Friday, August 27, 2004

Design history closeted

College makes collection
accessible to students, researchers

By Jamie Stengle
The Associated Press

From Givenchy and de la Renta to Balenciaga and Chanel, a dazzling array of haute couture hangs in an unlikely place - a storage room at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Rarely seen by the public, the colorful collection of about 15,000 dresses, coats, suits, purses, shoes and more is housed in a climate-controlled room on campus at Scoular Hall, operated as an appointment-only research tool for designers, educators and students.

It's called the Texas Fashion Collection, and a walk down its aisles is a sweeping look back at more than two centuries of clothing design.

"We get a lot of our inspiration from the vintage detailing," said Susan Ingram, owner of Helena & Henry IV Co., a Dallas designer of high-end children's clothing. She was in the 1950s section, admiring the trim on the collar of a black dress while wearing protective white gloves.

"I could spend all day in here," she said. "It's a great kind of hidden jewel."

The collection, which includes pieces from unknown designers and private labels at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and other stores, primarily focuses on items from the late 19th and 20th centuries, dating to the 1820s. But a few pieces, including a child's dress of tan wool with dark brown velvet trim, are believed to have been made in the late 18th century.

There's a purple wedding gown from the 1880s, complete with a boned bodice and matching shoes with straight soles - meaning there was no differentiation between left and right.

And there's a dress and matching frock made of green peacock and golden pheasant feathers, from an unknown designer in 1976. A Balenciaga gown from 1966 is made of black velvet with a bustle trimmed with ermine tails.

In 1938, Stanley and Edward Marcus of Neiman Marcus began preserving the work top designers had done for the company. In the mid-1940s, the brothers dedicated the collection in honor of their aunt, fashion maven Carrie Marcus Neiman, one of the store's co-founders. The collection eventually became part of the Dallas Museum of Fashion, which was moved to the Denton campus in 1972.

Among the men's wear included is a charcoal gray wool suit worn by Stanley Marcus to the 1956 wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco and a 1960s jacket of black alligator, done by Paco Rabanne.

Access to the collection is limited because the school has no gallery space. The school also puts on occasional public exhibitions.

"We are here for our students," said Myra Walker, a professor of fashion history at the school and curator of the collection. "I think we do a good job of exposing them to the collection.

"There's a lot of ... creative energy that emanates from anything that's well designed," Walker said.

April Wilson, who will graduate this summer with a bachelor's degree in fashion design, said items displayed in her class helped make clear what the professor was talking about.

"When she brings it out you really can see the silhouette and construction details," Wilson said. "A lot of the dresses from the 1920s - you didn't see the flare or pleating in the pictures."

A few items were worn by famous people, including a black Givenchy suit worn by Audrey Hepburn in the movie Charade, but most of the pieces came from Texas women with extensive designer wardrobes or older people who make important finds as they clean out their closets.

"It's just amazing how much people have squirreled away," Walker said.

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