High fashion

Meghan Smith manages the Chicago History Museum’s vast closet.

By Rose Schapiro, ’09

Photography by Dan Dry

Dozens of mannequins clothed in couture gowns stand in a dimly lit preparation room. One is half-dressed in a silk black-and-gold striped gown by Charles Frederick Worth, the British designer who helped define haute couture—custom-designed clothes in super luxurious materials—during the Gilded Age. The skirt falls in a structured cascade, dusting the ground. Chicago History Museum costume-collections manager Meghan Smith, AB’03, points to the mannequin’s as-yet-undressed top. Smith and the preparatory assistants have covered the bust with nylon and polyester batting, so the cloth will hang on the model’s figure as it would have on its original owner. “We try to make it look like the shape of the woman who wore it,” says Smith, charged with preserving more than 50,000 items—including scarves, shoes, and accessories—in the museum’s permanent costume collection.

Photo: Meghan Smith “A big part of my job is keeping the bugs out” of the dresses, says Meghan Smith.

Smith is preparing the Worth gown, worn in the 1880s, for Chic Chicago, a Chicago History Museum exhibit that opened in late September and runs through July 2009. Its focus is couture fashion worn and owned by the city’s elite over the past 150 years. Smith, who studied American history in the College and is working on her master’s thesis in public history, with a certificate in museum studies, at Indiana University, explains that couture falls into three categories. “There’s haute couture, which only would be available to a few very wealthy women,” says Smith, and beneath it “demi-couture—for example, clothes from a Chanel boutique on Michigan Avenue” fitted for the client upon request. The third category is very expensive, ready-to-wear retail clothing, purchased and then fitted specifically to a client by a department store like Nord-strom. Chic Chicago contains all three levels—and one off-the-rack number. From a 1950s Marshall Field’s collection, the dress uses the same patterned fabric as a Dior gown from the previous year and was mass-produced to be available to any woman, retailing for less than $50.

Preparing for an exhibit of 61 complicated dresses took the costume staff a year and a half. The museum boasts “one of the top five costume collections anywhere” in size and depth, Smith says, and it’s “perhaps the only major” costume collection at a museum devoted to the study of history. With costumes curator Timothy Long, she sorted through that expansive closet to select items for the exhibit, which debuted in October 2007 at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“Unfortunately, every time we put something on exhibition, it hurts it,” says Smith, who chose only the most physically stable and well-preserved pieces to display. In some cases, endurance trumped beauty: gowns from the 1920s, for example, often with heavy beading on fragile fabrics like chiffon, could rip if they weren’t in perfect condition before being displayed.

Smith heads to Chic Chicago’s second gallery, slated for clothes from the 1930s through the present—contemporary head-turners like a loose triangular dress called the “tent silhouette” that Yves Saint Laurent designed for Christian Dior following the latter’s untimely death in 1957. Some mannequins are already in place, but the bejeweled costumes are hidden under muslin and tissue, protected against dust from the installation.

Smith takes off her sneakers and tiptoes onto the exhibit platform to unwrap a golden evening suit by Elsa Schiaparelli, a mid-20th-century Italian designer known for her surrealistic work. According to Smith, the Chicago History Museum is one of the few collections in the world that has the full ensemble, which features the appliquéd profile of a woman’s face and beaded golden hair that waves down the suit’s right arm. Chicago socialites, explains Smith, often felt they had to overcompensate for the city’s reputation as a dirty manufacturing capital—they dressed in imposing, one-of-a-kind clothes, especially when attending events on the East Coast or in Europe: “They wanted to hold their heads up high.”

Posted on the gallery walls is an anthology of quotes about Chicago’s status as a second city. “All hail Chicago!” reads one, from the 1873 nonfiction chronicle of American cities, The Spider and the Fly, by Henry William Herbert. “City of filth, and stinks of all kind.” Chic Chicago contrasts this sneering view with the fashion masterpieces owned by its residents. One designer, Charles James, was a Chicago product, though he lived mostly in New York. James was a “designer’s designer,” says Smith, whose work offers “amazing feats of originality.” One James gown on display is a 1954 concoction nicknamed the butterfly dress for its lavish skirt’s stiff-winged shape. It’s hardly light as a butterfly, however, weighing in at 17 pounds. 

“A big part of my job is keeping the bugs out,” says Smith, whose day-to-day work involves keeping the entire collection “physically stable” by properly storing and caring for the garments and accessories, including vacuum pressing and steaming them. She also works with donors to identify pieces that the museum might want to add to its collection.

Because of the museum’s historical focus, the exhibit tries to tell the story behind each dress. “We need to know where and when it was worn, and we gather the oral histories of the garment,” she explains. History and fashion are often related, Smith notes. One example is a 1968 Valentino dress with a bold pattern of leaping black panthers. The year the dress was made, the radical Black Panther party had expanded to a half dozen U.S. cities and had several violent confrontations with the police. The use of the panther motif in a very expensive gown, says Smith, was “not a coincidence.”

Combining her loves of fashion and history is ideal, says Smith: “I’ve always loved clothes; just ask my mom.” She keeps her own closet “nowhere near as clean” as the one she works with at the museum, but she has collected her own clothes for as long as she can remember. She prepared Chic Chicago with respect for the “fierce loyalty” Chicagoans have shown for their clothes and their city. The exhibit is an opportunity to show off “something I treasure,” she says. “I’m excited to see the rest of the world treasure it too.”

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