As The Valentine prepares to reopen, we take a look inside their latest exhibit — which heads back to the 1920s to feature Richmond’s culture of the era, and local stars like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
As functions and businesses begin to open again, one of Richmond’s most iconic museums, known for their collection and preservation of the city’s culture, is re-opening. While visitors will have to make reservations to tour The Valentine’s array of exhibits, museum-goers will be able to visit a new exhibit available to the public on July 21st.
The new addition to The Valentine is named “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It contains antique outfits and collectables from the Roaring 20s, telling the story of Richmond’s rich culture, the history of legendary dancer and Richmond native Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the evolution of fashion through an exclusive collection of women’s dresses, children’s clothes, and menswear. Kristen Stewart, Fashion Historian and Curator of Custom Textiles at The Valentine, describes what you’ll find when you visit.
“The collection has a really complicated history,” Stewart said. “It was collected at a time when the museum was not the Richmond City history museum, but an encyclopedic museum. Concurrently along with the exhibition, [we] are executing a refinement project.”
During the exhibit’s preparation, Stewart has worked to determine what objects in the customer textiles collection have rich histories related to Richmond. The Valentine plans to care for, and highlight, these objects from the 1920s for perpetuity.
“There are about 40 dressed mannequins, and those are mostly women’s clothing,” Stewart said. “The vast majority is women’s clothing, with some children’s clothing and a handful of men’s sportswear. You’ll see examples of what women wore as ‘day wear,’ or casual wear. Active sportswear include bathing suits and knickers, which are really fun.”
The exhibit has an emphasis on what working women in the 20s were wearing. It includes a number of examples of swimwear and sportswear, then moves into a collection of professional women’s clothing.
“There was this huge influx of women, both graduating and completing higher tiers of degrees,” Stewart said. That influx of women into the workforce a century ago led to a whole new direction in women’s fashions.
“Then, of course, the show has to finish with what everyone is coming to see: 1920s evening wear, which is renowned and bright for its wonderful sparkle,” Stewart said.
The country was booming, and 1920s were a time when people celebrated, partied, and found fun wherever they could. Stewart emphasized the change in atmosphere that occurred due to impactful changes in society, along with the era’s new trends in fashion.
“The 1920s were a moment when recreational sports were a leisure activity on the rise,” Stewart said. “Consequently, you see a fashion story evolve alongside a social story.”
The exhibit’s title comes from a song of the same name, written in the late 20s and made popular by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Born in Richmond, Robinson was one of the most groundbreaking actors and dancers of his time. He pursued a career in acting, and broke social norms as one of the first African-American artists to perform alone on stage. At the time, black men never performed by themselves; only white men were allowed to be the “star” of the show.
“There was this pleasure of a liberated lifestyle, and some fear and anxiety of the consequential political oppression in response to this liberation,” said Stewart. “The lyrics to ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,’ to me, beautifully reflect this tension. It’s a really jazzy score that makes you want to misbehave, but the words are speaking the opposite, like ‘saving my love for you,’ and staying true.”
While most of the collection’s garments come from generous donations and The Valentine’s own curation, Stewart notes that a few items will be missing from the museum — unless the community has outfits of their own to offer.
“We do not have any outfits related to Bill Robinson,” Stewart said. “[It’s] an honest reflection of the fact that we don’t have more material relating to his life. We, frankly, don’t have any actual women’s garments worn by black women in the 20s from Richmond. As a fashion historian, that’s just pure heartbreak, isn’t it?”
As a historical museum, The Valentine recognizes that the lack of preserved historical garments comes from racial segregation during the era.
“Even though The Valentine was desegregated, in terms of audience, from the beginning, there was this hesitance,” Stewart said. “There wasn’t the same line of communication that you would have if you weren’t facing, and operating in, a segregated society. In the 30s and 40s, we missed the opportunity to collect these clothes.”
Stewart explained that The Valentine has acknowledged these missing items in the exhibition, and hopes that the Richmond community can step in to donate clothing they may have from the 20s.
“We will have silhouetted figures that acknowledge what’s missing,” Stewart said. “[They] serve as an invitation to black families living in Richmond, who maybe had a great-grandmother from the 20s, who have captured and preserved that time in history through clothing.”
The 1920s brought historical moments of monumental change to the country, and allowed Americans new freedoms they had not had in the past. With many of the same issues alive in Richmond in today’s world, Stewart notes the parallels between the show and Black Lives Matter protests.
“It is like a mirror. It feels like the show provides us an opportunity to acknowledge that there have been moments of weakness,” Stewart said. “Young people, in some ways, see more clearly than those who are older than them. [They] certainly are looking at the future with a more clear-eyed vision than their parents are. The youth element that we see on the streets today may see itself reflected in the mirror in this show.”
Overall, Stewart hopes that the new exhibit will not only commemorate that time in history, but share information to teach about societal differences and educate through the use of clothing.
“There is some inspiring content,” Stewart said. “We’re inspired by what women were achieving, inspired by what — in spite of segregation — black Richmonders were giving. [We’re] inspired by how Richmond was embracing this rapid pace of change in the beginning of the 20th century… and sobered by some of the dark lessons of that time.”
As The Valentine gears up to open its doors again after the pandemic’s initial closures, Stewart is pleased to see “Ain’t Misbehavin’” be the exhibit to kick it off.
“The reason I’m so glad this is the show we’re opening with is that it recognizes all the tension, pain, and anguish of that period,” Stewart said. “It is also extraordinarily playful, and incredibly fun, because it’s driven by usefulness. It’s recognizing a decade that we refer to as the Roaring 20s. That’s not because people were sitting around twiddling their thumbs — they were having a good time.”
To learn more about the exhibit, check out “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at The Valentine’s website. Admission to the Valentine is free this summer, but tickets for self-guided tours must be reserved in advance, due to social distancing protocols.
Top Photo courtesy The Valentine