LSU textile curator to discuss clothing during women’s event
Made in a plantation town with fabric that came via the Mississippi River, the white cotton and lace dress of Ann Butler tells a story about the early 1800s in south Louisiana.
News — and new fashions — traveled slowly, coming by boat into the homes of seamstresses and wealthier planters.
A century later, the form-fitting black silk crepe number and fur coat worn by Rosa Mumford represents a time when fashion trends appeared in magazines and newspaper ads, then could be bought in department stores and boutiques.
“We can observe history and change in what we wear,” said Pam Vinci, the curator of the LSU Textile and Costume Museum.
Vinci has made a career of telling history through clothing. She will discuss how Louisiana history and fashion intertwine on Sept. 28 at the kick-off luncheon for Women! A Week-Long Celebration by the Women’s Council of Greater Baton Rouge.
“Instead of having a normal fashion show with things that are happening right now, she is going to lead us through history with her models,” said Maureen Corcoran, who led the committee to plan the luncheon.
From the early 1800s cotton-and-lace dress to the custom gowns created by LSU graduate Suzanne Perron in New Orleans, Vinci will examine the materials, styles and stories of garments from the collection at the museum.
“Fashion and history are so intermingled that you can learn so much from a dress,” she said.
Featuring a cotton top with bubbly lace embellishments along the bottom, the cotton-and-lace dress was owned by Ann Butler, of Natchez, who married Thomas Butler III. After meeting at a party in New Orleans, the couple married in 1813. They lived at his plantation, The Cottage, near St. Francisville in the early 1800s.
Family members found the dress in a trunk but knew little about it. When Vinci saw the dress, she was able to compare the dress silhouette to a fashion plate that showed French styles from the early 1800s.
Such fashion plates circulated throughout the United States before magazines, spreading the French styles to the new world. The empire waist and lace embellishments matched the period of the plate, leading her to believe that Ann Butler had it made. But Butler’s dress was much simpler than the fashion plate’s design.
“This dress emphasizes that, even in Louisiana, French fashion was being mimicked,” Vinci said.
Her collection from the 1800s includes two pairs of wedding shoes that show how much fashion changed in one generation. The mid-1800s white button-sided boots of Mary Sue Gay Butler contrast with the delicate white heels her daughter Frances Butler Ewens wore in 1895.
From 1888, Vinci has a pattern collection that belonged to Ollie Steele before she married William Pike Burden. Delivered in a magazine to Steele, it had 20 possible garment designs on one magazine centerfold-size sheet, creating a maze of separate patterns.
“It’s a jewel — an early pattern,” Vinci said.
The 1900s began with a piece more functional than fashionable — an ankle-length cotton duster coat owned by a woman in the Gianelloni family. At a time when Baton Rouge’s River Road — the main thoroughfare back then — was dirt and frequent Mississippi River floods caused much hardship, women and men wore the coats to protect their more fashionable clothing.
While prized more for function than fashion, the hand-stitched duster stood up over time, with only normal cotton discoloration shading it a darker tan.
Throughout the world wars, women made do without some important materials. They found ways to stitch lace stockings when the material was needed for parachutes in World War II and did without nylon stockings when the new material was used for the same purpose.
An ad Vinci found in 1940s editions of The Advocate and the afternoon State-Times told women “Your man has gone to war, and so has rubber” to market corsets made with other, more plentiful, materials.
In her collection Vinci displays the late 1940s black silk crepe dress and fur coat owned by Rosa Mumford, the wife of Southern University football coach Arnett W. “Ace” Mumford.
“During the war, with the fabric limits, silk crepe was unavailable,” Vinci said. “After the war, you start focusing on frivolity — what people think of as frivolity.”
Mumford likely wore the dress for a special occasion and kept it because it was special, Vinci said. After several decades it remains in pristine condition.
“It was saved for a reason,” Vinci said.
In some ways, modern fashion in Louisiana has come full circle. In New Orleans, Perron creates custom, hand-made gowns that have been lauded across the country.
“At every crossroads, now we have chains,” Vinci said. “Suzanne is a representation of those still producing unique fashion.”
The historical fashions Vinci collects convey a theme about women in the state, she said.
“Women in Louisiana follow fashion,” Vinci said. “We manage even through dusty highways and floods.”