a dream day for me.

    That does not appear to be a corset cover. It looks like an 1840s-ish corset (though I believe they were more commonly known as stays at the time), possibly missing the front busk. The embroidery and cording is fetching. Hopefully someone with more knowledge will chime in.


    • I just wish we’d had all day to explore. And thanks for weighing in on the corset/cover.


      • Dee

        You’re welcome. Stays and corsets are intended for shaping and support. A corset cover is more a protective and smoothing layer between the corset and the outer garment. Edwardian era ones can help fill out the pouter pigeon-breasted look as well.

        A spot to insert a busk tells you you’re looking at a shaping garment. Boning, cording, and eyelets for lacing mean you are likely looking at at a corset, stays, “bodies”, etc., depending on the era. Victorian bodices are often boned, but in most cases it shouldn’t be too hard to distinguish between outer and undergarments.


  7. ceci

    How fabulous – I just want to go and stay for ages seeing every last thing……the dress with the poppies sewn together into trim alone makes my day.



  8. There is something special about Ohio and costumes… Have you ever been to the Lancaster, Ohio vintage film costume showings?
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful viewing opportunity!


  9. Ellen Ruggles

    Beautiful, especially the Chanel and Anne Lowe.
    Thank you.
    Nova Scotia


  10. So interesting, Lizzie. I’m swooning over all those antique garments. As for the “corset cover,” it looks like a “transitional” corset. Early 1800s. Between the flat-fronted 18th century stays that created a conical shape, and the curvey mid-Victorian ones that really nipped the waist. Corset covers don’t have laces. They’re just camisoles that act as buffers between the corset and the dress. Can’t wait to see your next post!


  11. Lovely! I’ll keep an eye out for that jump suit.


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