Missouri History Museum's Textile Collection in Demand Across the Country

By Dacy Gillespie
In Style
Woman's multi-colored peasant dress with bertha neckline and full sleeves; used by the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe in the production of "Tropics.”

Woman’s multi-colored peasant dress with bertha neckline and full sleeves; used by the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe in the production of “Tropics.” Photo courtesy of Missouri History Museum

Most St. Louisans would consider the Missouri History Museum one of the crown jewels of Forest Park, but even the most fashion-conscious citizens may not realize that the museum boasts one of the most in-demand textile collections in the country. Requests to borrow pieces from museums and institutions around the country have risen over the last several years.  Missouri History Museum’s Assistant Director of Communications, Leigh Walters, attributes the increase in demand to the fact that the digital collection is searchable online. “Our textile collection really is huge, much bigger than people realize,” says Walters.

For senior curator Shannon Meyer, the demand means she is traveling the country to install pieces from the collection in exhibits at various institutions. “The Missouri History Museum boasts a phenomenal historic clothing and textile collection that numbers around 18,000 pieces of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and accessories, as well as household textiles, from the late 18th century to the present,” says Meyer. “Highlights include costumes from Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe, 19th and early 20th century dresses made by St. Louis dressmakers, Veiled Prophet gowns, designer pieces including a Charles James ball gown, and everyday clothing worn by the people of St. Louis.” Currently, Meyer is in the midst of trips to seven U.S. cities to install textiles from the museum’s collection in “The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” an exhibit which just finished its run here in St. Louis.

Opening Sept. 13, an exhibit at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, “Dance and Fashion,” will feature three of the Missouri History Museum’s Katherine Dunham dresses. Costumes from the Dunham collection will also be featured in an exhibit created by the Detroit Institute of Arts called “The Art of American Dance.” The exhibit will travel to the Denver Art Museum and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art after its debut in Detroit in March 2016.

The next chance St. Louisans will have to view pieces from the Missouri History Museum’s textile collection will be in November 2015, when the museum unveils the exhibit “Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night.” Until then, museum patrons can explore textiles, artifacts, and images online at the History Museum’s digital collection.

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