Fashionista’s Must See: Chic Chicago at the Chicago History Museum

November 4, 2008 • Fashion


Last week I had the great pleasure of taking a tour of Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum with Curator of Costume Tim Long. He had a lot to tell us (I was with the FGI group), and he apologized for being long winded, but no one wanted him to stop talking! 

Long imparted us with a wealth of information about the whirlwind start of this traveling exhibit, its first move to FIT in New York and the painstaking and tedious work that went into producing it. He explained how they had to carefully move and display these fragile archival pieces, how they had to build the proper mannequins for the various designs, being that body types, fashion and undergarments change through the years. He told us stories behind the designers, the pieces, and the women who wore them. Tim Long’s passion for fashion, history and for this exhibit is contagious. Luckily, you can find out all the details on this exhibit at and also get to hear what Tim has to say on the Chicago History Museum blog which he updates every few days. 

This exhibit displayed 50 designs at FIT, and it has been edited and expanded to increase the number of different designers to 62 looks that we can see at the Chicago History Museum. Some of the garments were so fragile they could not be displayed, but good news, they were able to photograph them for a catalog that includes these pieces 96 others. The catalog is available at the museum or online for $29.

Madeleine Vionnet gown for Mrs. Potter Palmer II, 1938

Tim gave us the criteria for each of the pieces displayed in Chic Chicago.

1. It needed to be significant in fashion history, being the earliest example, such as the YSL trapeze. 

2. The piece had to be worn by a Chicago woman, and we should be able to learn about Chicago history from the piece. 

3. The piece had to be something that could go up on display with little repair. He explained that a museum piece could take up to a year to restore. There was not enough time in this case.

Historically people did not think of Chicago as a fashion town, but as a gritty, industrial, meatpacking city. So why do we have one of the most extensive collections of significant fashion right here in Chicago? Tim’s theory is that Chicago woman had the negative connotations of the city preceding her, so she had to make sure that she was fashionable! 

Paul Poiret design for Miss Anita Blair, 1913.
This is the first couture dress designed for an uncorseted figure.

There were so many interesting tidbits, that you really need to see this exhibit for yourself. Such as the $160,000 (price in 1883!) Charles Frederick Worth couture gown made for a 19 year old! Or the Paul Poiret dress that I have seen in countless photos and illustrations…right before my eyes! It was like seeing the Mona Lisa. And I loved the comparison of a 1950’s Dior floral Dress and its Marshal Field’s knock-off, displayed side by side. The copy dresses would be made the following year, so that would be "last year’s print" (an unhip) to the fashion maven.

All of the women on the tour had their favorites picked out that we said we would be able to wear today. I still can’t decide between the Chanel metallic knit flapper or the bright coral asymmetrical silk jersey Halston… I guess I’ll just have to go back and look at them again! 

Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum
Through July 26, 2009

Chicago History Museum
1601 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60614

Photos: Chicago History Museum

— Carol Calacci

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