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Highlights Archives

Fashions Worn by Stylish Wisconsin Women


Three elegant evening gowns worn by prominent Wisconsin women of style from the Wisconsin Historical Society's costume and textile collection.

When you think Wisconsin fashion, parkas rather than Paris may come to mind. Yet prominent Wisconsin women, adorned in silk, satin, velvet and lace dresses by the world's top designers, have been at the forefront of style since the beginning of Parisian haute couture fashion in the late 19th century. Wisconsin Women of Style, on exhibit January 14 through March 29, at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, showcases the most spectacular and historically significant garments and gowns from the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Mount Mary University Historic Costume Collection. The exhibition tells the story of both the dresses, rarely displayed due to their fragile nature, and the women who wore them.

The Hollywood red evening gown worn by Mrs. Charlotte Kohler, wife of Governor Walter J. Kohler Jr., to President Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration ball made by Irene, a former designer for MGM movie studios (photo courtesy of Mount Mary University Historic Costume Collection)
One of the highlights of the exhibition is a lush, purple silk-and-satin velvet gown, with a nine-foot train (shown at top left), designed by Charles Frederick Worth, the father of haute couture in Paris, France. He created the gown for Mrs. Frances Fairchild, the wife of Civil War general and Wisconsin governor Lucius Fairchild, for her presentation to the King and Queen of Spain in 1880. Worth was the first male clothing designer to rise to pre-eminence, setting a precedent that made the future careers of other designers like Yves St. Laurent and Christian Dior possible in the 20th century.

Garments Rich in Detail and History

All of the garments on display are rich in detail and history. They include:

  • the blue and silver, almost science fiction-looking gown (top center) worn by Milwaukee socialite Lillian Sivyer (1879-1954) to the 1937 coronation of King George VI in London
  • the brocade-and-satin gown designed for Laura Chapman (top right), wealthy wife of department store founder Timothy A. Chapman, by Emile Pingat, one of the finest couturiers of late-19th-century fashion
  • and the Hollywood red evening gown (at right) worn by Mrs. Charlotte Kohler, wife of Governor Walter J. Kohler Jr., to President Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration ball — made by Irene, a former designer for MGM movie studios.

The Popularity of Fashion

While these dresses were worn by the affluent to the grandest of occasions, they resonate with wide audiences. "Fashion is popular because everyone can relate to clothing," explains Curator Leslie Bellais. "It's personal. People can visualize the dresses on their bodies and fantasize about wearing them to special events."

This March, while the Wisconsin Historical Museum's fashion exhibition is open, the Oscars will again commence and the red carpet will roll — not just for the stars — but for their outfits. Style, in Hollywood and here in Madison, will capture our imaginations and hearts. Visitors to the Wisconsin Historical Museum can feel the excitement of fashion, and our place in its history, at the exhibition, Wisconsin Women of Style.

If You Go

For complete details on the museum's hours, admission, location, accessibility, parking and bus routes, view our visitor information pages.

:: Posted January 9, 2014

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