By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's hard to decide what is most striking about A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati's Golden Age, 1877-1922. Certainly the beautifully designed and tailored couture provides a delicious peek into a past dressed in silk, trained in satin and decorated with flocks of crystal beading.
Silk evening dress 1898-1901, made by Cincinnati dressmakers Mary Donegan and Katherine Willging
And, of course, there are the women of Cincinnati's turn-of-the-century upper crust. We see them as brides, as hostesses, matrons and vamps.
They wear whale bone corsets and bustles so big they defy ergonomics. Their wasp waists are wrapped in fabric brought back from Paris, and their bodices have been hand-embroidered in patterns inspired by the "mysterious" East.
But in the end it is the story of the women who made the dresses, that resonates most.
They were as extraordinary as the one-of-a-kind concoctions they whipped up from a room in their homes or within the inner sanctum of a dressmaker's salon.
They were (with one exception) working-class women, single by choice, entrepreneurial by spirit who made their way in the world on terms often on the far side of societal norms.
They were magnets for ne'er-do-well husbands looking for support, mothers who watched over their children while sewing seams or hand-sewing individual sequins. They were a class apart, social anomalies armed with skills equal to those of their Parisian counterparts.
Cynthia Amneus has done a superb job of creating a sensual experience that takes the viewer from the inner sanctum of an 1890 dressmaker's salon to the sturdy creations of Cincinnati's grand department stores.
IF YOU GO
What/When: A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati's Golden Age, 1877-1922 Tuesday-Jan. 4
John Bartlett: Dreaming in Darkness, Nov. 15-Feb. 1, Cincinnati Wing's rotating gallery
Wear It Well, Friday-Jan. 17, Closer Look Gallery
Museum hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday, closed Monday
Where: Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Eden Park
Information: 721-2787, Web site
"We begin with the rise of the Industrial Revolution - the beginning of this strict division between men's and women's work," she says.
This "work" required certain clothing, which communicated not only class but also moral superiority. The tight bodices and drapes of shirred skirts had to fit perfectly if a woman were to communicate her considerable means.
The designs - fashion plates - of the Paris couturiers and their luxurious fabrics were brought back to the states by enterprising dressmakers hoping to keep discriminating customers for the course of their lives.
Amneus follows fashion into the 20th century to the emergence of tea gowns popular with the middle class to the women's 1910 ready-to-wear market.
It is amusing to witness the changes in style - the poochy bellies of the Gibson Girls, the lingerie look of the flappers - and the lightening up not only of silhouettes but fabrics.
"Women begin working toward equal opportunity," says Amneus. "Things explode around 1910 and all restrictions (including those in clothing) drop away."
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