Dress, United States of America, 1940-1949, silk, 58”x36”
Last week’s Textile Tuesday examined the history and provenance of a silk dress in the HLATC collection; this week, a different student examines the same dress from a more personal vantage point.
Tess E. Hurley is a student in the School of Human Ecology, studying Textiles and Fashion Design.
What is femininity? The question has never been easily answered, and in the 21st century United States gender is especially scrutinized. Though defining the terms may be difficult, it is safe to say everyone has images that come to mind concerning ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ respectively. This can lead people down a long historical path questioning how those stereotypical looks came about. For example, men used to wear a sort-of dress in some cultures, and high heels were originally invented for a king. Who decided makeup made a woman more becoming? Shouldn’t men be able to use it to enhance their features too? While male and female ‘norms’ evolve throughout time to fit varying infrastructures, people are left with a lot to think about today.
With what we are taught now, it can almost seem wrong, as a woman, to fall in love with a dress that is silky, see-through, contouring, flouncy, and above all, pink. This design is from the 1940s, which is surprising, since a shift in fashion took place as women were left to fill in men’s roles during the war. Women began wearing shoulder pads, pants, and work-like clothing to demand respect and authority, which were harder to attain at the time. Yet from this period we also have this beautiful specimen, clearly handmade by the most deft of hand, and no doubt noticed for its uniqueness during its era, as it still is to the modern eye. This was perhaps created for a woman who was happy to be herself again after the war, wanting to embrace beauty after such a dark event. It can be challenging to like ‘girly’ things that remind women of times when they had fewer choices, and their subsequent fight for equality. All ladies, regardless of age, were expected to wear dresses in America until the 1970s; pink is heavily effeminized; and the female figure is constantly judged… but times are changing.
It is important that women not feel guilty if they want to adhere to feminine ideals in western society. A woman should not think twice about wanting to shave, wear lipstick, or wear apparel like this, but she should be applauded if the opposite suits her just as well. Being pretty is subjective, as we see how the concept varies across cultures and individual beliefs around the world. This gown may seem ugly to one person, and gorgeous to the next. However, it arguably must stand out to everyone in one regard: it fits the current prototype of ‘feminine’ emphatically in many regions. Though the wearer may have been restricted by standards of women in the time of the piece’s creation, it should still be pleasing to – or worn by – anyone nowadays, without gender qualms. It is additionally symbolic of not being afraid to be different, being atypical of the era from which it derives. In all, take the feminist Emma Watson’s advice, and use fashion to express the self to the world.
Discover more about this piece here.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.