Fashioning New Mexico

 

 

 

    

 

Life’s passages carry layers of meaning and memory – the foods we eat, the songs we sing, the clothes we wear. The ways in which our predecessors chose to clothe themselves – for a baptism, a prom, a war, or an opera opening – have been collected by the New Mexico History Museum for 100 years. As part of the Museum’s grand opening in May 2009, many of those outfits are, shall we say, coming out of the closet.

 
Wedding dresses on display in Fashioning New Mexico.
[ Photograph by Blair Clark, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.]
 
Fashioning New Mexico, the premiere exhibition in the New Mexicao History Museum’s Changing Gallery, explores what our clothes say about us and what they mean to us. This exhibition is featured through April 11, 2010. Some of the celebratory events depicted in it are singular to New Mexico, such as fiestas and Native American ceremonies. Others are the classic passages that form the basis of our lives and of the tales we have told since the earliest campfire was lit: a child’s birth, coming of age, marriage, anniversaries, ascents to power and going to war.
 
Luxurious opera gowns, including a costume on loan from the Santa Fe Opera (far left). [Photograph by Blair Clark, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs]
 

The Museum’s collection of nearly 4,000 costumes and accessories, with many pieces dating from the 1830s to the 1970s, has long lacked the space it takes for a proper exhibit. The opening of the Museum’s second-floor, 5,700-square-foot Changing Gallery finally made it possible.

Bata de cola and accessories, ca. 1940
Santa Fean Olinda Rodriguez was chosen by popular vote as Fiesta queen in 1936 and reappointed in 1937. This flamenco outfit represents her early years in Santa Fe as a professional singer and dancer. Mrs. Rodriguez de Castner was involved with Santa Fe Fiesta most of her life and her life-long involvement with other community service organizations conveyed her sense of devotion to the City of Holy Faith. [ History Collection NMHM, DCA. Gift of Robert Castner, 2003.32.15, 16, 6, 30a-b]

 

To senior curator Louise Stiver, it’s both a celebration and a swan song, as she unveils her final exhibition.

“This is the first time for the Museum to focus on our collection of costumes and accessories,” she said. “A number of the items in the collection represent celebrations that occurred here in New Mexico – from weddings to going to the opera to entering military service. There’s a little bit of everything for people to see.”

But, she cautions, “this is not a fashion show.”

“Rather, it will focus on how people fashioned their lives. Some clothing might stand alone, while others will be part of a vignette that might include furniture, portraits, weaponry, accessories, historical documents and other props to tell the story.”

 

Santa Fe Fiesta wear and Mariachi costumes. [Photograph by Blair Clark, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs]

 
The Fashioning New Mexico includes a display of historic under garments and an interactive exhibit that invites visitors to practice tying a corset and check out the many layers of slips it took to wear a hoop skirt. [Photograph by Blair Clark, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs]
 
Other features include a high-seated “penny farthing” bicycle, and interactive features where a visitor can practice tying a corset, using the secret language of fans or virtually “trying on” some of the outfits in the exhibit. Student-interns from New Mexico Highlands University are preparing a station that uses computerized images on a mirror that let visitors virtually “try on” some of the outfits in the exhibition.
 

A collection of fans, both decorative and necessary in pre-air-conditioning decades, are displayed in the Fashioning New Mexico exhibit. [Photograph by Blair Clark, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs]

 
What’s coming out of the closet? Plenty – about 350 items, including a dozen 19th- and 20th-century wedding gowns, flapper dresses, flamenco outfits, WWI uniforms, inaugural ballgowns and an assortment of underwear through the centuries. Thirty of the Museum’s classic fans will reveal a time when delicate painting and embroidery turned a utilitarian item into art.
 

Yellow evening dress and shoes, ca. 1926
Eugenie Shonnard was born in Yonkers, New York.  She lived in Paris from 1911-1914 and in the 1920s where she studied sculpture under Rodin and likely purchased this elegant “flapper” dress.  In 1919 she met Edgar Lee Hewett, who encouraged her to come to Santa Fe to pursue her art.  She spent the summer of 1925 working on her sculpture in a studio at the Palace of the Governors and returned two years later to live permanently in Santa Fe.  She married civil engineer and entrepreneur Edward Ludlam in 1933.  [ History Collection NMHM, DCA. Gift of Thomas B. Catron III, 2006.40.1, 10109/45]

Peach evening dress, ca. 1926-1927
As soon as the ATSF railroad steamed into Las Vegas on July 4, 1879, a number of fortune seekers, including the Raynolds brothers, Jefferson, Frederick and Joshua, wasted no time in taking advantage of the boomtown. They opened the First National Bank on the plaza in West Las Vegas and expanded their businesses in New Mexico and El Paso. Joshua Raynolds built a three-story mansion overlooking Las Vegas in 1883. Daughter Ruth married James McNary in the mansion in 1902. She wore this “flapper” dress for social events. [History Collection NMHM, DCA. Gift of Mrs. Peter S. Krebs, 1272/45]

 

Donors through the years have included the heirs of the Harroun, Manderfield and Armijo families of Santa Fe, the McMillans of Socorro, the Jaramillos from northern New Mexico, and the McDonalds of Carrizozo, to name a few.

The pieces cover modern history as well, including a turquoise outfit recalling the grandeur of Dangerous Liaisons-era France. The outfit, worn by Santa Fe artist Paul Stephen Valdez to the Equality New Mexico Gala in 2008, was loaned by him for this special exhibition.

 

Conservator Rebecca Tinkham has worked on every costume in the exhibition, painstakingly repairing the rips and frays of time, a task that prior to now also made displaying the items problematic. With the Museum’s climate-controlled galleries, fragile fabrics can withstand the rigors of exhibition.

Besides mending seams, Tinkham has found herself working on corsets, hoops, bustles, pantaloons and petticoats.

“These days, the clothes fit the body,” she said. “But for a good part of history, the body was made to fit the clothes with bustles, hoops, metal bust improvers.”

One of the things that most impressed her about the collection was how well New Mexicans dressed.

“A lot of the clothes are just so pretty to look at,” Tinkham said. “There were a lot of people in New Mexico who did dress to style. They were definitely stylish for the period.”

Those period-specific styles are also revealed in the Museum’s archival photos accompanying the exhibit, which buttress the notion of these being the clothes New Mexicans lived, worked and played in.

As they have for the last century, the collection of artifacts and photographs detailing our stylish ways would have continued. But without the new exhibition gallery, the wait to see them would have been even longer.

“The New Mexico History Museum opens a new chapter in the life of the Palace of the Governors,” Stiver said. “This new gallery allows us to expand our Museum’s mission and display exceptional examples from the Palace’s collections never before seen by the public.”

 

Brocaded wedding dress with train, ca.1882
Mrs. James Merritt of Brooklyn, New York wore this stunning wedding dress. Her family later moved to New Mexico. [History Collection NMHM, DCA. Gift of Louise O. Callin, 1087/45]

 
The New Mexico History Museum includes interactive multimedia displays, hands-on exhibits, and vivid stories of real New Mexicans. As a 96,000-square-foot extension of the Palace of the Governors – itself a story of New Mexico’s past and present in a 400-year-old building – the New Mexico History Museum anchors itself in the historic Santa Fe Plaza and offers a sampling of the people and the legends to be found throughout the state. Get into it – define your place in history and in fashion. [www.nmhistorymuseum.org]