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Red, White & Blue

The Civic Virtue exhibition at Stephens College shows off apparel with a patriotic flair.

Wearing red, white or blue clothing makes more of a statement than you might think. As the Stephens College mission statement begins: “Historically committed to meeting the changing needs of women…”, the newest exhibit, Civic Virtue, at the college’s Costume Museum and Research Library (CMRL) explores how the needs and roles of women evolve over the course of history by showcasing patriotically colored clothing that represent civic virtue and responsibility.

Director of the CMRL Monica McMurry started lanning for the newly opened Civic Virtue show a year in advance, pulling about 300 items from the 13,000 piece archives maintained at Stephens. From there, the selection was pared down to fit the intensely researched parameters of the show. What results is a carefully curated exhibit that investigates how, McMurry says, “the story of fashion repeats itself and it works over time and that we are all a part of that history, of that story”.

McMurry and the CMRL’s assistant curator, Bradley Meinke, are intimately familiar with each article of clothing and set-up; you would think the pieces were their own. Imaginary conversations and interactions occur between mannequins across the newly remodeled gallery. State fairs, picnics, Memorial Day celebrations, parades, westward migrations, inaugural balls, rock and roll concerts, graduations --- these sorts of public gatherings come to mind naturally through the nonlinear set-up of the show. And from demure, pure white dresses to heritage homestead frocks and pretty picnic skirts, the exhibit retains a wonderful ability to connect with the viewer through its details. The cut of a Sunday school monitor’s blue and white polka-dot dress, a pin over the breast of a 1940s mother, the drape of a white lace gown are just a few glimpses that will surely resonate with viewers.

Students also had a hand in putting the show together, not only assisting the curators with its set-up and serving as greeters to the exhibit, but visitors will notice the student-created headpieces atop the mannequins throughout the show. McMurry explains that the “headpieces were made by students in one of our Design Topics classes. They were given an assignment based on a garment and they had to research what period the garment was, and the meanings behind it, and then create these 3-D headpieces.” The pieces are flights of fancy that help transcend each mannequin’s static nature and are carefully conceived and intricate in their construction and appear effortlessly partnered with their garments.

Another result of student passion in the show can be seen in the exhibit’s poster, featuring supermodel Karlie Kloss under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The result of a senior project by Karlie’s older sister, Kristine Kloss, BFA ’12, the poster might possibly be the first time any museum has used a supermodel to announce an exhibit. Behind-the-scenes images are available for view on Stephens website. The blue Jason Wu romper and bicentennial scarf worn by Karlie in the images also serve as a poignant addition to the exhibit.

Civic Virtue highlights, as Meinke describes it, the “uniquely American” collection the CMRL maintains. Visiting the exhibit spurs an excited attention to how what we wear in the present connects us to our past, forcing the realization that nothing in fashion is really new, just remodeled and repurposed to varied degrees to fit the demands of our present responsibilities.

Civic Virtue: Wearing Red, White and Blue

Sept. 20 – Dec. 9, 2012
Gallery hours: 
Thursday, 5:30-8:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 12-3 p.m. and by appointment 
Historic Costume Gallery is located on the Mezzanine floor of Lela Raney Wood Hall,

6 N. College Ave

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