While a neighboring space features Nancy Erickson’s fabric art, the Paxson Gallery chronicles a century’s worth of changes in fashion and textiles.

“This is a hundred years of fashion and accessories and textiles from the (Montana Museum of Art and Culture) Permanent Collection, so it’s kind of a historical context for Nancy’s exhibition,” said MMAC curator Brandon Reintjes.

The Permanent Collection includes about 2,100 pieces of textile and clothing. Reintjes, with the expertise and help of co-curator and UM professor emeritus Christine Milodragovich of the School of Theatre and Dance, whittled down the archives to a few selections each to represent the decades from the 1860s to the 1960s.

And so the pieces begin with pioneer-era dresses and span through ornate formalwear in the early 1900s to gradually loosening constrictions in the early and middle parts of the 20th century.

The older pieces include a wedding dress from 1890 donated by Dr. Caroline McGill. It’s made of silk fille with “leg of mutton” sleeves. The Butte resident was one of the first female doctors in Montana, and she frequented estate sales to rescue pieces from obscurity. In the 1950s, McGill donated about 1,500 pieces to the MMAC, including paintings, historic furniture and clothing.

The elaborate formalwear of the late 1890s through the 1910s required some help.

Resting together on the wall like retired torture devices are a bodice, full corset and bun pads. Many of the earlier pieces in the exhibition required uncomfortable “sculptural” devices such as these, which tested the dressform resources of the university.

“Clothing is indicative of the times, of how people thought, how they viewed themselves, what society was thinking of itself,” said Barbara Koostra. Specifically, the MMAC director was discussing the chin-hugging neckline of a women’s wool traveling suit from 1904.

The elegant curves and minutely detailed embellishments in the materials do, however, reflect the waving forms in Erickson’s work. A flat-lined and boned bodice and skirt with a pleated back has elaborate piping reminiscent of the stitching in Ericksons’ work, Koostra said.

In between 1910 and 1920 the bodice and the corset give way to dresses that accent women’s natural body shapes.

“This is finally where you see things relax, the break where this goes from an hourglass corset, to a tubular corset and then finally, no corset,” Reintjes said. The final step in that evolution is a 1920s “flapper” dress with cloche hat evocative of the era.

A relatively minimal dress that reflects life in wartime during the 1940s. It has a military-like strong shoulder line, and fewer fabrics due to the demand on resources for the war effort.

In the 1950s, there’s a blue dress inspired by the “new look” of a Christian Dior design. The exhibit winds up in the 1960s, with a Native American-inspired tunic and a macramé accessory, which Reintjes included after hearing a student mention that she hadn’t heard of the once-trendy form of knotted textile.

Readers may have taken note of the emphasis on women’s clothing in the exhibition. The fault, Reintjes said, lies with the consistency of men’s formalwear in the Permanent Collection, even across a span as long as a 100 years.

Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at cory.walsh@lee.net.

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