The Chicago History Museum’s extensive costume and fashion collection — which includes everything from Abraham Lincoln’s topcoat to an Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress — is one of the great repositories of its kind. And when it goes on view, it’s a big event. The latest exhibition — “Silver Screen to Mainstream: American Fashion in the 1930s and ’40s” — takes a look at screen styles that not only influenced the clothes consumers wore, but made American fashion a serious rival to the best Paris had to offer.
Historically, Hollywood has looked to Europe for style guidance. “Many costume designers had been to Europe and some had worked in design houses, so they knew [that world],” explains guest curator Virginia Heaven, an associate professor of fashion design at Columbia College Chicago. “But they added boldness and glamour that was different from European style. Movies made everything bigger, brighter, and more dramatic.”
Reflecting that sentiment, the exhibit features haute couture from Chanel, post-Hollywood work from such names as Adrian and Howard Greer, and garments Chicago women purchased from local designers and stores — Paul Dupont, Marion Dwyer, and Blum’s Vogue. You’ll see a Grecian-style silk crepe gown worn by Elizabeth Paepcke (whose husband, Walter, founded Chicago-based Container Corporation of America) and a Howard Greer rayon evening dress that echoes one he created for Irene Dunne in the film, “My Favorite Wife.”
While the exhibition wows with garments only well-off women could buy, it also illustrates how anybody was able to access the latest looks. “The Sears catalog had a line of ‘autographed’ — as in, endorsed by movie stars — apparel,” says Heaven, adding that they were simpler versions of outfits that movie stars might have worn in a movie. One of the more accessible dresses on view is a plain brown piece trimmed with plastic buttons and embellished with a sash. It was manufactured by Chicago’s Lee Garment Company and sold under its Morning Glory Frocks label. “It’s a serviceable color for everyday and would have been inexpensive, but is well made,” notes Heaven. “Clothes from that era were considered to be an investment.”
Now that’s an approach that never goes out of style.
Silver Screen to Mainstream
April 8 – January 21, 2020, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark; chicagohistory.org.
$19, $17 seniors, under 18 free.