Style stories Exhibit tells story of 20th-century fashion, lifestyles

Some success stories begin when someone notices.

And Jane McCowan’s work was noticed.

She was just someone who tried something new. She’d graduated LSU in 1934, married then divorced and moved to New York to learn the trade of advertising through Macy’s.

That was in the 1940s.

She’d been snapping photographs when someone noticed her special way of seeing things. And she was encouraged to do more.

The results of this encouragement can be found at Hill Memorial Library’s first-floor exhibit gallery at LSU, the first section of the two-part exhibit, “Centuries of Style: A Retrospective of Dress,” which runs through Oct. 19.

The upstairs gallery features the second part of the show, which traces the history of dress from ancient times to the 1920s throughout the world.

And though McCowan’s photos also travel the world, their starting point is Baton Rouge. It’s also where the story ends, because McCowan moved back to her hometown in the 1990s.

“She lived in St. James Place,” says Tara Zachary Laver, curator of manuscripts. “There was an exhibit of her work at St. James Place at that time.”

But now the collection belongs to McCowan’s alma mater, which describes the show as “‘Mad Men’ meets ‘Project Runway.’”

It’s true. McCowan’s photos not only focus on mid-20th century fashion but tell a story of the day’s lifestyles while reflecting on its ideals of femininity and beauty.

And visitors will see shades of Audrey Hepburn in McCowan’s Christian Dior shoots in Paris.

But that’s jumping ahead. The exhibit begins with Macy’s 1950s advertising campaign that zeroed in on the American family. McCown set up the scenes for these photo illustrations, some of them featuring Bob Keeshan of “Captain Kangaroo” fame, as well as actor Danny Kaye.

This is where viewers will be reminded of “Mad Men,” or the fashions seen in the television series’ early days, anyway. Lines are clean, heels are high and families are happy. At least on the surface.

Remember, this is an ideal, and McCowan’s portrayals capture an era, as do her Dior shoots.

“She was going on vacation in Paris, and Macy’s asked her to do a fashion shoot while she was there,” Laver said. “She was one of the first fashion photographers to stage shoots on location.”

Finally, there’s McCowan’s signature photos, featuring women models in sets of three, most of them taken from above.

And complementing this collection upstairs are books and pictures chosen from the LSU Libraries Special Collections.

This part of the show was curated by Michael Taylor, assistant curator of books. “These are books and prints in which you wouldn’t think to find examples of fashion, but their illustrations of people show the fashion of the time,” he says.

The show is divided into the categories “Ancient Greece and Rome,” “Renaissance,” “18th Century,” “Dandies and Gender Benders,” “Revolutionary French Fashions,” “19th Century,” “Cyclists/Jazz Age,” “Africa/Military Dress,” “Native Americans/Religious Vestments,” “Coifures, Etc.,” “Asia” and “Lagniappe.”

“Here, we show why styles have changed over the years,” Taylor says.

Styles that eventually evolved into McCowan’s world of Macy’s and Dior.