Dress for success — Worcester Historical Museum explores women’s fashion over the century

Although power-dressing is not a new concept in politics and business, it is interesting to consider that it has been used for over 100 years as a way of making an impression. 36 outfitsThe changing roles of women in American society, starting in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment and the eradication of discrimination based on gender, will be traced through accessories. 

Although this was a major milestone in American history and many women voted their first time, it was only the beginning. WHM will open a new exhibit to commemorate the centennial celebrations of the 19th Amendment and the fight that continues today. fashionOver the past century. 

“The intention is to use clothing as an avenue to think about transformation in women’s lives and shed light on the story of voting and power,” said Charlotte Haller, a professor of U.S. 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 Oct. 23, the 171st anniversary of the First National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester in 1850. 

The garments on display will be divided into three categories — work, style and politics — but visitors can expect the lines to be blurred. “Being able to imagine the full-bodied experience of history is one of the wonderful things that studying fashion allows us to do,”Haller said. 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 to the 1960s counter-culture. 

Jade Nortey's mural during installation - the women pictured are wearing different versions of an outfit on display in the exhibit.

“One of the things that I really wanted to highlight is that politics is more than just formal politics,”Haller explained that this was to broaden the scope of what visitors might consider political. One such example is a 1968 paper dress given out as part of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. The striking young pop art “confounds what people think about Nixon and shows that young women were excited about this candidacy,” while also giving a glimpse of the era’s young conservative movement. “We have a certain view of the 1960s as so liberal, so the conservative movement of the ’80s seems like it came out of nowhere,”She said. The paper dress is a good example of how to do it. fashionProvides more historical context 

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For the contemporary end of the collection, State Sen. Harriette Chandler loaned the white pantsuit she wore when she signed An Act Negating Archaic Statutes Targeting Young Women, or the NASTY Women Act in July 2018 that repealed 19th-century laws restricting access to abortion. Haller explained that the white pantsuit harkens back to the white clothing worn in the suffrage movement. This is why women politicians often wear white to celebrate this milestone. 

While the project has been in the works since July 2018, Haller was brought on board about a year ago, and spearheaded the effort to expand on the museum’s already massive collection and reflect the diversity of Worcester’s history. She said that the industry is a great one. fashionThe majority of people in museums are overwhelmingly white. fashion. The exhibit’s vision was to cover a century of history up to the present. This was a key feature. The variety of outfitsCan show how modern garments reference the past while changing styles and silhouettes over time.

Upon joining the project, one of Haller’s first goals was to promote outreach to different groups within Worcester to donate a greater variety of garments. “I specifically wanted to reflect the centrality of immigrants to our city,”She said. Worcester is home to a large Ghanaian community so any collection showcasing the city of Worcester’s clothing range would not be complete unless they were represented as well. The WHM reached out to local dressmaker Effie Danquah of Danquah’s House of Fashion, who provided a traditional Ghanaian wedding dress. Kim Toney, whose heritage includes both Native Americans of Nipmuc and African Americans, contributed beaded earrings that link to her Nipmuc ancestors. 

Dressing the mannequins required a lot of time and took approximately 80 hours. Seven of the 15 designers who produced the exhibit’s items are women, and six of them have long-term links to Worcester. 

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Haller wasn’t the only one who was actively involved in ensuring that the exhibit featured more diversity. Jade Nortey, a Worcester native who is currently a graduate student in Public Health at Boston University was responsible for creating the mural that served as the backdrop to one section of the exhibit. The mural portrays multiple women wearing a similar outfitDifferent in every other way.

“The goal really was to be representative of the women important in my life,”Nortey. “When you flip through magazines and look at TV and media, there’s usually one idea of what a woman is like in terms of what she looks like or how she behaves.”Nortey created a variety for women with different hairstyles and skin tones in order to counter this. All of them were wearing the same dress, which was based on the exhibit’s garment. Nortey was on an exceedingly tight schedule — the mural was started at the beginning of August, and was completed later that month in the span of two to three weeks. 

The inclusion of minorities and attention to diversity is key not only to accurately portray Worcester’s melting pot culture, 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 acknowledged that it was not comprehensive or simple. The amendment made it unconstitutional to restrict voting by gender — no more and no less. It had no effect on Jim Crow laws so Black women were still barred; it did not give Native American women citizenship, and immigrants who couldn’t speak English were often restricted as well.  

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Haller says that although this would be a significant shift in American politics and culture, it would take many years for most women to get the right to vote. Similar to the case of gay marriage: some states allowed it and some didn’t, until the Supreme Court ruled on it for the nation.

“Politics isn’t settled in one day,” Haller said, “and the fight to expand people’s rights goes on.” 

“Pretty Powerful: 100 Years of Voting and Style” will open Oct. 23, from noon to 6 p.m. Sneak previews will take place on Oct. 21 and 22 from noon to 4 p.m. Online registration for the sneak peaks is mandatory and no tickets will be sold at the door. After the opening, the exhibit will be open Oct. 26 to March 31, 2022, during museum hours. 

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