Like the garments they’ve made and worn, the relationship between women and fashion is deeply interwoven with the history of Richmond. A new exhibit at The Valentine Museum, “Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women,” explores the individual stories of these designers and the women who wore their clothing.
The exhibition contains garments from the 19th century to the current day. Speaking to Kristen Stewart, curator of the exhibit, RVA Magazine got a behind the scenes look at some of the fashions worn in Richmond through the years and how women have shaped and evolved that industry.
“In Richmond and elsewhere, milliners and dressmakers were one of the first woman to serve as independent business owners and entrepreneurs,” Stewart said. She learned this from reviewing archival copies of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond Inquirer and reading the classifieds.
Stewart said the women used the language of entrepreneurship in their ads, presenting themselves as experts, rather than in the “subservient language that we often see with people presenting themselves as a service provider. They’re making themselves the sought after quantity.”
One of the women featured in the exhibit, Sarah Sue, was a prominent Richmond milliner, who created some of the most vibrant and creative hats from silk, straw, flowers, lace, and ribbon inspired by her trips abroad. Sue worked for the largest department store in the south, Miller & Rhoads, from the early 1930s until her retirement in 1973. Stewart described her as a world traveler, adding that she would “justify that travel as inspiration and pull her themes from her experiences.”
Among the exhibits is Sue’s hat collection, “The American West: Land of Enchantment”, released in the fall of 1970. The hats in this collection capitalized on a growing interest in world fashion, bringing new elements to American hat design.
The interest in world fashion turned Richmond into a melting pot of various influences from far away and close to home. Contemporary designer Carter Johnston, who launched Grove Avenue women’s clothing boutique CCH Collection in 2012 with her sister Alston Daigh, took her inspiration from the women closest to her.
Stewart said that Johnston’s pieces “were inspired by the style [of her] family members,” adding, “CCH Collection was actually named after her grandmother Catherine Claybourne Hall.”
In comparison, designer Ottie Windmueller took inspiration from far off lands and shared that love of travel with future generations of designers. Windmueller served as chairwoman of VCU’s department of Fashion Illustration and Costume design, now The Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising, from 1965 to 1976. Stewart said, “Her main innovation was the practice of traveling with design students, taking them to Europe and New York for inspiration. She’d also bring in talent from those places to come in and speak to students,” something that was highly unusual but now is standard practice. Windmueller was a world traveler and a refugee from Germany during World War II, something that Stewart thought inspired her unusual approach as a professor.
Western interest in foreign designs also benefited foreign designer, Stewart said, pointing to Hanae Mori. Stewart described her as “one of the earliest Japanese designers to work in the Persian tradition selling to a western market.” In 1965, Mori presented her first collection in New York titled ”East meets West”; in 1975, she showed her collection in Paris.
In many circumstances, women’s skills transcended their race and social status. Franny Criss was one of these success stories, according to Stewart. “Franny Criss was an African American dressmaker who grew up in Richmond. She started as a seamstress who traveled home to home, as many did,” Stewart said, before she became successful enough to open a business on Leigh St.
Criss’s fame grew quickly, and she worked with high-end clients white and black. Stewart ascribed her success to the wealth she built in Richmond, which even let her purchase a townhouse in Harlem near Madam C.J. Walker, the first millionairesses in America.
Throughout the whole exhibit, pieces showcasing the journey and achievements of Richmond fashion designers and wearers are on display. One garment in particular, an Anne Klein skirt suit, speaks to the contemporary age of female leaders and entrepreneurs. Stewart said it was on short-term loan from Dress for Success Central Virginia, a program that helps local women with professional clothing to improve their position. After the show, it will be returned to the nonprofit for the women they help, Stewart said. “We are very excited to have a physical representation of that mission and we feel that that mission fits the narrative of the show very well,” she added.
The design and organization of the show are remarkable in showcasing significant garments from the past and present. It is easy to get lost in the fantasy of how these innovative women worked to make the fashion scene both in Richmond and internationally what it is today. The work of Sarah Sue, Ottie Windmueller, Franny Criss, and many others can be seen at the “Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women” exhibit now until it closes on January 27th, 2019.
Cover image courtesy Fabric Department in St. Luke’s Emporium, 1905 Graphic reproduction, V.88.20.22, Independent Order of St. Luke Collection.
Other photos courtesy Jay Paul/Richmond magazine.