Style In Seattle: A New Exhibit Exploring Local Fashion

Seattle's Museum of History and Industry opens their newest exhibit today focusing on style, both of fashion and function, exploring how the city's women helped shape its vision and appearance, quite literally.
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Contributor Nia Martin attended the opening of the Seattle Style: Fashion/Function on behalf of The Fold. 

Silk evening gown, 1937, Schiaparelli, Paris, maker. Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff, owner. Gift of Mrs. Theordore (Guendolen) Plestcheeff © MOHAI Collection. 

Silk evening gown, 1937, Schiaparelli, Paris, maker. Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff, owner. Gift of Mrs. Theordore (Guendolen) Plestcheeff © MOHAI Collection. 

Today the Museum of History and Industry will open their new exhibit, Seattle Style: Fashion/Function, which explores the union of utility with creative expression. Presented in four sections — Nature and Place; Growth and Aspiration; Northwest Casual; Innovators and Rule Breakers — the collection, which runs through October 14th, highlights Seattle’s changing fashion scene and influence. Sponsored by the city’s iconic brand, Nordstrom, which started as a shoe store in 1901 as Wallin & Nordstrom, the exhibit displays clothing articles throughout history. But a history of clothing is also a history of women in a city where infamous weather, an influential music scene, and more, shaped their everyday lives.

Upon first entering, one is confronted with a wall of quotes describing Seattle style. Many are humorous, asserting the city’s casual, outdoorsy stereotype, including this one from designer Marie Hills of the former women’s clothing manufacturer, Foster-Hochberg: “Seattle isn’t a high-style city. Women here want a skirt that will get them from a muddy driveway to a wiener roast.” Curator of the exhibit, Clara Berg, also points out that Seattle’s women favored practicality from the early pioneer days, abandoning silk dresses for cotton and wool and noting: “There are also some reports that pioneer women wore bloomers or shortened their skirts during the journey west!”

Hiking outfit, 1920s, gift of Mrs. Trevett Green © MOHAI Collection 

Hiking outfit, 1920s, gift of Mrs. Trevett Green © MOHAI Collection 

Certainly, the confrontation of the outdoors heavily influenced — and continues to be prominent — in Seattle’s aesthetic. Functional outdoor sportswear for men was readily available, but women’s inclusion in outdoor recreation was more gradual. One such example is a khaki colored 1920s hiking outfit that resembles a heavy-duty jumpsuit. Daring for its time, the knickerbocker ensemble was a leap from the appropriate hiking attire of the era⎯long skirts.

As women gained more liberties, so too did their demands for outdoor sportswear. Prior to technical fleece, sportswear relied on thick wool knits — the water-resistant material of its day. A beautiful example opens the exhibit with a late 1940s head-to-toe ski outfit by Seattle Woolen Company that includes a gorgeous emerald green jacket with patterned gloves and belt. Warm and practical, the detailing is a move towards blending stylish design with utilitarian construction.

Wool ski ensemble, about 1948, Seattle Woolen Company, Seattle, maker. Gift of Frances Seeley (Byron L.) Nevilier. © MOHAI Collection. 

Wool ski ensemble, about 1948, Seattle Woolen Company, Seattle, maker. Gift of Frances Seeley (Byron L.) Nevilier. © MOHAI Collection. 

Evening gown and coat, 1959. Gift of Howard Blair © MOHAI Collection. 

Evening gown and coat, 1959. Gift of Howard Blair © MOHAI Collection. 

Further highlighted in the exhibit are outfits that demonstrate women as participatory members of urban, high society with several gowns ranging from the 1900s-50s. Embellishments, such as lace and intricate beadwork, appear in evening gowns from the early part of the 20th century through influencers of imported European dress, such as Helen Igoe and Madame Thiry. Each owned their own shop respectively, providing Seattle’s women with luxurious gowns from Paris. To own an imported Parisian frock was a reflection of women’s status — often connected to Seattle’s pioneer families, or families that had found fortune through business and the city’s natural resources.

In the 1940s-50s, women such as Guendolen Carkeek Pletscheef and Ruth Schoenfeld Blethen Clayburgh were prominent in raising funds and creating charities, museums, and other legacies. They too favored worldly European imports, owning bright gowns from the surrealist couture designer, House of Schiaparelli. Yet elegant evening elements were also designed and sold locally, such as the hats of lauded milliner, Ethel Young, who not only owned her shop, but employed as many as thirty women.

Like Young, many of Seattle’s women had a pioneering spirit, as well as an eye for sophisticated dress. On display is the early 20th century revolutionary Mariano Fortuny Delphos gown (a shimmery number that could be worn without a corset), owned by Zoë Dusanne, who not only helped found the NAACP’s Seattle chapter, but was the city’s first professional modern art dealer.

Though women in Seattle were drawn to more formal attire, casual skirts and dresses were quite ubiquitous. For example, a mid-1800s wrapper dress (think pretty robe with a drawstring) is included in the exhibit, enveloped in the popular blue and white patterns of the era. Meant to be worn during pregnancy or in the privacy of the home, it allowed a woman to wear a dress without a corset.

Sidesaddle riding habit, 1907, Shogren, Portland, maker. © MOHAI Collection.

Sidesaddle riding habit, 1907, Shogren, Portland, maker. © MOHAI Collection.

Outside the home, a 1907 black Shogren sidesaddle riding habit shows an early example of men’s suiting applied to women’s wear. Comically, the skirting is designed only for the purpose of sitting and would become misshapen — and therefore unwearable — when standing. Beside it sits a 1930s two-piece school gym uniform comprised of a white and green checked body suit (that buttoned between the legs so the top would stay put) with matching midi-length skirt to cover. In both cases, there’s an attempt in the pieces to allow for the physical movement of women, but still an emphasis on retaining a “feminine” aspect to the garment.

Hostess gown, 1971, John Doyle Bishop, retailer. Marilyn Domato Webb, owner, Gift of Marilyn Domoto Webb © MOHAI Collection. 

Hostess gown, 1971, John Doyle Bishop, retailer. Marilyn Domato Webb, owner, Gift of Marilyn Domoto Webb © MOHAI Collection. 

Moving further in time, this concept of casual meets dress form is on display through the example of hostess gowns. Though comfort becomes more key, it also points to the role of women in the household, and the expectation that home events and parties required a certain decorum. A 1970s psychedelic number exemplifies this cross between loungewear and evening wear, with loose waisting and snazzy patterns, balancing a desire to be comfortable during the entertaining of guests, while also standing out.

The more contemporary pieces of the collection show an increase in women’s voices and roles, from the literal presence — announcing bells inside a decadent golden Howard Blair 1959 evening gown, to the abandonment of heels for the heavy stomp of Dr. Martens found in the grunge subculture⎯which critiqued the frivolous aesthetics of the 1980s.

Cellular automata knit scarf, 2018, KnitYak, Seattle maker. Gift of KnitYak © MOHAI Collection. 

Cellular automata knit scarf, 2018, KnitYak, Seattle maker. Gift of KnitYak © MOHAI Collection. 

Today’s women continue to change the city’s relationship to fashion. A warm, textured look from designer Sabika Makhdoom is part of the collection. Facing a lack of options for the city’s modern Muslim women, she created a clothing line that’s both modest and fashion-forward. Another featured design is KnitYak’s Cellular Automata knit scarf. Her designs appear highly graphic, as they are industrially knitted versions of computer coding. The visual contrast next to Ya Joe’s normcore-like “tech-bro” uniform for men is striking, especially in a city that’s grappling with the stereotypes and shifts of tech culture.

“My hope is that after visiting the exhibit, our guests walk away thinking, ‘Wow! I had no idea!’” says curator Clara Berg. Indeed, the overall effect of the exhibit is a pleasant surprise, not only due to the breadth of Berg’s garment selections, but also through its glimpse of the people who helped shape the city — especially its women — and how their clothing brought a human element to history. Fashion does come and go, but like other forms of pop culture, it provides a snapshot of who we are and how we’ve changed. Pant legs and waistlines are more than just aesthetic details, they’re also signifiers of women’s evolving agency and how they moved through a city that continues to grow.

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