Eye on Exhibits: History Comes in Many Styles

Eye on Exhibits with Dr. Jody Sowell graphic

Picture of Dr. Jody Sowell of the Missouri History MuseumDr. Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research for the Missouri History Museum.

“Why is this history?”

We expect to hear different versions of that question over the next few months after we open our latest exhibit. Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night explores how the color black has dominated fashion and how the rules regarding its use and appropriateness have shifted through the years. The exhibit features more than 60 dresses from our acclaimed textile collection and showcases both the depth and breadth of that collection. For some, however, the exhibit will feel out of place at a history museum. Most people did not study fashion in their high school history classes, and textbooks rarely mention what people wore at various times in the past. But that says less about the importance of fashion in history and more about the limitations of history textbooks because clothing has always been one of the primary ways we define place and identity.

Let me give you a few examples. Walk into the boardroom of any business in this country, and you will see that everyone is dressed like the person sitting next to him or her at the table. In most boardrooms that will mean businessmen and -women dressed in suits. There are those businesses that pride themselves on having a different office culture with executives dressed in hoodies and jeans, but even at those institutions, the people will be dressed alike. It’s rare that you go into a business where some leaders are dressed in suits and others are wearing sweatshirts. That’s because we dress to fit the culture of the places where we work. The same is true when you go to a wedding or a funeral. We know the clothes we are supposed to wear at certain times, and we know what those clothes say about who we are and where we are. That’s why, by the way, so many people get worried when they hear they are supposed to dress in “business casual” or that it is “casual Friday.” We get nervous when there is confusion about what we should be wearing.

Image of Double-knit polyester dress with red-satin-lined fringe, 1976.Double-knit polyester dress with red-satin-lined fringe, 1976. Made by Mrs. Dianne Hopkins Wilcox, St. Louis. Gift of Mrs. Dianne Hopkins Wilcox. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Here’s a more serious example. The first exhibit I ever worked on at the Missouri History Museum was Flight City, a show that explored the aviation history of St. Louis. I conducted a number of oral history interviews for that exhibit, and one of those interviews was with a Sikh man who had worked for dozens of years as a pilot examiner. He was well known at the airports in our region, but after the terrorist attacks on September 11, he found himself at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport surrounded by armed guards. The reason? What he wore. Men of the Sikh faith often wear turbans, and even though he was familiar to people at the airport and even though he had government-issued clearances, his turban now represented a threat.

Clothing has power and clothing has history. And you will see that in Little Black Dress.

History is often described as change over time. There are few exhibits where you will see that change in more dramatic fashion (sorry, that pun wasn’t even intended). Little Black Dress starts with Victorian mourning dresses and describes all the rules that defined mourning practices at that time. It ends with a black wedding dress because it turns out that most wedding dress designers now include at least one black dress in their lines. That’s a change that Victorian-era women could never have imagined. In between, you will see dresses that could only fit within their era. A woman living in the 1800s could not have possibly imagined wearing the dress made out of X-rays that is featured late in the exhibit. A 1920s woman might look at one of the dresses, a dress designed by a Washington University student in the 1970s, and think it looked like just another flapper dress—until she looked at the top half and saw its plunging neckline. Visitors to Little Black Dress will be able to see not just changes in dress styles but also changes in how women expressed themselves and what was deemed proper at various times in history.

And the history lessons don’t stop with the dresses. One of my favorite artifacts in the exhibit is a tear catcher, which can be found in the Mourning section. Also called lacrimatories, these glass tubes became incredibly popular during the Victorian era. The idea was that you would put the rim of the bottle underneath your eye to catch the tears that were falling over the death of your loved one. Some people even said this was the way to determine the length of time you should mourn—once the tears evaporated, the mourning period was said to be over. That one small object gives such a fascinating glimpse into Victorian life, but you probably won’t find lacrimatories mentioned in many textbooks either. 

Image of a Glass lacrimatory or perfume bottle, 1904. Glass lacrimatory or perfume bottle, 1904. Unknown maker. Gift of William E. Pieber. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

I love exhibits like Little Black Dress for the very reason that they are surprising and that they give us insights into the past that we probably didn’t get in our history classrooms. We just recently closed an exhibit about coffee, of all things. It’s a drink that many of us enjoy every day, but few of us think much about the business, environmental, and local history that is part of that cup of joe, which we were able to explore in the exhibit. Later this year, we will be hosting Toys of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Not a mere trip down memory lane, this exhibit talks about race and gender and even how the space race was represented through toys.

Yes, history is made up of the presidents we elected and the wars we fought—all of the events and topics that we have come to think of when we think of history—but it also includes the toys we played with, the drinks we drank, and the clothes we wore. When we examine topics like these, the past comes to life in ways that allow us to gain a fuller understanding of how we have lived and how we have changed and what we have valued. That’s not just good history, that’s essential history. 

Little Black Dress exhibit logoOpening April 2, 2016.

—Jody Sowell, Director of Exhibitions and Research