It is possible that one of the more telling narratives of women’s lives in 20th-century America is housed in 50 metal storage lockers in a basement room in the theater department of a women’s college in Northampton, Mass. There, an anthropological road map traces the story from Gibson girls to the Western Front to the Dust Bowl to bringing home the bacon and onward.
To reach it, you descend a flight of stairs and pass through a cinder block corridor into a windowless space that is home to the unofficial Smith College Historic Clothing Collection: 3,000 dresses, suits, shoes, bags and accessories. They are crammed among costume racks and cardboard boxes, jammed together on padded hangers, stacked on shelves and squirreled away in any available nook and cranny.
Though the collection includes some designer names (Claire McCardell, Mary Quant) and some garments that belonged to famous people (Sylvia Plath’s Girl Scout uniform), the majority have unknown origins and may be stained, torn, mended and otherwise flawed in some way that reflects the exigencies of real life: families, responsibility, hardship.
They are the kinds of garments generally overlooked or dismissed by museums and collectors of dress, who tend to focus on fashion as an expression of elitism, artistry, aspiration.