By Nancy Rogier, Museum Volunteer
Two items in the museum have fascinated me since the first time I saw them, but for different reasons: we know a lot about the first item, but not so much about the second. These two pieces, on display in ATHM’s core exhibition, Textile Revolution, illustrate the connection between history and mystery that surround objects that humans create and leave behind. All artifacts have a story, but not every object has a provenance or background that can be discovered—therein lies the mystery—and, as objects can’t speak, it takes research and investigation to bring their history to light, as well as to establish their place in the world.
Both of my favorite items belong in the world of clothing. The first is a polyester dress from the early 1970s designed by Jonathan Logan and purchased from Bonwit Teller, a high-end department store that flourished in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The second is a navy blue knitted woman’s suit that dates to the 1930s or 1940s. The 1970s dress captivates me because it came to museum with quite a lot of its history. We know the donor, who was the original and only owner of the dress. On display is a photo of the donor wearing the dress. The dress is a typical and appealing 70s style—a black scoop-necked, long-sleeved A-line shift with a geometric design of circles, squares, and lines in bright colors that really pop against the dark background. If you saw it on someone today, you’d probably think it fits right in. I love it not only because of the style, but because we know so much about the item. The photo of the donor wearing the dress at a garden party is an extra fascination for me—her only accessories are her shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle, and a gold circle-link belt, both very 1970s items!
One glance at the navy blue knitted suit is enough to establish that it comes from the 1930s or ‘40s. It has the silhouette associated with women’s apparel of that era—the narrow waist and broad shoulder look that brings Joan Crawford to mind. The suit is meticulously made, all hand-knit in exquisite detail. The Chace Catalogue, ATHM’s online archive, has an extensive description of the suit, which actually consists of four pieces: the jacket and skirt, plus a knit top and a taffeta slip. The catalogue record notes all the suit’s measurements, the number of buttons, the use of rib knitting and an open-work design for the top, and so on. Since the item is more complicated than the simple 1970s polyester shift, there are more words to describe it.
But here’s the mystery: Who made it? No labels or tags provide a clue. Where was it made? Who wore it? The outfit doesn’t show much wear. Was it made for a businesswoman or executive secretary? Was it a going-away outfit for a 1940s bride? An outfit for a college graduate? The mystery of this object fascinates me as much as the expertise that went its creation—and as much as the history of the mod 1970s dress.