Threading 200 years of local history

Posted by Audrey Nelson

Unlike any other form of art, fashion recreates its consumer into a work of art as well. The Saratoga Springs History Museum's exhibit, "200 Years of Fashion in Saratoga Springs" presents this idea elegantly.

Upon entering the second floor of the once high stakes casino, one finds three mannequins, ranging from the 1790s to the 1990s, standing stagnant and elevated against a wall, introducing an ordinary museum experience where viewers admire from a distance.

But the next room immerses the viewer in the scene of a fine boutique where mannequins mingle with museumgoers. Each couture outfit belonged to a prominent woman of Saratoga Springs society, as the town has remained a social base of the rich and famous for over two centuries, allowing viewers to imagine how these women might have lived.

A 5-foot-3 inch mannequin, dressed in a purple two-piece wool day dress c.1889, admires a display of jewelry and hairpieces including ribbons made from the hair of President Ulysses Grant's family. To wear such pieces "were a way of remembering past loved ones," explains an inscription. A shelf above the boutique-like jewelry display plays host to three hats from the late nineteenth century, sitting atop mannequin heads.

Further on, in a jazz-filled room, a grandiose wardrobe displays a vintage bustier and folded blouses. A circular rack holds clothes on hangers, tempting viewers to browse through them, though a sign reads, "Please do not touch the artifacts." Cramped between these latter displays, a mannequin wears Lucy Scribner's 1904 beige, embroidered wool coat.

The chronologically haphazard display prompts viewers to compare women's evolving role from the Victorian era to the roaring twenties and to times as recent as 2008.

Unfortunately, to fully understand the museum's intent, one must buy the exhibit guide, which explains that the "job" of the Victorian woman in Saratoga Springs was to, "elevate the family's social status by making connections throughout the course of the day." Pages later, the guide explains that during the 1920s Saratoga Springs, "was leaving Victorian influence behind and new, liberating styles of clothing were being worn by women."

Though lacking in historical background, the detail in displaying this exhibit is exquisite. The artifacts, furniture, hanging art and mannequins are almost as delicate and exciting as the fashion itself.

Before a three-paneled mirror, a graceful Victorian figure admires her red, embellished, brocade and velvet day dress, her umbrella placed neatly in a vase to her right. Miss Katherine Batcheller lies on a feminine couch next to a tabletop flapper, epitomizing the mélange of decades throughout the exhibit. The scene is enhanced by period furniture and paintings in accord with each of the outfits.

In one of curator Michael Levinson's vignettes, multiple mannequins represent the private dressing room of Katrina Trask, poet and wife of Spencer Trask, who together founded the artist retreat Yaddo. Her often kimono inspired robes — beaded, braided, embroidered and laced — dating between 1910 and 1915, wait as the mannequins glance around the room, deciding which outfits to wear today.

In the hallway, less than a dozen mannequins line the walls. An Issey Miyake pleated orange tunic, paired with Emilio Pucci psychedelic leggings greets you with fashions worn by Mollie Wilmot, Palm Beach socialite and philanthropist who vacationed in Saratoga Springs during the horse racing season. Across the hall is Michele Riggi who wore a glamorous red Cymbeline Paris designer gown for the Saratoga Performing Art Center's 2008 Summer Gala, "West Side Story."

A Balenciaga cocktail dress stands next to a Jacques Fath wool suit, which contrasts two Dior dresses missing the designer's famous "New Look" of padded hips, narrow shoulders and calf length skirt.

Finally, up one last flight of stairs rests a divine, 1896 olive green gown, belonging to Miss Katherine Batcheller. Embroidered with pearls and sewn with thread made of gold, the gown was worth just $5000 at its purchase. The mannequin wears a black and white spotted fur shawl while lying peacefully on a settee, a stained glass window behind her, and period artifacts surrounding her.

Museumgoers enter an elite social gathering, and become part of an impossible bevy of style, status and history. Rather than merely admire, one integrates seamlessly into a fraudulent, mum scene as though walking by Monet's gracious women in "Femmes au Jardin."

Though exhilarating to live among couture and to let the imagination dictate the actions of the mannequins, eeriness coats the exhibit. Maybe artifacts such as the Grant family's hair ribbons, or the century old children's shoe or even the strips of white paper that emulate the mannequins' hair overshadow the outfits. Perhaps this realistic immersion into the 19th century is unsettling.

Yet the presentation of this exhibit is like no other. One could find more expensive, rare or fabulous outfits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but could not as easily immerse oneself in the times of the outfits' debuts. To be in the town where these fashions were worn, and to know of the women who wore them creates a closer and more striking bond to the clothes. Artifacts always have the potential to shock an audience. The Saratoga Springs History Museum amplifies this potential by placing the audience in a fictional social gathering while keeping them at arm's length.

The exhibit will be open until March 1, 2011.

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