There are multiple entry points into the shows “Threads of History: Two Hundred Years of Fashion” and “Embellished: Adornment Through the Ages” at the Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta.
For these exhibitions, more than 70 garments, and an abundance of hats, shoes and parasols, have been assembled from Palermo, Italy, collector Raffaello Piraino’s archives, to show the shifts in clothing from the 18th through the 20th centuries.
Fashion lovers undoubtedly will respond to the sheer beauty of many of these garments, from a 1969 cloche whose chiffon curls mimic the petals of a chrysanthemum, to the incredible detail and delicacy of 19th century satin and leather baby shoes. Accessories and fashions include works from high-profile fashion stars like Elsa Schiaparelli, Courreges (a bizarre pair of sunglasses inspired by Eskimo sun protection), Christian Dior and a Yves Saint Laurent rooster feather bolero jacket from 1970.
History lovers will appreciate how these twinned exhibitions show the fluctuations of fashion and how the radical shifts in clothing related to the historical events of the era. That includes the move away from grandiose, embroidered, ornamentation-rich gowns in the 18th century French rococo period to the subdued, even plain, empire waist dresses that came after the French Revolution. Later fashion innovations like the miniskirt and the bikini have been controversial, but the wrong outfit could get you killed in the purge of aristocrats in post-revolutionary France.
“Threads of History” is also a fascinating, voyeuristic survey of the daily life of our ancestors, when Victorian women used elaborate metal clamps called “skirt lifters,” a tong-like device whose function was two-fold: It was used to lift complicated skirts for walking or sporting activities, and also to show off a pretty petticoat beneath a dress.
Women’s fashion of the past was enticingly ornate, but could cause the wearer to fear the threat of fire or accident when their massive crinolines were caught up in streetcars or strayed too close to the fireplace.
“Embellished: Adornment Through the Ages,” which focuses on the accessories, from hats to smoking pipes to garters, is a marvel of strange materials and forgotten objects. There are beaver fur top hats and jewelry purposefully treated with radium or uranium to give glass a green or yellow cast. Forgotten but once-essential items on display include the circa 1870 chatelaine (the silver jewelry, hung like a janitor’s keys from a lady’s waist, whose charms — scissors, a cat’s head, a book — proclaimed her many hobbies and interests).
The exhibition of clothes in “Threads” also shows the remarkable strides made in the role of women, echoed in the garments they wore. Director of fashion exhibitions Rafael Gomes keeps an illustration in his behind-the-scenes SCAD fashion workshop of how violently the use of the corset — often employed from childhood on in past centuries — could deform and shape the female body, relocating organs and impeding movement.
As lovely as they are, these garments also were representations of societal control that affected every aspect of women’s lives: how they stood, how they dressed, how they moved, how they gave birth. The mannequins for the exhibition had to be sculpted, cut down and reworked in order to accommodate the tiny 18-inch or smaller waists and altered rib cages these fashions demanded.
A fascinating treatise on both the expressive potential of fashion, and its many strange incarnations, these exhibitions can leave viewers with the sensation of both recognition and a surreal disconnect from the strange alternate reality of the past.