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Storied Fashion Historical Society Shows Decades of Clothing Treasure

The Maryland Historical Society has unlocked one of its greatest archival treasures in a new exhibition, Spectrum of Fashion, now open to the public through October 2020. It opened with a fashion show hosted by Maryland-native Christian Siriano and continues to wow: The exhibit showcases 100 of more than 14,000 garments and accessories, each telling a unique story ripe with American – and Maryland – history.

The exhibition has been 10 years in the making, says Mark Letzer, president and CEO of the Maryland Historical Society. But, the collection began long before then.

The organization began accepting gifts of clothing and accessories at the end of the 19th century, and the collection’s outfits span the period from 1724 to 2019. The earliest piece on display is a wedding apron.

“Uncovering these amazing pieces has been a labor of love for our curators,” Letzer says. “The history and story each piece has to share are unparalleled.”

Spectrum of Fashion exhibit

The clothing is from both every day and well-known Americans and includes pieces connected to U.S. presidents, the formerly enslaved and internationally famous icons. There are garments donned by a duke and duchess, a first lady, an opera singer-turned-suffragist, a World War II supply driver, politicians, socialites, artists, scholars, designers, philanthropists and others

“As we were putting together this exhibition, we chose pieces that had an impact both from a historical perspective, but also a fashion and color perspective,” says Alexandra Deutsch, lead curator, and former Maryland Historical Society vice president of collections. “So many of our garments have kept their brilliant colors — from bright chartreuse to deep red. The exhibition is a sampling of garments that allow us to study fashion through the centuries, but even more importantly, it serves as a social history of the women and men who wore them, telling the story of the United Sates through the lens of Maryland.”

“How we dress tells the story of how we live,” she adds.

Enolliah Williams

The museum credits Enolliah Williams, a gallery assistant from 1959 to 1985, with the meticulous storage and record-keeping of the Fashion Archives, which, until now, had been in storage since the late 1970s.

“Ms. Williams is why we can have this exhibition today,” says Allison Tolman, curator and vice president of collections. “It’s rare to be able to display garments that are made of delicate silk and are hundreds of years old, let alone know to whom they belonged and be able to piece together a story — a life. The conservation process for each dress is unique — some needed more work than others — and we are so proud of how they have come to life through the process and in this exhibition.”

The show also features the work of current designers, including a gown from Siriano, a gown from recent Project Runway alum Bishme Cromartie, a piece from local designer Jody Davis, and more.

For more information, visit mdhs.org.

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