ON WITH THE SHOW: Christian Siriano will help the Maryland Historical Society unveil its “Spectrum of Fashion” exhibition spanning 400 years.
The historical society is billed as having the second-largest fashion and costume collection behind the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Annapolis, Md.-born Siriano will emcee a fashion show for the 450 guests expected at Friday’s gala in Baltimore.
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Starting in 1724, nearly 90 pieces are on view in the latest exhibition as well as decorative arts from the various time periods. Beyond the presidential-related keepsakes and fashion worn by the Duchess of Windsor, there are numerous items that are meant to spotlight lesser-known lives. The earliest pieces are both from 1724 — a livery uniform consisting of a coachman’s coat; cape and top hat that belonged to a former slave at the Hampton mansion outside of Baltimore, and a silk embroidered decorative apron made and worn by Anne Chew Thomas, another rare survival for an American collection.
THE MHS’ costume collection has never been exhibited to this degree, according to Alexandra Deutsch, who started working with the collection in 2008 and began spearheading “Spectrum of Fashion” two years ago. A $200,000 lead gift from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation put the retrospective in motion. But it was a long time coming. In 2008, desperate for funds and eager to get the collection out of acidic boxes and exhibited for the first time in decades, the MHS offered donors an adopt-a-box program for $100 each. Once adopted, thousands of boxes were archived, catalogued, photographed and if needed conserved. Prior to that, there was no data base — only 14,000 index cards, Deutsch said. “With the help of the donors, we literally went box-by-box and that is how we literally have rediscovered this collection.”
That crowdsourcing sparked another idea, allowing donors to choose individual mannequins to sponsor in “Spectrum.” Visitors may be surprised to see the work of a handful of Maryland-born or -based designers, including “Project Runway’s” Bishme Cromartie that will be on display. New York-based William Calvert, for example, is a direct descendant of the state’s founders, Tollman said. “Baltimore had this thriving fashion industry that just really went away by the Fifties. It also had an extraordinary culture of these high-end department stores. The woman I think of as the Iris Apfel of Baltimore said there was literally nothing that she couldn’t get in Baltimore in the Sixties. She was buying in Europe as well,” said Deutsch, who is now director of museum engagement at Winterthur in Wilmington, Del.
With a contemporary spin, the show is meant to make people aware of the batch of small-scale producers trying to revive the state’s fashion industry. By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, a lot of the wealthiest Marylanders were buying not only Parisian-made couture but Baltimore-made couture, according to Deutsch. “That is now a long-forgotten chapter. Part of the reason this is called the ‘Spectrum of Fashion’ is that it takes into account all the range of stories that fashion can tell about people, history, economics and societal trends,” she said.
Noting “a wonderful day dress” made by a woman who lived on a tobacco farm in southern Maryland, Deutsch said. “The narrative is not as inclusive as we would love it to be. It will be surprising to people that the exhibit is not just about the aesthetics. It’s about the stories the collection tells.”