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The History of Chicago Couture

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The History of Chicago Couture

Bicycling Ensemble, 1887. Made by Marshall Field & Co. Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

Chicago and high fashion: for lots of folk those phrases still don't seem like a natural pairing. But did you know that Chicagoans have had a love affair with fashion dating back to the mid-19th century? An exhibition at the Chicago History Museum belies the popular image of the city as a frumpy fashion backwater. For Chicago Public Radio, Heather Kenny reports.

As any clotheshorse can tell you, cleaning out the closets can bring some long-forgotten treasures to light. When Chicago History Museum costume curator Timothy Long started going through the museum's extensive wardrobe collection—one of the top five such collections in the world--it was no different.

LONG: The Chicago History Museum has a tremendous collection of dress, about 50,000 objects that go back to the 1750s. When I started working here about ten years ago, I was spending time in storage, spending more time with collection, and every day I seemed to come upon a piece, a significant piece of fashion history that I had either seen in a costume history book or that I had seen in school or random books I had picked up along the way.

Long says that in nearly every case, the item of clothing in question was worn by a Chicagoan. Not only was he surprised to learn that Chicagoans had such good taste, but he discovered that they often had an ulterior motive for getting all gussied up.

LONG: The city of Chicago has pretty much never been described as a fashionable town. We've had various reputations, like hog butcher to the world, Second City, gangland, city of big shoulders--these are negative reputations. And so often women used couture, high fashion, as a way to overcome the city's negative reputation.

The museum's exhibit, Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum, explores this forgotten aspect of the city's history with garments dating from 1861 to 2004. It highlights some spectacular examples of fashion from some of the greatest designers in history—such as Vionnet, Lanvin, and Chanel. The show also delves into the lives of the women who wore them. Many of those details come from Long's interviews with donors and from reading old diaries and journals. The travel journal of Mrs. Augustus Newland Eddy, the wife of a successful manufacturer and merchant, records a particularly busy week of shopping during a 1878 visit to Paris.

LONG: September 13, arrived in Paris at noon, ordered Mrs. Arthur Caton's black dress and Arthur's suit,. September14, to Pingat, ordered Mrs. Marshall Field's cloak, and mine. Ordered my bronze dress. Sept 16, ordered Dell's blue dress.

One of the many treasures Mrs. Eddy brought back from that trip was a cream-colored silk brocade dress by Emile Pingat, one of the leading couturiers of the day. With its tight bodice, lace-trimmed sleeves, and a flowing train, it's gorgeous, if  rather stuffy by contemporary standards.

Visiting the museum gallery as it's being set up for the exhibit, we look at a dress by designer Paul Poiret from 1913. It hardly looks shocking to modern eyes, but Mrs. Anita Carolyn Blair caused a sensation when she wore it to a friend's debut in 1913.

LONG: It's one of the first garments to be worn without a corset, and it has a lot of what used to be called orientalism in the influence of the design. So you've got these kimono-style sleeves, beautiful embroidery on the ensemble. For Anita Carolyn Blair to walk into her friend's debut in a scandalous dress would have certainly caused gasps from those around here. So it's a peculiar choice to wear, because she certainly would have upstaged her friend.

Other pieces reflect the social and aesthetic upheavals of more recent times.

LONG: Well, as we stand here now in the gallery, we can see everything from the 1930s on. T he gallery split into 2 diff galleries, if you will, we're 2nd room of the two,  and this is the 1930s through the  most recent dress from 2008. Right now I'm looking at the Versace dress, from the early 90s, which is printed with Andy Warhol images of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

The dress may date from 1991, but it has the in-your-face sexuality and excess of the go-go 80s, with its skin-tight silhouette and a bust encrusted with jewels and rhinestones.

LONG: This one is from Chevonne Engel, from a prominent Chicago family, she bought it in the 90s to wear to various events here in Chicago.  She was supposedly trying to get me some images of her in the dress, which I really want but we haven't received those yet, hopefully we'll get those soon. We're trying to find photographs of these women in the garments, as documentation. But this is a beautiful dress, not many of them were ever made. There are just beautiful colors of reds, purples, greens.

Looking at all of these stunning garments, you might ask yourself, what happened? Why didn't Chicago become a city known for its fashionable citizenry? Perhaps because ultimately people here were more interested in making money from livestock than from pretty frocks.

LONG: I think it comes from the fact that we're an industrial city, we're a blue collar city,. We were the hog butcher to the world. A great percentage of the land in Chicago was dedicated to meatpacking. If you came to Chicago in the late 19th, early 20th century, there was a good chance you smelled the stockyards. That would leave an impression on you, and you have many famous writers coming through Chicago commenting on the filth, commenting on the stench. We were a city that was built up around industry—we never had a fashion industry like New York, London, or Paris.

But today, that's changing.

In her Lakeview studio, local designer Lara Miller is hard at work on a new collection. She got her start back in 2002 while still a student at the School of the Art Institute, when her designs were featured at p45, a boutique in the Bucktown neighborhood known for carrying edgy, contemporary designers and brands.

MILLER: I had always assumed I would go to school, I would graduate, I would move to NY, or if I couldn't get a job in NY I would maybe move to Europe. But after that trunk show with p45 it became pretty apparent that there were women here that were craving more style.

But when she officially launched her business in 2005, it was sometimes hard to get people outside Chicago to take her seriously.

MILLER: I don't know if it was saying I was an environmentally friendly designer or saying I'm a designer from Chicago, but I definitely got a lot of hang ups!

Today Miller's line—strikingly contemporary designs made with environmentally sustainable products and practices--is produced in Chicago and is sold in boutiques here as well as across the country. As one of the city's most successful and prominent designers, Miller serves on the Mayor's Fashion Council, which is actively working to promote the city not just as a style capital but as a center for production. It seems to be working.

MILLER: I am already seeing such a huge shift in people thinking of Chicago as being a potential place to manufacture and to start a clothing line. I have friends in NY, friends in Cleveland who are asking if there are places to produce in Chicago. I definitely think in terms of a jobs perspective, we are going to be growing as a place for US manufacturing, which is really exciting in our economy.

Chicago listed in the same breath as Paris, Milan, and New York? Don't laugh—that's the city's plan. Even if it takes another 100 years.

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