‘Teaching from the Collections’ review: The elegance of 20th century fashion

Stephens’ fashion exhibition places three key designers in the spotlight.

Since Oct. 6, Stephens College has put on the “Teaching from the Collections” fashion exhibition, an event made possible by the college’s Costume Museum and Research Library. Prior to my visit to the exhibition, I was unsure of what kinds of clothing items would be on display, and exactly to what degree of “costume” they would measure up. When I made my way to the mezzanine level of Lela Raney Wood Hall, I caught a glimpse of the gallery from afar and felt my hesitation dissipate.

At the door, I was warmly welcomed by a Stephens fashion design student who led me into the pristine, well-lit, mannequin-adorned room. She handed me a booklet detailing each ensemble’s designer, features and the way it impacted the apparel industry. The gallery featured pieces from Geoffrey Beene, Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell, who are all revered for their individual contributions to fashion. As cheesy as it sounds, I was enchanted to see that all of the featured pieces were designed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Not only was this a pivotal time when fashion really experienced a revolution, but the 1960s is my personal favorite fashion era.

Beene’s designs emphasized statement hues, statement pockets and heavy fabrics, while the pieces designed by McCardell showed waists cinched with exaggerated bows, and were highlighted by a variety of necklines and collars. Each mannequin was striking, but the designs that stood out to me the most were those of Cashin — her pieces all captured the “swinging sixties” aesthetic that I love, but showed the 1970s transition to less-structured silhouettes. Wool, suede and mohair tweed were commonly-used materials and cowl neck dresses were recurring styles. Her color choice was also aptly mid-century modern — hues like pea green and ochre dominated the looks.

As someone who is pursuing a career in fashion, attending this event was especially fun for me. I was humbled and inspired by the meticulous hand that was evident in every piece on display. Carefully selected materials and dramatic gathers created skirts with impeccable drape, while unique button placement on pockets showed attention to detail. Every element was flawless, from buttons and zippers to hems and topstitching. Each piece was unique, but the similar shapes, fabric weights and arrangement of the looks was cohesive.

I encourage anyone with even the slightest interest in fashion history to go see this gallery. The pieces will be be on display through Dec.16, and the hours are Wednesdays 12 to 1 p.m., Thursdays 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 12 to 3 p.m.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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