IT’S A SILLY FANTASY, but one that recurs from time to time. I become nostalgic thinking about favorite outfits I once wore. The nostalgia most likely has more to do with yearning for my younger, slimmer days, but the fun of the fantasy would be in seeing all the clothes I’ve ever worn laid out in an amusing timeline of how my tastes and style (if one could call it that) have evolved. I expect the reaction would be a mix of laughter, pleasure and horror at being reminded of the clothes I once put on my body.
This is but one of the hundred ways in which I am not like heiress, businesswoman and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, the doyenne of Hillwood Estate, whose exquisite gowns and dresses very much deserve to be on display. Luckily, some of them are.
The exhibit “Ingenue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion From the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post” opened in June. Until last week visitors could view selections from Post’s warm-weather wardrobe. Now those dresses have been gently returned to storage, where they’ll remain for at least four years before being seen again, to make way for a winter grouping of her amazing gowns. Twelve dresses are on display in the mansion, positioned in rooms (or closets) thought most fitting as a backdrop. Another 20 gowns and dresses fill the gallery-like Adirondack building. Hats, shoes, gloves and other accessories, as well as archival images, accompany many of the ensembles. The exhibit runs through December.
Post was an important woman who lived during a period in which women’s fashion underwent seismic changes. Fortunately for us, she had the foresight to save the most important examples of the apparel and accessories she acquired over the years. Born in 1887 and heir to the Postum Cereal Company, which eventually became General Foods Corporation, her range of style reaches from the Victorian Age to the Space Age. She died in 1973.
“Throughout her life, Marjorie treated her clothing in much the same manner as her art collection,” explained Hillwood’s associate curator of textiles and curator of the exhibition, Howard Vincent Kurtz. “She knew that her clothing represented not just her own style, but a record of women’s fashion.”
Kurtz is keenly respectful of the garments entrusted to his care. During a behind-the-scenes visit as the previous exhibit was being taken down and the current exhibit was being put in place, he shared some of the tricks he uses to make certain the gowns not only look their best but are oh-so-carefully protected as well. Included in his bag of props are pieces of foam that can be inserted into a sleeve to ensure that it falls perfectly rather than hangs limply; “pita pockets,” actually half moons of airy batting, that can smooth out a bust line or plump up a pleat; and a ready supply of newly purchased petticoats (the originals are too fragile to use) that he can hem at will.
It takes two pairs of hands to dress a mannequin, Kurtz says, in order to minimize the amount of stress placed on the garment. Yet no one wears gloves. “That’s right,” he says. “Gloves can leave lint. We just make sure we have very, very clean hands.” Those handling the clothes aren’t allowed to wear makeup or perfume either, lest a smell or a smudge get transferred to the delicate materials. It can easily take up to two and a half hours, sometimes more, to dress one mannequin.
“Marjorie always had the best,” Kurtz says of the woman whose clothes he so often handles and whose legacy he admires. “During her life she went from a size 2 to a size 10. She had broad shoulders, a tiny waist and not much of a derriere. Her shoe size was 6½. She kept very fit—walking, golfing, she was always on the go.” Kurtz has the privilege of seeing up close the impeccable tailoring and exquisite fabrics that make up Post’s wardrobe. Her exacting eye as a collector of decorative objects also extended to her appreciation for rich fabrics and elegant design.
The collection will delight not only those who take great pleasure in fashion, but those who also enjoy stepping back in history. Post experienced great change throughout her lifetime and her wardrobe is a beautifully illustrative reflection of the historical eras through which she lived. How sad that the highlight of my lifetime’s fashion history was the mini skirt.
Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 5pm, through December 31, 2015. Suggested entrance donation $18; $15 for seniors, $10 students.