Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith news Offices
Narratives of Dress: What Can a Garment Say?
Narratives of Dress: What Can A Garment Say?

Selected articles from the Smith College Historic Clothing collections are on display around campus as part of the symposium Narratives of Dress: What Can a Garment Say? Details about the location of each display in the exhibit appear below. Items will be on display through November 8, 2013.

Historic Dress Collection Exhibits
  1. Smith College Museum of Art
    1960s: Mary Quant Mod Designs  Click here for details

  2. Campus Center
    1920s & 1970s: Anti-Establishment & Question Authority  Click here for details

  3. Wright Hall
    1940s: Sylvia Plath's Girl Scout Uniform  Click here for details

  4. Neilson Library
    Heady Stuff: Hats  Click here for details

  5. Seelye Hall
    1885 & 1905: Kate Morris & the "Perfect Lady"  Click here for details

  6. Young Science Library (Bass Hall)
    Engineering Marvels & Immoderate Consumption (feathers)  Click here for details

  7. Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts (Theatre Department)
    Aids to Grace and Comfort: Women's Foundation Undergarments Through the 19th and 20th Centuries (student exhibit curated by Curated by Megan Yeo '15, Intern, Smith College Historic Dress Collection
    Click here for details

1. Smith College Museum of Art

Question Authority!

These outfits are reflections of a decade with many cultural shifts.

The political  status quo was shaken by anti-war protests and civil rights marches, women's rights rallies and the Stonewall Bar riots, the Black Panthers and the Chicago Seven. Flags were burned  and people wearing parts of the flag in anti-war protests were arrested. Red, white and blue could be provocative.

A glut of baby boomers, born in the decade after WWII, had unprecedented influence on American culture: pot and psychedelic drugs contributed to clothes in loud and garish colors, along with bold graphics. New youth movements challenged lifestyles. The Mods on Carnaby Street in London went to underground music bars and dressed in mini-skirts from boutiques with new designers such as Mary Quant. The Hippie subculture arose in the U.S., endorsing free love and world peace, environmental action and Eastern philosophies, drug experimentation and health foods, jeans and bright colors.

This was the Space Age, with  new technologies  including vinyl  and polyester  textiles. There were other science breakthroughs  such as the  birth  control  pill, contributing to  a sexual freedom  for women  who showed more skin in public than ever before. The ideal fashion body was boyish, without a bra or a panty girdle, maybe just those new pantyhose or colored tights.

2. Campus Center


Orientalism is the name of a fabrication, an ideal of an exotic Eastern paradise undefiled by Western civilization. It represents a fascination with the mystery of certain Eastern cultures and their perceived inaccessibility. It is also based on misunderstandings, if not willful ignorance, of these cultures. Eastern textiles, dress styles and material goods have been coveted by Western markets for centuries. In the 1960's, a resurgence of interest in Eastern philosophy, religion, and design manifested itself in the clothing of the counterculture.

Powered by drugs, political protests and opposition to the mainstream, the revolutions of the late 1960's were also driven by music. The clothes worn by the rock prophets were costumes of thrift shop finds, tie-dyed T-shirts with tight jeans and exotic gypsy styles, including India-cotton clothes.  The Beatles wore Indian styles on the cover of their Sgt. Pepper Album in 1967; the Rolling Stones briefly indulged in shaggy coats, paisley shirts and love beads. Jimi Hendrix wore paisley headbands, Navajo vests, high boots, and ruffled shirts. Janis Joplin's outfits included fur and feathers, peasant blouses and velvet pants. It didn't take long for Seventh Avenue fashion designers to pirate these looks, mass producing them for the middle class.

Since the 1950's, fake fur or pile fabrics were made from polymers derived from coal, petroleum and limestone. By the 1970's, faux furs were quite realistic looking, and were cheaper to buy and lighter weight than real fur. There were political reasons to wear fake fur. Support for animal rights grew in the 1960's, challenging both animal experimentation and animal farming for fur pelts. The environmental movement expanded in the early 1970's; the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973.

Tradition and modernity

By 1860, Japan came out of isolation and the West eagerly embraced all things Japanese. Artists including Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Whistler collected Japanese artwork  and explored Japanese artistic mediums such as woodblock printing. Architects including Frank Lloyd Wright absorbed elements of Zen spiritualism and his style embraced Eastern principles of design and a reverence for nature. Textiles were another medium of exchange. Japan produced  massive quantities for export, mostly silks, many embroidered  or painted with modified versions of traditional patterns based on images of native flora such as bamboo, the chrysanthemum and cherry blossoms. These could appear informal, as they do in ink drawings, or in the strict patterns of more formal, stylized motifs.

As other aesthetic styles emerged in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese motifs  were adapted or transformed. Art Nouveau, Fauvism, and Art Deco all played with  patterns, shapes and textures associated with Japan and infused with its exotic aura.

The fabric of this coat was probably woven in France in the early 1920's. The large pattern of a flower on a grid is flat, abstract and sketch-like. It seems modern  compared  to the florid  patterns common  in the previous decade. The shape of the coat is a kind of kimono, a tubular T shape, loose and minimal. Seventy years after the first influx of Japanisme, the elements are still evident.  Even the contrasting vivid fuchsia silk velvet lining is typical of some fine, traditional kimono. But there are also many features typical of traditional Western styles: a high standing collar, fur trim, and a short length.

3. Wright Hall

The present is forever...

From their founding, Girl Scouts have had a uniform. It was never required, but Scouts were encouraged to wear uniforms to equalize members from different backgrounds, to unite the group, and to aid public recognition. It was also practical, an outfit for real world activities, whether camping or performing community service.

The uniform changed several times in its 100 years. Sylvia Plath's uniform, for  an Intermediate Scout, was introduced in 1939 and modified  during World War II. Originally, the bodice had a metal zipper, but regulations limiting the amount  of fabric used in clothing  and saving metal for munitions  during  the war prompted a change to buttons. The shape of the dress mimics the 1940's fashions for adult women: tailored, broad across the shoulders, small waist and modest skirt.

The Girl Scouts have always emphasized resourcefulness, independence  and activism, though the interpretation of these qualities has varied over time, reflecting changing expectations of women. During World War II, members  grew Victory  Gardens, gathered  scrap metal, worked  on  farms and collected  clothing  to  ship overseas to victims of the war. But there were limits to their activism. It is likely that Plath's troop in Wellesley, Massachusetts was middle class and white.  Both the Girl and Boy Scouts were originally  segregated, but in 1956,Girl Scouts moved to integrate their troops with the support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This famous scout earned 20 badges, a significant achievement. At the time, badges recognized, among other things, crafts, the arts, homemaking skills, sports, and nature observation. Not surprisingly, Sylvia Plath was drawn to individual  activities, several involving  books and reading.

Sylvia Plath’s Girl Scout Badges

On January 28, 1946, Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary that she met "Miss Walker and about ten other girls and we went to the Wellesley college observatory.... I will never forget my first view of Saturn through the telescope!" She then completes the requirements for her "star finder badge" including making a star map.

At least four of her badges relate to reading and writing. On June 7, 1946, she turned in 30 book reports by authors ranging from Jane Austin (Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist) to Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), and the poems of the lyrical poet, Sara Teasdale. During this period, she wrote stories, essays and poems, while taking viola lessons, art lessons and collecting stamps.

In other diary entries, she reports on Girl Scout meetings after school, going on hikes and playing baseball. Over the summers of 1945 and 1946 at a scout camp in Plymouth, MA, she wrote and illustrated a number of poems, made a wooden nut spool for her grandfather and a tin plate for her mother.

Thanks to Karen Kukil, author and editor of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, and Associate Curator of Special Collections, Smith College Libraries.

4. Neilson Library

Heady Stuff!

These hats illustrate a range of women's roles and activities over about 100 years.

The sunbonnet from 1845 is an emblem of hats as protection from public scrutiny.  Women-especially married women-have had to cover their hair for centuries. These coverings, whether veils, hoods or bonnets, keep the sensuality of hair under cover.  Early bonnets were like blinders, hiding the face and limiting the woman's gaze. Some could argue that hiding the face like this only drew more attention to it, making it even more potent and dangerous.

Of course, hats also serve practical purposes, such as protecting the wearer from the weather. The 1960's rain hat here is one of the latest styles represented in the Smith collection.  While hats had long been an emblem of sophistication and a formal life style, by the 1960's, younger women wore their hair loose and relaxed, so protecting a coiffed hairdo was no longer as important as keeping dry.

In between these two hats are examples of others worn by women of various ages for different occasions, such as cocktail parties or afternoon teas. Their shapes reflect the popular hairstyles of each era. Some perch on top of huge piles of hair; others wrap tightly around the crown and smooth hair.

There is an argument that claims that since the early Renaissance, formal, stiff hats were only for men, designed to celebrate and frame the head and mind. Is it just a coincidence that large brimmed  hats became popular at the height of the suffragette movement?

5. Seelye Hall

I'm breathless!

This graceful day dress may be seen to represent the last gasp of the Perfect Lady. It might also be interpreted as a reaction to the New Woman; the feminist ideal that emerged in the late 19th century.

The idea of the New Woman as a college-educated, active member of society challenged many of the middle-class woman's traditional roles. Not all women embraced this liberated image, though, and for a period of about 10 years, between 1898 and 1908, fashions were ultra-feminine and, on the surface, soft and delicate. It was as if all the stiff fashions of the early 1890's were sent to the cleaners and came back limp and stretched. The abundant use of lace and flounces rivaled in their excess the many under-layers of petticoats, corset covers and chemises.

However demure the dress might be, it does emphasize both the bosom and the hips. The draped front, propped out by pads and starched ruffles, creates a mono-bosom-matronly and substantial. The firm corset underneath has a long, straight front bone that pushes the hips back while pushing the chest forward.  In a dress like this one, the bosom enters the room first.

Bringing up the rear are full, often padded hips, sculpted by a fitted, gored skirt. The huge chest and hips on either side of a tiny waist is the source of the descriptions S curve and wasp waist: It gave the appearance of softness and pliancy, but that belies the rigid layers underneath.

Life is full of compromises

This ensemble belonged to Kate Morris Cone, who was a member of the first class to graduate from Smith in 1879. She then  enrolled  in  the Harvard Annex-which became Radcliffe College-for further  study  of history.  Harvard refused to grant her a PhD, so Smith agreed to do so in 1882.  In 1884, she married  her longtime sweetheart, Charles Cone, and returned to Vermont to raise a family.

This could have been her wedding  dress. Many brides, especially those from frugal Yankee families, would marry in a new outfit  they could reuse later and even alter as styles changed. The dress reflects the period's conflicting ideas about middle-class women and the rigid behavior rules they faced. Its bodice is a modification of a man's jacket and thus had a masculine quality, but one tempered by lace, pretty glass buttons, brilliant colors and impractical fabrics. The front does not require a maidservant to close it, suggesting a kind of self-sufficiency (but one that belies the numbers of servants still needed to maintain the clothing and house­ hold).The bodice fits snugly, so tight that there is an inner closure with hooks and eyes to hold it tight, releasing strain on the buttonholes. In this case, a straight-laced lady was literally the opposite of a loose woman.

The bottom half of the dress makes a different statement. The skirt is draped over bustles or tournures that were belted on the hips and buttocks to simultaneously exaggerate and conceal those parts of woman's anatomy.  Those contraptions required vast amounts of fabric, especially for dinner and evening clothes. Often garments were so heavy and were draped with so much trim that they resembled the over-stuffed upholstered furnishings in the parlors.

6. Young Science Library (Bass Hall)

Engineering marvels

Clothes cover parts of the body, sometimes to protect from view or the elements but more often to call attention to the body underneath. Bright colors and shiny surfaces can draw the eye to selected beauty spots. Unusual body proportions also attract the eye to absurdly tiny waists or bloated sleeves, bosoms or rumps. Exaggerations in size usually required extra fabric for support.  Donut-shaped, down-filled under-sleeves puffed sleeves huge in the 1830's. Straw and stiffened fabrics called bombast supported the bloated codpieces of men's breeches in the Renaissance, while quilted cotton or wool batting built male chests and calves. Beginning in the 1500's, women's full skirts were propped with rope, whalebone, cane or even willow branches sewn into underskirts. Fabric woven with horsehair or treated with a paste helped hold petticoat ruffles and hems, bosoms and shoulder pads. Rubber,   foam or inflatable falsies were available long before Victoria's Secret.

In mid-19th century, skirts swelled to amazing sizes thanks to understructures using a flexible steel, known as spring steel or watch-spring steel. Narrow metal strips wrapped in muslin and suspended on cotton tapes in bird-cage shapes would hold massive amounts of fabric without the encumbrances of multiple bulky petti­ coats. They were seen as liberating, freeing the legs and eliminating pounds of underskirts.

By 1870, the volume had moved to the rear of skirts. For 20 years, draped swags, ruffles, silk fringes, and trains were piled on underproppers called tournures or bustles. Some bustles were still made of batting, horsehair or crinoline ruffles, but the strongest and most elaborate were steel or woven wire. These were promoted as healthy since they allowed air to circulate. Many were designed to adjust in size or collapse when the woman sat, opening to the fashionable shape when she stood.

Immoderate Consumption

From wise owls to preening peacocks to eagles, birds are symbols of power, beauty, destruction and freedom. Their plumage  has decorated  humans throughout history, representing  hunting  skills, wealth, and social status. Only the wealthy could afford exotic ostrich feathers. Hans Holbein's portraits show Henry VIII wearing a black velvet cap embellished with a white ostrich plume.  His daughter, Elizabeth I, carried fans of multiple plumes in nearly every portrait. Milliners  decorated ladies'  bonnets and hats not only with  domestic and exotic feathers, but also with wings, heads, tails and, by the end of the 19th century, entire bird carcasses. On two walks in 1886,the ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York saw 174 different birds or bird parts on hats. Demand for feathers nearly pushed the ostrich to extinction, and prompted Lithuanian Jewish immigrants  to establish  ostrich farms in South Africa. By the 1880's, a pound of ostrich plumes was worth more than its weight in gold. In 1902, a single London auction sold the feathers of 192,960 herons.

Two Boston cousins, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, were so distressed by the avian slaughter that in 1896 they persuaded women in the Boston Social Register to cease wearing bird parts and to boycott milliners who used them, beginning the first modern conservation campaign. They demanded legislation to protect endangered species (enacted in 1913) and helped start the Audubon Society. Demand for feathers dwindled, and in 1914 the ostrich market collapsed, wiping out thousands of farmers, merchants and immigrant laborers.

Big hats with  large feathers fell out of style. They were impractical  in automobiles  and out of step with the bobbed hair and small tight hats of the 1920's.They returned to style briefly in the late 1940's and 1950's,when women were encouraged to revert to traditional roles and ladylike clothes and accessories. Small caps, worn with the new cocktail dresses, often had a single dramatic plume or cockade. Today, extravagant hats appear only for the most traditional  occasions, such as at royal weddings.

Special thanks to Betty Daignault of the Clark Science Center.

7. Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts

Aids to Grace and Comfort: Women's Foundation Undergarments Through the 19th and 20th Centuries

Curated by Megan Yeo '15, Intern, Smith College HIstoric Dress Collection







DirectoryCalendarCampus MapVirtual TourContact UsSite A-Z