What did Scarlett O’Hara wear?

Fashion brightly reflects time, with its own history

We may be between theatre seasons, but we still need to seek out cultural enrichment

Fashion brightly reflects time, with its own history

We may be between theatre seasons, but we still need to seek out cultural enrichment. Museums offer more than just shelter from the exasperating summer heat, with short-term exhibitions as well as permanent. A unique exhibition at the National History Museum has been delighting visitors with its display of original women’s costumes, hats and accessories, dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. Many people have already enjoyed exploring its exhibits, including our correspondent.

From the ‘fashion history museum’ exhibition,
by author-collector Marina Ivanova

From Hoop Skirts and Tournures to Modern: History of Fashion from the Early 20th Century arrived in Minsk from Kiev’s Museum of Fashion: the only such in post-Soviet territory. Its large private collection boasts around 150 original costumes.

National History Museum Director Oleg Ryzhkov notes that ticket sales aim to generate a profit, although prices are still modest (even if you take a tour with a guide). He notes, “This isn’t the first joint project we’ve organised with our neighbouring country. Some years ago, we presented Treasures of Ukraine, introducing items made from gold, and china, among many others. Now, we’re introducing a private collection; there are so many high quality exhibits that we can call this project unique.”

Undoubtedly, the exhibition is interesting to anyone professionally engaged in design, fashion and history. How often do you see 30 historic costumes on show in Belarus (10-15 are more common). Each is a work of art, sewn by hand and worn by ladies who once graced ballrooms. For many long years, these beautiful dresses were stored in family wardrobes, until donated to the museum.

Collector Marina Ivanova tells us, “A unique wedding dress, in champagne ivory, and a children’s blue costume worn with a bustle, were given to me by actress Lyudmila Artemieva, who appeared in Svaty (Matchmakers). These belonged to her family. Most of the dresses came from my own grandmother, who was a dressmaker. Among the most expensive and valuable is my great-grandmother’s ball tippet, from 1910. She kept hold of it even during the hungry war years, when she could have exchanged it for food.”

Just a third of Marina Ivanova’s collection is on show in Minsk, with Kiev hosting more than 150 outfits and numberless accessories, alongside children’s toys, bandboxes and other unique treasures. Such things are rarely bought by museums, generally being donated.

“Not all museums like to exhibit clothes, as they can disintegrate unless stored properly,” she explains. “They don’t make a good investment. It’s better to purchase samovars, which never deteriorate, or furniture, or stamps: things easier to preserve. It’s very difficult to preserve dresses. We spend all our money on keeping them in good condition.”

The exhibition’s mannequins are rather like plaster sculptures. In fact, they’re handmade, by the owner of the collection and her assistants; they believe that modern mannequins simply aren’t appropriate for antique clothing. Ms. Ivanova explains, “We’d like to buy ready-made mannequins, but those of today are too tall for the costumes. One and a half centuries ago, or even a century ago, ladies were only 140-145 centimetres in height. Besides which, they wore tight corsets, giving a waist of perhaps only 50cm. Mannequins of today have measurements of 61cm or more. This olive green dress has a waist of 48cm; we remade the mannequin three times, as the corset was too small! The widest waist we’ve come across is 55cm. To make costumes sit properly, you need a perfect fit, especially for children’s clothes.”

Children’s outfits are rarely seen in museum collections as they tend to have worn out, having been altered and passed from one child to another. Unsurprisingly, few remain in good enough condition for display. However, it’s fascinating to see the dresses worn by young girls in the same styles as their elders, complete with corset, bustle (a small pillow which sat at the base of the spine), 12 underskirts and then their dress, coat and accessories.

Ms. Ivanova complains, “We spent two days at the border from Ukraine, and had to leave a number of exhibits, including a rug upon which our child mannequins usually sit. We planned to set up a children’s room. However we had to leave the rug behind. We also had to leave our silver bags and some rare hatboxes from metal and wood, of various designs, as well as porcelain dolls, and bicycles in the form of horses. All failed to get through the border, being of major value. So, we brought what we could: enough for the exhibition.” The National History Museum plans to continue its co-operation with Kiev colleagues, planning a larger exhibition for late 2016 or 2017. However, the current display is enough to gain an impression about the evolution of fashion for almost a whole century. Each period (fashions changed dramatically about every decade) is represented by 2-3 costumes from Russia, Western Europe or the USA.

There are several walking costumes from 1860, visiting dresses from 1880, those in Modern and Art Deco styles, and some from the 1930s. Meanwhile, there is a wealth of lacy chemisettes, ball gloves, satin shoes, hats decorated with stuffed birds, bags knitted from beads (like large purses for small change), fans and umbrellas decorated with lace. It’s no wonder that, a century ago, men might be driven to put a bullet through their brains on having been bankrupted by their wives and daughters. Fans of Scarlett O’Hara and other heroines from the 19th century will adore perusing the collection, seeing perhaps what their great-grandmothers wore (fashions in Belarusian cities were similar to those in Russian and Western European cities).

Don’t delay to see English printed cotton and Indian cashmere from the late 19th century. Your heart will be sure to leap with excitement.

By Irina Ovsepyan
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