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Exhibiting Costume at the Maryland Historical Society, 1970 and Now

AnnaLivia McCarthy, 2019 Fashion Archives Intern

Introduction to the Fashion Archives 

In the 1970s, the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) began a practice of showcasing costume from its Fashion Archives using common exhibition practices for the period. The Fashion Archives  includes over 14,000 garments and accessories dating from 1724 to the present. Curatorial staff preserved the legacies of these exhibitions through meticulous documentation and photography, all of which now resides in the “exhibition archives.” The size and scope of the exhibition archives for costume exhibition is almost one half of a filing cabinet drawer and spans from 1950 to 1985.  This research focuses on specific practices from notable exhibitions of the 1970s that were selected for their unique curatorial styles. At the conclusion, this information is compared to current practices for costume exhibition at the MdHS.

For the last three decades, the Fashion Archives has largely been at rest while the popularity of quilts, samplers, and decorative textiles soared. The status of costume in museum collections has evolved over time and, with it, the techniques for display. With the opening of the exhibition, Spectrum of Fashion: Celebrating Maryland’s Style, approaching, the Fashion Archives is in a prime position to examine its own fascinating history of exhibiting costume.

In 1970, the MdHS mounted “In and Out of Fashion: Costumes and Customs 1750-1950.” The exhibition was installed in nine period rooms of the Enoch Pratt house as custom tableaux. [2] Mannequins dressed in historic costume appeared to interact with each other and props. In their time, the tableaux were well received. The Baltimore Sun lauded the breadth of the entire Fashion Archives and the overall success of the exhibition but, in hindsight, current collections staff views the exhibits differently. [10]


“Bathtub Gin Party, 1928” From “In and Out of Fashion, Costumes and Customs 1750-1950,” Photograph from 1978, Courtesy of the Exhibition Archives of the Maryland Historical Society

Regarding preservation, the mannequins did not provide adequate support. Heavy dresses sagged under their own weight, contorted for long periods of exhibition. The depiction of fashion styles did not match the body shape or hair of their period, creating a confusing, misleading interpretation. If a visitor were to encounter these scenes today, they would likely read them as awkward, or even frightening.

This scene depicts a  “Bathtub Gin Party,” a reference to partying in the Prohibition-era. There are four women and a man staged around a bathtub. Though frozen in time, it is possible to read narrative into the scene. While this creates for exciting visual appeal, it also generates concerns for preservation.

For example, the two mannequins on the left wear historic shoes, which directs the weight of the mannequin down onto these fragile artifacts. What appears to be chiffon dresses are sagging under the weight of the beads.As an aside, the mannequin on the right has a pair of shoes beside her pedestal meaning to suggest that she has kicked off her shoes during the party. The immediate read of the scene is humorous, but this kind of curatorial attempt is indicative of a larger trend in displaying costume.

Theories of Costume Display 

Some institutions, like the Maryland Historical Society, have shifted away from these styles of exhibiting, favoring unobtrusive mounts that allow objects to have their own presence. Allowing costume to be displayed on its own, that is without the tableau, elevates its status.

When exhibiting other forms of art, such as paintings, installation is typical and reproducible. When exhibiting fashion, the artwork must be manipulated in order to achieve the correct shape. This process has long since puzzled museums and continues to be studied today. Curator and fashion historian, Dr. Ingrid Mida, has examined “novel curatorial strategies employed to create the illusion of an animated body.” [7] While certainly the tableaux of the Pratt house sought to represent an animated form, like flappers in the midst of merriment, they are not a novel curatorial strategy. Moreover, the practice was not groundbreaking for its time. In the exhibition archives of the MdHS from 1970, the first year of “In and Out of Fashion,” there are numerous clippings of newspaper and magazine articles showing similar approaches to exhibiting costume. Some of the institutions represented in the spread of inspirational clippings include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the George Eastman House, and Scenes of Country Life (Country Life Magazine). This demonstrates that not only were tableaux a common strategy, MdHS was collecting and recording its inspiration.

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Left, The Costume Institute opening exhibition 1946, titled “The Sentimental 1830s” [6]

Right, “Shopping for Hats,” from In and out of Fashion, 1970, Courtesy of the Exhibition Archives of Maryland History Society

To contextualize, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened officially in 1946. The image on the left comes from an exhibition of that year called, “The Sentimental 1830s.” [6] The image on the right from MdHS shows a similar tableau with a mannequin with a painted face, meaning MdHS mimicked this style into the 1970s.

Dr. Mida also grapples with the issue of historic costumes as museological artifacts. She writes,

“A dress artifact was once worn by a living person and therefore embodies a complex interplay of cultural beliefs, identity, memory, and body imprint. When a garment is mounted for display, a dress form or a mannequin provides the necessary conservational support for the artifact but also serves as a substrate for the former owner’s living body.” [7]

This reiterates the idea that exhibited fashion is unlike any other art form.When creating the “Bathtub Gin Party,” curators sought to capture the atmosphere of a party for which the dresses would have been present. The identity of the flapper, the beauty of the fashion, and the attitude towards the politics of prohibition are all captured in a single tableau.

While there are no documented instances at the Maryland Historical Society, some early exhibitions of historic fashion at other institutions took place in runway shows with live models. [7] This technique truly animated the body, displaying costume how it was meant to be worn. Mida says the risk of re-wearing garments is very great, but it provides a different experience of “weight, texture, and audio that you don’t get from stationary mannequins.”  For example, the tableaux cannot show how dresses look when flappers are dancing, or the sounds the beads make when they move.

Today when curators attempt newer “novel strategies,” conservators have become a driving force in how costume is mounted. Conservator Lara Flecker of the Victoria and Albert Museum published “A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting,” which is considered the premier handbook for conservation-grade costume mounting. In her introduction, Flecker outlines three major requirements for proper exhibition of fashion in museums. They are full structural support, historical accuracy, and visual appeal. [3] She weighs each of these categories equally, however she recognizes that striking a balance between the three can often be difficult. At times we sacrifice structural support for historical accuracy. Other times, costume is mounted in an unstable way to create exciting visual appeal.


Summer Costumes and Paintings of  Scenes in MD, July 9, 1979 to Sept. 10 1979, Courtesy of the Exhibition Archives of the Maryland Historical Society

One of the positive features of the costume exhibitions of the 1970s was their short duration. Costume was typically exhibited seasonally to attract visitors year round. This practice was probably not inspired by conservation recommendations for limiting light exposure, but rather to match the textiles exhibited with the current season. During winter months it was typical to present a “Christmas display.” [2] In the case of the costumes shown above, summer dresses were shown to correspond with a July exhibition. This practice may be worked in favor of preservation.

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Summer Costumes and Paintings of Scenes in MD, July 9, 1979 to Sept. 10 1979, Courtesy of Exhibition Archives of the Maryland Historical Society

The reason these mannequins appear more indicative of department store mannequins than modern museum mannequin is because they are, in fact, donations from department stores. Hutzler Brothers and Stewart and Company, both Baltimore-based department stores, donated the mannequins prior to an exhibition in 1970. [10]

The then assistant curator, Miss Eugenia Holland, explained to the Baltimore Sun that mannequins can be expensive items for the Historical Society to purchase. To modify them for the exhibition, “museum staff members were obliged to remove the bright lipstick and nail polish and adjust the postures of some.” [10] It is clear, however, that the aesthetic of the store-front mannequin was not completely wiped from the forms.

It is also reasonable to assume that the mounting and dressing of the forms was similar to the process of dressing storefront mannequins. In the exhibition archives, there is no documentation to suggest that the forms had been padded or supported. While it is possible that more structural support was given and that these images do not capture the extent, it is more accurate to assume that it was not done.

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Left, “Miss Louisa M. Gary and Mrs. Swepson Earle arrange a mannequin in 1860 gown for ‘open house’”, Right, “19th century costume from society’s extensive collection.” From “Historic Dresses are Shown.” Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. March 2, 1967. [4]

Though this research has focused mostly on these exhibits of the 1970s, it would be a missed opportunity not to reflect earlier records from the exhibition archives. These images were taken at the annual Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage in 1959. [4] Curators attempted to place the mannequins in tableaux. They are seated, folding and creasing the fabric. There’s an overall lack of support. Thinking ahead to the department store mannequins, their forms may have been an upgrade for improved conservation.

Exhibiting Costume, Today and Tomorrow 

Today when costume is exhibited at MdHS, modern conservation approaches are applied to mounting and dressing. Vice President of Collections, Allison Tolman, and Research Associate for the Fashion Archives, Emily Bach, often use “A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting,” as a resource. [1]


Confederate Naval Officer’s Frock Coat worn by Franklin Buchanan, Maryland Historical Society. Gift of Mrs. Julius Ernest Meiere, Mrs. Felis R. Sullivan, and Mrs. Tilghman Owens, Admiral Franklin Buchanan’s Granddaughters, 1984.1

In a long-term exhibition titled, Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War, there is fashion worn by both men and women. Since 2011, most aspects of the exhibition have been unchanged. However, displaying of these historic garments for many consecutive years would not be ideal for their long-term preservation.

To avoid exhibition fatigue, costume is exhibited for a maximum of one year before it returns to complete darkness in textile storage for a minimum of two years. [1] At that point, the costume can be reassessed to determine if it is fit for another exhibition. When Tolman and Bach want to determine if a costume is a good candidate for exhibition, they can check the collection records to determine when the costume was last exhibited. To record the rotation of the garments on exhibit, Tolman created a “Dressing Chart for Rotation.” This document records the dress form that was used, any alterations made to the form, and the components of the outfit that were exhibited. It also records any conservation or stabilization that was required, and the kinds of undergarments and accessories that accompanied it on display. [9]

In the future this information can be used to make an informed decision about new rotations and to assess the success of the rotation schedule. Rotating the exhibit is a priority not only because it contributes to the long-term preservation of the Civil War era materials, but it allows the gallery to exhibit new features in an otherwise semi-permanent display.

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Emily McCort, 2019 Fashion Archives Intern, modifies a mannequin to support and display a tea gown.

Courtesy of Emily McCort.

Some of the materials that are used to provide support and alter a form’s shape are a clean smooth mannequins with appendages that are detachable, polyester batting and fiberfill, cotton tubular stockinette, twill tape, and cotton sewing thread. [5] These materials are less likely to harm the costume because they are soft, strong, and chemically stable.  In summary, some of the greatest risks of improper display include overhandling, fading from light radiation, and strain on knits, heavy embellishments, or bias cut. [5] The most important considerations for display are choosing a mount that is appropriate for the condition of the costume, one that mitigates inherent vulnerabilities, minimizes handling, and creates the desired appearance, hopefully one that is historically accurate and visually appealing. [5]

Through the richness of the Fashion Archives, Maryland Historical Society can reflect on its history, grow from its past, and excite new audiences. In order for the collection to be shared and celebrated, exhibition mounting will continue to be a necessary support.


This research would not be possible without the support of the Maryland Historical Society. I am grateful for the insights of the Allison Tolman and Emily Bach. Thanks are owed to my fellow interns, Vivien Barnett and Emily McCort, for their continued support. I am especially appreciative of the Library staff and Imaging Services for providing images for this research.


[1] Bach, Emily. 2019. Personal Communication. Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore, Maryland.

[2] Exhibition Archives. Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore, Maryland.

[3] Flecker, Lara, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting. 1st Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007.

[4] “Historic Dresses are Shown.” Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. March 2, 1967.

[5] Keifer, Kathleen and Petra Slinkard. 2013. Indianapolis Museum of Art. “Mannequin Dressing Mounting Garments for Display.” For webinar, “Mounting Garments for Display.”

[6] Koda, Harold, and Jessica Glasscock. 2014. “The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Evolving History.” In Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice, edited by Marie Riegels Melchoir and Birgitta Svensson. London. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 21-32

[7] Mida, Ingrid. “Animating the Body in Museum Exhibitions of Fashion and Dress.” Dress 41, no. 1 (2015): 37-51. doi:10.1179/0361211215Z.00000000038

[8] Refashioning and Redress : Conserving and Displaying Dress. Edited by Mary M Brooks and Dinah Eastop. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2016.

[9] Tolman, Allison. 2019. Personal Communication. Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore, Maryland.

[10] Wise, Gabrielle. “Historical Society’s Costume Spans Two Centuries of Nation’s History.” The Sun, June 22, 1970. B1.