What can we learn about women throughout history from the clothes they wear? At the Jorgensen Gallery, the latest exhibit featuring women’s clothing, accessories and artifacts from a UConn Historical Costume Collection inspires visitors to challenge their preconceptions about women’s history through fashion.
Located on the lower level of the Jorgensen Center for Performing Arts, the aptly titled “Celebration! A New Chapter for the M. Estelle Sprague Collection” honors the 50e anniversary of the UConn Women’s Center. Until December 9, the exhibition traces the diversity and evolution of women’s clothing styles from the beginning of the 19e at 21st centuries.
“The great thing about this collection is that there’s something for everyone,” says exhibition curator Susan J. Jerome.
Jerome notes that the artifacts on display are part of the larger M. Estelle Sprague collection, which contains approximately 7,500 items, including clothing, shoes, and other artifacts like letters and journals. This collection of primarily women’s clothing began informally in the 1920s, with donations from UConn faculty and staff to what was then the School of Home Economics. Mr. Estelle Sprague, former Dean of the School, became the collection’s namesake after her death in 1940.
Recently, Jérôme led a larger effort to refine and organize the collection for preservation, with “Celebration!” being the result. As Jorgensen director Rodney Rock notes, this exhibit reflects the history of UConn from its founding in 1881 to the present day.
“This fashion collection is a great way to give people a taste of the types of women who have been involved with the University throughout this time,” Rock said.
One such woman is Elizabeth May, another former dean of UConn’s School of Home Economics in the 1950s, who Jerome said “constrained gender roles” at a time when most administrators were men. Mimicking their attire, May wore her own costumes, two of which are on display: a 1950s gray designed by Adele Simpson and another Bonwit Teller navy blue from 1950. At the same time, Jerome points to their corseted style, “which emphasizes the shape underneath, but still very feminine.”
Jerome says one of his favorite pieces is a dress from around 1838, as it was donated by one of his close friends, Elizabeth Adam Noyes, who died last year. In addition to donating several pieces of clothing to the collection, Noyes donated many paper artifacts, including letters and business documents from the late 1700s.
“We have clothes, we have letters, we have so much information that can really tell us a lot about how people lived in the late 17’s and early 1800’s,” says Jerome.
Although much can be gleaned from these records, Jerome notes the lack of information on who respectively made, wore, and donated many of the other garments in the collection. Further research is needed to obtain these details, which other UConn students, faculty, and staff may undertake, as the collection is intended to serve as a resource for them as well.
“Party!” has already been insightful for UConn graduate students studying costume design who helped set up the exhibit. Jerome shares that these students usually only see images of objects like those on display.
“But being able to look inside a garment that was made in 1902 is very enlightening,” says Jérôme. “You can see how the body is shaped and how the garment is supposed to hang a certain way.”
In his own research, Jerome went through several editions of UConn’s yearbook, The Nutmeg, which has been published annually since 1915. The exhibit includes images of pages from the 1975 yearbook, which had its own written section by women about women at the University for the first time.
Another image on display is from the 1965-66 Associated Women’s Student Handbook, which outlined the dress code for female students at UConn. The excerpt lists places around campus where they were required to wear skirts.
“It definitely shows you the shifts in values, expectations, and the relevance of how society looks at women,” Jerome says.
Another major change that can be seen in the exhibit is the amount of skin women have been able to expose over the years, with the most conservative clothing dating back to the 1800s. However, these early 19e The clothes of the century have their own surprises. For example, an 1840s dress has a prominent pocket inside, which appears to be made from a large bag of rock salt.
Discussing these early dresses, Jerome notes that many would be made at home or by a couturier, and are “one of a kind”.
“When you make your own clothes, or have your own clothes made by a seamstress, you’re the only one wearing that. And it’s true for the 19e century”, says Jérôme, adding that it is a practice “that we have really lost”.
Jerome says this collection will eventually go to the William Benton Museum of Art, where it will continue to support university programs.
Thinking “Celebration!” taken as a whole, according to Jérôme, it shows a “metamorphosis of women” from non-professional to professional working relationships in society.
“We’ve been around forever, we’re still here, and we’re still moving forward,” says Jérôme.