Gussied up 

Dressing for success (and the ages) at Fort Missoula

It’s every little girl’s dream—discovering a worn wooden trunk brimming with lace dresses, leather gloves and shoes. In 1940, or thereabouts, then-little-girl Marjorie Rasmussen was playing ball with friends in an open lot off Cleveland Street in Missoula’s slant-street district. Rasmussen doesn’t quite remember what drew her attention to an abandoned shed nearby. A ball may have rolled off toward the building, she guesses. Whatever it was, the girls, distracted from their game, turned their attention to the shed, the roof of which was caved in just enough to expose an old trunk. When they lifted its lid they found treasures: a ball gown, leather shoes and long gloves, a petticoat and a cream-colored floor-length gown with lace and tassels.

“We thought it was so beautiful when we saw those things,” says Rasmussen, now 73. “We came running home.” The girls showed their parents, who sent them back to the landowner for permission to keep their finds. He gave it, but couldn’t tell them much about the trunk’s contents or the clothes’ original owners. Rasmussen kept the cream gown. She played dress-up in it. Once, as a high school student, she wore it for “Old Clothes Day.”

In 1984, Rasmussen donated the dress to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, where it’s now on display as part of the museum’s recently opened exhibit “Black and White—Forever Fashionable,” a collection of dresses, shoes and accessories from the museum’s permanent collection. The 11 gowns and various accessories, which offer a glimpse of dress styles in Montana from the 1880s through the 1930s, offer a glimpse into the daily lives of the “classy” women who wore them. The collection leaves just enough to the imagination.

Senior Curator L. Jane Richards credits Rasmussen for inspiring the exhibit.

“It was Marjorie’s fault,” Richards says. “She wanted me to show off her dress. She said she hadn’t seen it in a while.”

“Marjorie’s dress” is now a light beige—its fine cotton darkened over the years, Richards believes, from an original lighter cream. The swaths of linen, silk and velvet hanging in the museum’s display cases are—save one—variations on black or white. Off-whites and creams shimmer behind the glass. A shiny straw hat of a deep brown hue made the cut, says Richards, because the dye had faded from the original black.

Color was the only guideline the museum’s Browman Fellow, Kelsey Altenhofen, was given as she sorted through the collection. Altenhofen, a University of Montana archaeology student, spent two days looking through several hundred dresses to select those eventually prepared for display. The collection makes her eyes sparkle.

“It was just so fun to go through all the dresses and imagine the people who wore them, and imagine what they wore them to and why,” Altenhofen says.

Given its tassels and fine lace, Altenhofen and Richards surmise, “Marjorie’s dress” was once upon a time likely worn by a bride—but no one will ever know for sure. Another item, a white two-piece linen outfit trimmed with handmade lace, was worn for special occasions. It dates from 1900.

“They were homesteading,” Richards says, “and it’s the [dress] you would have worn to Saturday night supper, or Sunday church, or an afternoon picnic where you would dress up.”

An all-lace floor-length gown with a wide, pale pink ribbon woven through at the waistline was probably worn by a woman who didn’t have to work for a living.

“If you’re a working-class girl, you’re not going to be running around like this at night,” explains Richards. “You’re going to be cleaning, and you’re going to be doing all those things that we normally do. This person had a little bit more leisure, probably.”

One of Altenhofen’s favorite pieces is an off-white wedding dress. The hemline falls above the knee. Small pearls are woven into the fabric. The dress is from the 1920s, when mini-wedding dresses were en vogue. Altenhofen likes it simply because it’s stylish.

Over the half-century spanned in the display, hemlines rise and fall and buttons appear and disappear. But one thing about Montana women remains constant:

“There were some classy ladies here,” Altenhofen says. “Definitely some classy ladies with good taste.”

The classiest piece on display isn’t black or white—still, “forever fashionable” doesn’t seem a far-fetched description. In choosing items for the exhibit, Richards flouted the color code with one striking splash of red.

“You have to have some fun now and then, and that’s the fun piece,” she explains.

It’s a rich crimson gown, and it lends the exhibit a dramatic flair to offset the earthier tones of the other dresses. This dress, purchased in 1913 from the Butte Hennessy’s Store, is plush velvet and was worn at a reception and dance in Missoula. A pattern of leaves is cut into the material. The work is called cut velvet, or voided velvet.

“Whatever title it has, it’s never cheap,” Richards says.

The color also indicates that the woman who wore the dress had money. Typically, Richards says, women’s closets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries held just one fine dress, and usually it was black—appropriate for a funeral. If a woman was fortunate enough to own a second dress, it would likely be white—for summer. A red dress would have been a third—and, therefore, an extravagance.

“That [red] dress definitely denotes that she had money,” Richards says.

Some of the dresses are in delicate condition. Threads are worn and splitting. With silk, the condition is called “shattering,” explains Richards, who consulted a textile professional before preparing each dress for display. A dress is dry-cleaned just once—if at all—in its lifetime. Watermarks and stains are left alone, for the most part. While the curator agonizes over how best to tend to the gowns’ wrinkles and spots, these blemishes evoke a splendid sense of age-old mystery. The patches of sweat staining a wedding gown’s underarms make it clear that once a woman did wear it—that maybe she danced for hours on a warm summer evening.

A pair of tiny dress shoes with rough soles, too, tells a story. With just two fingers, Richards holds up the small, low-heeled black satin pumps with jet beads. They belonged to longtime Missoula resident Eunice Brown, known for throwing grand parties. Brown, who loved to dance, was once rumored to have traded a cow for a phonograph. When she died in 1997 at age 101, Brown’s last request was that people dance at her memorial service reception.

“They said she was a really classy lady,” says a museum volunteer.

A really tiny lady, too, to judge from the evidence at hand.

“She had to be,” seconds Richards, “because you know, I love these shoes but I couldn’t get my big toe in them.”

“What size do you suppose they are?” asks one of two museum volunteers peering into the display case.

Her colleague doesn’t know. But they’re small enough for her to suspect something about Brown’s itty-bitty feet: “I’ll bet she had corns.”

“Black and White—Forever Fashionable” is on display at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula’s Building 322 through March 16. Admission is $3 for the general public, $2 for seniors and $1 for students. The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

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