BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Lady Bee, the self-proclaimed inventor of the beehive hairdo; First Lady Nancy Reagan; and Henry Horner, the Illinois Governor inaugurated in 1933, all have something in common. The trio represent for Petra Slinkard, Chicago History Museum’s Costume Curator, some of her favorite—and often rarely seen—pieces from the museum’s vast collection of 50,000 objects.
Petra recently took us behind the scenes at CHM to learn more about the collection, noted for both its quality and breadth of items spanning the eighteenth century to the present.
“Lady Bee, who recently passed, gave us her mannequin head that she used for the beehive, the hairstyle she invented in the early 1960s. Henry Horner, the first Jewish governor of Illinois, whose parents had once run a general store, wore the top hat that we have to his inauguration. Nancy Reagan gave us a terrific 1961 Bill Blass ball gown. We have many marvelous pieces here that you might never have seen.”
Having lectured recently with the Art Institute’s Senior Curator, Gloria Groom, on the union of fashion and art, Petra brings together a natural elegance and social history insight. An expert on twentieth-century American and European fashion history, as well as street style and subcultural dress, she is a national board member of the Costume Society of America.
We asked Petra to tell us more about some of her collection favorites.
Since the museum only accepts pieces with a true Chicago connection, I imagine that they reveal some interesting stories of our city’s history.
This is one of the aspects of my job I most enjoy. Every day I learn something new about this wonderful city through our very special collection. Some stories are grander, like the development of an area, idea, or industry, while other stories are more personal, reflecting achievements or trials and tribulations.
We have in our collection the cape Mary Todd Lincoln wore to the Ford Theater the night her husband was assassinated. She wore that on a night that was a mass turning point in United States history. To be in the same room with that cape is very powerful.
What speaks most to you about a piece: its history or its rarity?
It can be one or the other, really, but usually it is the history associated with the garment that comes to the top. We have a beautiful necklace done by the Kalo Shop, Chicago’s leading maker of arts and crafts jewelry at the turn of the last century. It is a gorgeous example of jewelry created in Chicago, but the story of the Kalo Shop is very rich and wonderful as well.
Six young women who had trained at the Art Institute founded the shop, which was part of the Kalo Arts and Crafts Community House, a training school and workshop in Park Ridge. It is not only its rarity and beauty of design, but it is also an entry point into a larger story.
Petra shared other favorites including Philip K. Wrigley’s bathing suit, dating back to 1932, one of the first of Janzen Burdine’s chest-revealing models, titled the “topper”; Jane Byrne’s Pucci suit, which she wore for her mayoral inauguration day on April 16, 1979; and Abra Wilkin’s Halston bathing suit from 1976.
Do you have a favorite period in fashion history?
My strengths lie in American fashion from the twentieth century. Designers whose work I’ve studied in depth are Norman Norell, Bill Blass, Halston, Rudi Gernreich, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Franco Moschino.
Every decade offers something special in fashion history. But the two that appeal to me most are the 1930s and 1940s because the aesthetic of those decades resonate with me. I have an appreciation for the ingenuity designers were putting forth in this period as they responded to rations, restrictions, and the like. But I do love late 1970s and 1980s fashion, too. And 1950s ball gowns can knock your socks off.
What will be your next exhibition?
The next fashion exhibition at CHM will open in the spring of 2019. We are currently in the proposal phase and will soon move onto the research and development phase. But as the thesis of the exhibition is refined, we will be sharing it soon. So pleased stay tuned.
At a luncheon at the History Museum on October 25, the Costume Council will present Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, founders of Marchesa, with the first ever Presidents’ Circle Honors, recognizing designers who are currently making an indelible mark in the fashion world. The award is in honor of the 14 former presidents of the Costume Council. Its new President, Courtney Hopkins, explains:
“The Presidents’ Circle Honors award was conceived as a way to recognize extraordinary designers who are making an impact in the fashion world but are perhaps less established than recipients of our Designer of Excellence Award, which has been won recently by Carolina Herrera and Bob Mackie. It also recognizes the numerous contributions of the Costume Council’s former presidents by creating an award in their honor.
“Because Marchesa enjoys widespread appeal among celebrities and VIPs worldwide, our former president Kristin Smith approached the company, inviting them to be our distinguished guests of honor. She also invited them to view the CHM collection with Petra.”
Petra and Ken Downing, Senior Vice President and Fashion Director for Neiman Marcus, will interview the designers and guests will be invited to proceed to Neiman’s for a Marchesa trunk show. The Costume Council’s Holiday Soiree will be held December 11, and an Elsa Schiaparelli luncheon and trunk show will be a February highlight.