DESPITE disparaging remarks of a certain someone, Baltimore is a city notable for fine restaurants, a beautiful waterfront and outstanding cultural institutions.
One of the latter that has escaped our radar is the Maryland Historical Society. But a new exhibition, “Spectrum of Fashion,” displaying 100 garments and accessories from 1724 to 2019 changes that and offers yet more reason to visit Charm City.
The exhibit includes garments worn by a duke and duchess, a first lady, an opera singer turned suffragist, a World War II supply driver, a nurse, an editor, a smuggler, emancipated slaves, politicians, socialites, artists, scholars, designers and philanthropists.
Says curator Alexandra Deutsch, “The exhibition is a sampling of garments that allow us to study fashion through the centuries, but even more importantly, it serves as a social history of the women and men who wore them: telling the story of the United States through the lens of Maryland. How we dress tells the story of how we live.”
Deutsch calls the show a sampling because the museum’s Fashion Archives number more than, yikes, 12,000 pieces. More surprising is that the collection had been lingering in storage in the historic Enoch Pratt House since the late 1970s. That’s when gallery assistant Enolliah Williams left. But not before her enormous contribution of meticulous storage and record keeping (handwritten on blue index cards) that made preserving the costume collection possible. Resurrecting the collection for an exhibit became a priority in 2008, but it was a 2015 funded internship that jumpstarted the process to put the clothing in conservation-grade materials and to make a digital catalog of the holdings.
Vice President of Collections Allison Tolman says that the show is representative of how encyclopedic the museum’s holdings are. “We have lots of artifacts and paintings, but to have costumes brings in that important third dimension.”
Highlights of the collection include a ball gown by couturier Jean-Philippe Worth (who took over the fashion house founded by his father Charles Frederick), two dresses (one by Givenchy one by Madame Gres) worn by Wallis Simpson aka Duchess of Windsor, who grew up in Baltimore and who changed history when Edward abdicated the throne to marry her.
Several dresses illustrate the brilliance of Frederick, Maryland native Claire McCardell, one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century. Post World War II, when American designers were bringing back the latest French designs for their customers, McCardell helped create the practical and comfortable American look: ballet flats with separates, cat-eye sunglasses, dresses with pockets.
One of the most sought-after Baltimore dressmakers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lottie Barton is well known for her designs for First Lady Frances Cleveland. But she may be even more famous for being apprehended by customs officials for smuggling European goods into the country. The story became national news, but her detainment didn’t seem to hurt her business as smuggling of European goods and copying foreign styles was standard practice by American dressmakers of the period.
Current designers Christian Siriano and more recent Project Runway alum Bishme Cromartie are also represented in this exhibit documenting the social history of Maryland as well as the country.
The museum is open 10am to 5pm Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5pm on Sunday. Admission: Free for Maryland Historical Society members, $9 for nonmembers, $7 for seniors, $6 for students with ID, $6 children 3-18, free, children under 3. Spectrum of Fashion is on view through October 2021.
The Maryland Historical Society is located at 201 West Monument St., Baltimore, Maryland 21201-4674; phone: 410-685-3750. For more information, visit www.mdhs.org.