Every Dress: Silver Screen to Mainstream Exhibition at Chicago History Museum

By Amanda Harth

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The Silver Screen to Mainstream exhibition shares the story of a perspective in fashion that often gets lost in history. The exhibit explores the influences of fashion in film during the 1930s and 1940s. The garments on display are stunning examples of how the looks transitioned from exclusive designs for Hollywood’s elite actresses to being accessible by the public. During the 1930s and 1940s Chicago was a city at the forefront of industrialization with an abundance of affluent residents. Many of the garments shown at this exhibition were owned by citizens of Chicago who were from multiple economical classes including a piece worn by one of the daughters of The Goodman (Theatre) family for her 18th birthday.

None of the women that wore these gowns were famous actresses or singers, but like many women they wanted to look glamorous and be adorned, look like a celebrity. Remember, this was during The Great Depression, imagine women feeling how they feel today and times that by five. Many of them had nothing and used whatever they had to keep up appearances. At the beginning of the 1930’s 80 million people attended the picture show paying five cents for four hours of films. By the 1940’s that dropped to 50 million people attending the movies every year. Budgets were cut and costume designers at this time realized it wasn’t enough to design for the movies anymore and they took their designs mainstream. The costume designer Howard Geer was one of the first to take this route prior to the stock market crash in 1927. Greer left Paramount to open his own couturier operation in Hollywood, California to offer his designs to more customers.

Dress for the “Common” Woman

Dress for the “Common” Woman

Gowns made by Adrian, Howard Greer, Chanel, and Schiaparelli were all on display throughout the space. There were is a solid array of dresses on display with lovely embellishments beading, feathers, silks, furs, and velvet. We turned the corner and there was this dress. There was no designer name attached and in fact this dress was considered to be created for a common woman of the lower class. It was the shade of chocolate and placed in front of a section in the exhibit that segway into the mainstream dresses. It had the classic 1942 dress silhouette with squared shoulders, short loose sleeves, and hit right at the knee. The longer I looked at the dress the more details appeared and her personality started to come out. This woman was beautiful. She was a hard worker that made the best out of her circumstances. Like many women she played it small because she didn’t want to offend or make her male counterparts feel less than. She was a smart woman who loved glamour and took care of her things. The curator Virginia Heaven listed this “common” dress as one of her favorites.

Majority of the gowns had never been seen in an exhibition, ever. Director of Curatorial Affairs, Charles Bethea, expressed a little disappointment over one Chanel dress not making it to the exhibit due to the 80 hours of work needed to prepare the dress for display.The curators somehow brought the total gown display count down from 150 to 30 dresses currently on display in the exhibit. Again these dresses have never been on display before and I’m sure you can imagine the work that goes into preparing each dress or items to be on display. Every dress on display has had its day and every piece was successfully displayed as a powerful representation of that time.

The exhibit is open to the public on Monday, April 8th and will be up until January 21,2020. For more information on the exhibition and programming click the link below:

Silverscreen to Mainstream

Amanda Harth