Dress for Success – The Worcester Historical Museum explores women’s fashion over the century
While power-dressing isn’t new to business and politics, it’s curious to think that it has been a way of making a lasting impression for over 100 years. At the Worcester Historical Museum, 36 outfits and accessories will trace the evolution of women’s roles in American society since the summer of 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified and electoral discrimination based on gender was ruled unconstitutional.
Although this was a milestone in American history and many women voted for the first time, it was only the beginning. To both celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment and to commemorate the struggle that continues to this day, WHM is opening a new exhibition examining the history of women in Worcester through the lens of fashion over the past century.
“The intention is to use the clothing as a way to reflect on the transformation of women’s lives and to shed light on the history of voting and power,” said Charlotte Haller, professor of American women’s history at Worcester State University, who is the exhibit historian and guest curator. “Pretty Powerful: 100 Years of Voting and Style” will open on October 23, marking the 171st anniversary of the first National Convention on Women’s Rights in Worcester in 1850.
The clothes on display will be divided into three categories – work, style and politics – but visitors can expect the lines to be blurry. “Being able to imagine the full experience of history is one of the wonderful things that the study of fashion allows us to do,” said Haller. Fashion is inextricably linked with women’s history, she explained, having been used to make a political or social statement from the early days of the suffragette movement until the counterculture of the 1960s.
“One of the things I really wanted to stress is that politics is more than formal political, ”Haller explained, and broaden the focus to what most visitors would consider political. One example is a 1968 paper dress donated as part of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. The eye-catching youthful pop art “confuses what people think of Nixon and shows young women were excited about this candidacy,” while also providing a glimpse into the young conservative movement of the time. “We have a certain view of the ’60s as so liberal, so the conservative movement of the’ 80s seems to come out of nowhere,” she said. The paper dress is an example of how fashion provides greater historical context.
For the collection’s contemporary ending, State Senator Harriette Chandler loaned out the white pantsuit she wore when she signed a law rescinding archaic statutes targeting young women, or the NASTY Women Act in July. 2018, which repealed 19th century laws restricting access to abortion. The white pantsuit is tied to the white clothing worn during the suffrage movement, Haller said, so women politicians will often wear white to commemorate this progress on special occasions like this.
While the project has been underway since July 2018, Haller was hired about a year ago and led efforts to expand the museum’s already massive collection and reflect the diversity of Worcester’s history. As an industry, she said, fashion tends to be predominantly white, and this continues when museums shine a light on fashion. Covering an entire century up to the present day was part of the vision from the start and one of the real strengths of the exhibition. The range of outfits can describe how modern clothing refers to the past and changes silhouettes and style over time.
Joining the project, one of Haller’s first goals was to promote awareness among different groups within Worcester to donate a wider variety of clothing. “I specifically wanted to reflect the centrality of immigrants in our city,” she said. Worcester is home to a large Ghanaian community, so any collection showcasing the city of Worcester’s range of clothing wouldn’t be complete if it wasn’t also represented. The WHM contacted local seamstress Effie Danquah of the Maison de la mode de Danquah, who provided a traditional Ghanaian wedding dress. Kim Toney, whose origins include both Native Americans of the Nipmuc tribe and African Americans, also contributed to the pearl earrings she makes that connect with her Nipmuc ancestors.
Dressing the models was labor intensive in itself and took around 80 hours. Of the 15 designers credited with producing items in the show, seven are women and six of them have long-term ties to Worcester.
Haller was not the only one actively working to ensure that the exhibition presented a greater degree of diversity. Jade Nortey, a native of Worcester and a graduate student in public health at Boston University, painted the mural as the backdrop to one of the sections of the exhibit. The fresco shows several women wearing similar attire, but different in all respects.
“The goal was really to be representative of the important women in my life,” Nortey said. “When you flip through magazines and watch TV and the media, there is usually an idea of what a woman is in terms of looks or behavior. To counter this, Nortey ensured that a variety of hair styles and skin tones could be seen to diversify the women, all while wearing the same dress based on an item of clothing in the show. Nortey had an extremely tight schedule – the mural began in early August and was completed later this month in a span of two to three weeks.
The inclusion of minorities and attention to diversity are essential not only to accurately describe the culture of the Worcester crucible, but also because minorities were specifically excluded when the 19th Amendment was first ratified. “We often think that women got the right to vote in 1920,” Haller said, but it was far from inclusive or straightforward. The amendment made the restriction of voting by sex, no more and no less, unconstitutional. It had no effect on the Jim Crow laws, so black women were still banned; he did not give citizenship to Native American women, and immigrants who could not speak English were also often restricted.
While this is certainly a huge shift in American culture and politics, it would take years of mobilization for most women to gain the right to vote, according to Haller. Similar to same-sex marriage: some states have allowed it and others not, until the Supreme Court rules on it for the nation.
“Politics cannot be resolved overnight,” said Haller, “and the struggle to expand human rights continues. ”
“Pretty Powerful: 100 Years of Voting and Style” will open on October 23, from noon to 6 p.m. The previews will take place on October 21 and 22 from noon to 4 p.m. Online registration for the previews is mandatory and no tickets will be sold at the door. After the opening, the exhibition will be open from October 26 to March 31, 2022, during museum opening hours.