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A display in the Spectrum of Fashion exhibition.
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Spectrum of Fashion

Presented October 2019-March 2021

The Maryland Center of History and Culture unlocked one of its greatest archival treasures in the exhibition, Spectrum of Fashion. The visually stunning installation highlighted the extraordinary breadth of the MCHC costume collection across four centuries and featured nearly 100 examples of women’s and men’s clothing and accessories, as well as decorative arts.

A Time Capsule Waiting to Be Reopened

For nearly four decades, the Fashion Archives at MCHC remained in boxes, locked in storage rooms in the historic Enoch Pratt house. While the collection was displayed frequently for some years prior, a decision was made in the 1970s to put the pieces away and focus exhibitions on other parts of the wide MCHC collection.

A dedicated volunteer named Enolliah Williams, or “Miss Nola” as she was known, gathered storage furniture, boxes and tissue, and set to work preparing the collection for long-term storage. She meticulously labeled and stored every dress, hat, and ribbon of the estimated 12,000-piece collection. Blue index cards were used to detail condition, measurements, and provenance for each piece. There the collection sat, waiting to be rediscovered for decades. It is thanks to Miss Nola’s dedication that the Fashion Archives at MCHC perseveres today.

The Fashion Archives

In 2008, then-Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch activated the costume collection. Vibrant gowns and priceless accessories were glimpsed by peeking into boxes, and the idea for a fashion exhibition was born. In 2015, through the generous patronage of Barbara P. Katz, an annual internship program for the conservation and preservation of what would become known as the Fashion Archives was established.

Each summer, teams work tirelessly to move garments from the historic storage room into new climate-controlled storage, researching and recording the history of each piece. Through this internship, rare survivals such as extant American livery, dresses worn by first ladies, and early French couture were discovered. Out of the thousands of objects that have been preserved, nearly 100 pieces were chosen for this landmark exhibition, highlighting the wide range of stories that could be told through the collection.

The Spectrum of Fashion

The word “spectrum” was deliberately chosen for this exhibition as it embodies the encyclopedic nature of the Fashion Archives. In the 3,000-square-foot gallery, you experienced the spectrum of color, the spectrum of time, and the spectrum of Maryland life from 1724 through today.

Designers represented included Maryland-born Claire McCardell, Hermès, Pierre Cardin, and Worth, to name a few. Rare survivals, such as livery worn by formerly enslaved individuals at Hampton Mansion in Towson, and a gown worn to George Washington’s inaugural ball, were also included. Additionally, clothing worn by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were on view.

The exhibition was accompanied by a full-color Spectrum of Fashion publication, still available in the Museum Store or online.

Exhibition Sponsors

The Spectrum of Fashion exhibition was made possible through the generous support of the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, The Helen Clay Frick Foundation, Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, Baltimore National Heritage Area, PNC Bank, Barbara P. Katz, and many additional individual donors.

An Adopt-a-Mannequin fundraising effort also helped support the expense of customizing and mounting each of the historic garments for the exhibition.

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Since 1844, we have collected, preserved, and interpreted Maryland's diverse history, art, and culture. Visit and see it at the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

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