Curator Faves: Clothing Edition

The Missouri History Museum has a wonderful clothing and textile collection, and I've had the honor of being responsible for it for almost 17 years. Because the collection is made of up more than 18,000 pieces, it’s hard to know every single thing within it, but by working on exhibits, writing articles, giving tours, and meeting with researchers, I learn more every day. To me the collection is like a treasure trove of two of my favorite things: history and fashion. I find something I’ve never seen before almost every time I go into storage, which keeps my job interesting. I’ve also spent a lot of time growing the collection, adding artifacts that complement pieces we already have or fill holes where things are needed. All that said, I wanted to show you some of my favorites—these are pieces I love to show off and am always excited to see!

1. The Oldest, Fanciest Set o' Stripes

Photo of green-striped silk taffeta waistcoat from around 1795Men's coat and waistcoat, ca. 1795. Missouri History Museum.

I happened upon this green-striped silk taffeta coat and waistcoat one day while going through boxes and promptly squealed in delight. They're among the oldest—and definitely the most visually interesting—of the men’s items in the collection. While doing research, I found an almost-identical set in blue located at the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan, which helped me date our green set to around 1795. Although both of our pieces are delicate and in need of conservation, their color and detail remain remarkable.

This coat and waistcoat belonged to Pierre Bauduy de Bellevue. They were handed down through generations of the Bauduy family, who made their way to St. Louis in 1839 by way of Bauduy’s daughter, Mimika, and her husband Vital Garesche du Rocher. Bauduy was a French emigrant from San Domingo who came to America in the late 18th century and settled in Delaware. Listed in records as both Pierre and Peter, Bauduy led an interesting life as an architect, importer of merino sheep, and early partner of E. I. DuPont's in the powder mills.

2. The Dress That Screams Look at Me

Three-piece gray moiré-cut velvet dress, ca. 1896Women's three-piece gray moiré-cut velvet dress, ca. 1896. Missouri History Museum.

This dress is spectacular, and I enjoy it immensely for so many reasons: the unusual moiré-cut velvet, the fur trim, the silk flowers and pearl beading, and of course the two bodices—one for day and one for night. It was worn by Isabel Chapman Mauran, the daughter of a leading St. Louis businessman. A family of considerable wealth, the Chapmans lived in a mansion at 46 Vandeventer Place, described as one of the largest and most elaborate on the street. In 1899, two years after her father’s death, Isabel married John Mauran, an architect whose firm is credited with buildings such as the current St. Louis Post-Dispatch headquarters and Soldiers Memorial Military Museum.

After the marriage, John moved in with Isabel and her mother Emma, two women with a lot of money and an eye for fashion. To me this dress (along with several others donated by the family) is so ostentatious it just begs you to notice the wearer—and her obvious fortune.

3. The Most Fashionable Grapes

Photo of light blue satin ball gown with purple, pink, and light blue grapes, 1963Light blue satin ball gown, 1963. Missouri History Museum.

A few years ago, I was offered a Veiled Prophet ball gown from the 1960s. I have a lot of VP gowns in the collection, ranging from queens to special maids, so I don’t take all the ones I’m offered (I just don’t have the space!), but this one was so unique that I knew it belonged here. This light blue satin gown features clusters of purple, pink, and light blue grapes with green leaves, as well as a full skirt with a bustle in the back. It was worn by Susan Celeste Peterson as a Maid of Honor at the Veiled Prophet Ball in 1963. It was donated along with her gown for the Fleur de Lis Ball and several other formal dresses worn during her debutante season.

4. The Absolute Best Corsets (Yes, That's a Thing)

Photo of cotton maternity corset and cotton twill nursing corsetCotton maternity corset, ca. 1902 (left) and Dr. Warner's Coraline cotton-twill nursing corset, 1881 (right). Missouri History Museum.

I came across these corsets while doing research for our Underneath It All exhibit about six years ago. I was pregnant at the time and so uncomfortable that I thought the adjustable maternity corset, with all of its support, didn’t seem half bad! I knew that women wore corsets when they were pregnant, but I hadn’t given much thought to what happened after the baby was born, so I was quite surprised when I found a nursing corset in the collection. Nursing a baby obviously posed challenges when it came to the way women dressed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is why the nursing corset comes with moveable circular-shaped flaps to accommodate breastfeeding. These two pieces give me a greater appreciation for women of the past.

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As our clothing and textile collection continues to grow and space becomes more limited, I do have to be more selective about what I bring into the collection. That said, I still look forward to the treasures I may unearth tomorrow!

—Shannon Meyer, Senior Curator

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