What We Wore: Dressing Well at UNL

Monday, March 25, 2019 to Friday, May 10, 2019

The Department of Textiles, Merchandising & Fashion Design joins the N150 celebrations of the university's past and future with a special exhibition in the Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery. Titled “What We Wore: Dressing Well at UNL” and curated by Dr. Mary Alice Casto, Assistant Professor in TMFD, the display of select garments and accessories from TMFD's Historic Costume Collection is on view now through May 10.

On February 15, 1869 the University of Nebraska was officially chartered as a part of the Morrill Act, thereby creating a university to provide a “liberal and practical education” to all its citizens, including women. In reality, women were often an unwelcomed minority. They were accused of betraying their sex, assuming masculine roles, and abandoning their sacred duties in the home. Despite criticism and skepticism about the notion of coeducation, women’s enrollment in American universities like UNL grew steadily from 21% in 1870 to almost half (47.3%) of all college students by 1920 (Newcomer,1959). Gradually, American attitudes towards women’s college attendance shifted so that, as historian Barbara Solomon (1985), notes, “By World War I college was a very important option to provide to a daughter in some [social] circles, and outside these circles, it was something to aspire to” (p. 77).

Early college women were scrutinized religiously for any perceived behavioral or appearance related infractions. They could be castigated both for appearing too masculine in their appearance as well as for being excessively fashionable. Early co-eds walked a fine line that allowed little room for personal expression through dress. After 1895, however, the pressure to maintain a decorous appearance and a discrete (almost invisible) profile on campus began to dissipate. While dressing appropriately was still essential, expectations were more in line with those for other young, unmarried women. The college “girl” had become a fun, healthy, intelligent, well-adjusted example of womanhood and by the 1920s she began to set her own appearance standards (Casto, 2002; Lowe, 2003).

This exhibition explores the experiences of women at this university through the lens of dress. Selected garments, dating from the 1870s though 1950s, along with relevant images and stories, provide a partial glimpse into women’s experience as students and faculty at the University of Nebraska. The collection features representative examples of college women’s dress and links them to key markers of women's standing in the history of the institution. From Alice Frost, the first woman graduate, to Louise Pound and her advocacy of athletics for women, to Grace Margaret Morton and “The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance”, her defining textbook widely used across the nation in Home Economics education, women, both faculty and students, have played an important role in the history of the University of Nebraska.

The Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery hosts a diverse roster of exhibitions throughout the year, including shows of graduate and undergraduate student work and exhibitions drawn from the department’s historic costume and historic textiles collections, numbering over 5000 objects. The gallery is located on the second floor of the Human Sciences Building on east campus, at 1650 N. 35th Street, part of the East Campus Loop (map at http://go.unl.edu/j5v). Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday- Friday and by appointment. Admission is always free. Visitors may park in available visitor slots near the Human Sciences Building or in metered stalls located in the Nebraska East Union lot. For additional information, go to the gallery’s website at http://textilegallery.unl.edu or phone the TMFD office at 402-472-2911.

Sources: Casto, M. A. (unpublished thesis, 2002, Iowa State University) College Women’s Involvement in Dress and Their Relationship to Images of Themselves, including that of the “New Woman,” 1895- 1920; Lowe, M. (2003), Looking Good: College Women and Body Image, 1875-1930; Newcomer, M. (1959), A Century of Higher Education for American Women; Solomon, B. (1985), In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America.

Image: Courtesy of UNL Libraries Special Collections and Archives. Taken in fron of what is now Architecture Hall, ca. 1900. Color inset photo by TMFD student Alison Cloet.
Installation view.
Installation view.