Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

A Matter of Emphasis

February 26, 2020

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A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit, this time examining how fashion trends can highlight, or manipulate, the human form.

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Dress and Pelerine, 1830-1835

(Purchased with funds from the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund)


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What makes these sleeves puffy?
A stiffened underlining--pleated muslin fabric--helps support the sleeves. Sometimes a “sleeve plumper” was used--down-filled pads that tied on at the shoulder under the dress.

The wide silhouette created by these “leg-of-mutton” sleeves and matching pelerine (small cape that covers the shoulders) not only drew attention to the wearer’s arms, but also emphasized the smallness of her waist!

Who wore this dress?
During the 1830s? We don’t know. Later, Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), author and illustrator of children’s literature, owned the dress.

Tudor admired the objects and rural lifestyle of the early 19th century. She lived in a secluded New England farmhouse with no plumbing or electricity, surrounded by an orchard, rambling garden, and lively farm animals. Tasha Tudor also collected antique clothing--and wore it.

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Dress, 1884-1885
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Gift of Ruth W. Crouse)

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What supported the elaborately draped fabric at the back of this dress?
A bustle--a support of parallel horizontal slats made of wood or steel bent in a half circle. The bustle attached to the body around the waist. A tightly laced corset helped create her extremely small waist.

But how did she sit down? The slats would all collapse together as she sat, then spring back in place when she stood up--maintaining her fashionable silhouette.Between the fabric of the dress and the bustle, garments of this period could be quite heavy to wear!

Who wore this dress?
Mary Stevens (1861-1910), the daughter of wealthy capitalist. The Stevens family lived on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, a street lined with the homes of prosperous Detroiters.

Mary Stevens had a privileged lifestyle. She had the money to purchase finely made fashionable clothing. And led a social life that gave her opportunities to wear it. A few days before Christmas 1884, Mary’s mother gave an elegant reception at the Stevens home--complete with elaborate floral decorations, refreshments, and a full orchestra. Could this be the dress that Mary wore that afternoon?

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Dress, 1927-1929
(Gift of Audrey K. Wilder)

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What undergarment helped achieve this slender, youthful silhouette?
A straight-line, one-piece garment called a corselette. It de-emphasized the bust and smoothed the natural curves of the body--emphasizing the straight, unbroken line of that era’s “boyish” silhouette.

The movement of the uneven hemline, while walking or dancing, would subtly call attention to the wearer’s legs.

Who wore this dress?
Audrey K. Wilder (1896-1979) likely owned this dress.  Audrey attended college--quite unusual for women of her time. She graduated from Albion College, then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1921.

In the late 1920s, Audrey Wilder was appointed Dean of Women at Ohio Northern University. One of her first projects was the creation of the first social hall for women on campus--a place where female students could hold teas, receptions, musicals, and dinners. Those who knew her described Audrey as a “dynamic dean” and a woman “of exquisite grooming.”

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Cocktail Dress by Christian Dior, 1952
(Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr.)

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What undergarment helped create the “hourglass” silhouette of the 1950s?
Christian Dior’s “New Look”--with its close-fitting hourglass silhouette--dominated the 1950s. This look emphasized a tiny waistline and feminine curves. Longline bras helped slim the waistline and create a smooth line under garments.

This dress, Dior’s “Sonnet” design, also accentuated the waist through the angled side bodice seams, bows at the waist, and rounded skirt.

Who wore this dress?
This dress was custom-made for Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990), wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. Elizabeth felt it her duty to represent her husband, family, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company with dignity and grace. She was always flawlessly dressed--whether for informal camping trips, world travel, business functions, or society parties.

Elizabeth had a fine eye for fashion and favored New York and Parisian designers, including Christian Dior. These designers created garments to her specifications, including perfect fit, style, color, fabric, and construction. During the 1950s the New York Dress Institute named Elizabeth one of the "Best Dressed Women in the World.”

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

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