Admittedly, I give very little thought to my own wardrobe.  I really don’t have to. Dressing like most modern women I know, my clothing is practical, machine washable, affordable, and comfortable. I’ve spent all summer deciding which pair of stretchy yoga pants to spend my days in. It is not a reach to say my personal style is Mom based. I no longer even pretend to read Vogue. So you may find it odd that of all the amazing artifacts in the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s collection, it is the fashion collection that really spoke to me.
Row after row of beautifully constructed garments throughout the centuries; wedding dresses, military uniforms and Mad Men era loungewear.  But two particular dresses, located right across the aisle from each other, really caught my eye:  An 1890’s circa black velvet evening gown and a 1920’s sea blue flapper dress.

The first gown was truly an amazing creation.  Very formal, beautifully detailed lace bodice with a high collar, fitted (tiny) waist – boned, of course, for serious structure, with deep, full puffed sleeves that fit tightly at the elbow.  The dress was sheer black silk organza – beautifully beaded with jet and crystal beads in a delicate, refined pattern – so elegant.  The wide waist band and full skirt fell over a sumptuous mound of black silk velvet to the floor.

I think every woman of a certain class would have owned a dress like this – it was surely the 1890’s version of the LBD.  It could have been worn to dinners, parties, the theater, weddings or funerals. This was definitely a custom dress, designed and fitted for this particular woman, and one of only 6-8 dresses she might have owned.  It had to be hand cleaned by a skilled servant – the same person who might have helped this woman get dressed. And the woman would have worn a corset underneath it to maintain the beautiful lines of this perfectly cut dress.  And that corset also had boning sewn in, designed to hold in (squeeze) the body.  We all know now how this corseting restricted basic movement, breathing and other internal organ functions (a side benefit is that corsets and structured dresses helped provide excellent posture). To add to the burden, the dress was really heavy. I wasn’t allowed to touch this gorgeous museum piece, but I’ll bet it weighed 18 lbs.
But all women, from the middle class up, would have grown used to wearing this restrictive clothing since adolescence, with corsets and heavy, tight fitting layers.  Beauty came at a very high price in terms of women’s health and freedom of movement; fainting couches were a functional piece of furniture in those days for this reason. The hair that went with this era of clothing was also formal, elaborate, structured, piled high on the head with a lot of maintenance required.

In severe contrast, the second dress from the 1920’s was a soft aqua, sheer silk chemise, covered from top to bottom in thin silver beading in a modern Art Deco pattern. This dress couldn’t be more different from the first gown; just a little thin slip of a garment with a deep U-neck, sleeveless, and stopping just below the knee.  It hangs straight down from the shoulder with no defined waist – just skimming the body as it floats by. (I assume one would wear a skin colored slip for some degree of modesty.  My grandmother was a flapper after all.) But can you imagine the sense of freedom and the ability to move in this little dress.  You could sit, stand, run, walk, breath, laugh, eat, drink and dance the night away.  WITHOUT fainting! And correspondingly, women began to crop and bob their hair into simple chin length styles that were much more “wash and wear”. How must these huge physical changes in clothing styles have filled women of the 1920’s with new possibilities for their futures?

It is amazing to see such clear evidence, through these striking Grand Rapids Public Museum artifacts, of the changes in women’s lives that happened within a 30 year period. Of course, it took years of social and political struggle to achieve the changes that would ultimately empower and enhance the lives of women. And I don’t mean to imply that the complex story of women’s rights can be told through the study of fashion history, but there is no denying that something as common as clothing had a significant impact on a woman’s daily life. I think there is tremendous power seeing both clothing that reflects hundreds of years of oppression and the grand freedoms to come. Observing these dresses and their expression of real change for women’s lives was a profound and wondrous experience for me.

Mary Ellen has been interior design faculty at Kendall College of Art and Design for 16 years, and an interior designer in the GR area for 20 years.  Her background includes a Women’s Studies degree from U of M.  She is an amateur cook who shares her love of food and design with her two teenage daughters.