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Ins and Outs of Fashion

Museum mounts 'Bloomers to Bellbottoms' show with clothing, shoes, hats and accessories from its collection.


When Ventura County banker Achille Levy journeyed to Paris in 1882 to marry his sweetheart, Lucy, he made a purchase there: a black beaver skin top hat and a leather case to carry it in.

Levy is long dead, and now so is the bank he founded, but the hat and case are part of a curious exhibit at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, "From Bloomers to Bellbottoms: 100 Years of Fashion From the Museum's Collection." It will be open through Sept. 15.

The exhibit is a slice of fashion history culled from the nearly 1,000 items of clothing, shoes, hats and accessories the museum has collected since it opened in 1913. The bulk of it has been donated by docents and other local residents over the years.

"We have tons of underwear--boxes and boxes of it," said Kathy Henri, collections manager for the museum.

You'll see some of it hanging on the wall of the exhibit room: a pink corset from the 1930s and 1940s that laces up the front for a breathtaking fit, vintage camisoles and panties. A pair of turn-of-the-century lace-trimmed drawers most likely belonged to Mary Beatrice Bard, wife of Ventura County's Thomas Bard, who served as U.S. senator from California from 1900 to 1905.

Why the excess of underwear? Probably, says Henri, because 19th century women used to wear layers of the stuff: under vests, drawers, corsets, chemises, petticoats, bustles and stockings. They shed some layers, though, as they moved into the 20th century and adopted a more casual fashion attitude.

The exhibit provides a short rundown on fashion in the United States. Until the mid-1800s, most women sewed their own clothes or found a dressmaker to do it. Fashion was hardly trendy. By the early 1900s that changed as clothing became available through department stores and catalogs like Sears, Roebuck and Co.

During World War I, fashion took a simpler turn as women aided the war effort. Skirts rose, along with hair length. In the 1920s, the flapper years, curves went out as women went for a flat silhouette.

The 1930s brought the invention of the zipper, the backless evening gown, rayon, sports clothing and standardized clothing sizes. With World War II came pants for women. But postwar fashion trends took a more glamorous tack with women wearing full skirts cinched at the waist. Men's ties hit a new record--five inches wide.

With the 1960s came Nehru suits, love beads, leisure suits, hot pants and shocking fashions such as the topless bathing suit. Jeans began to grow in popularity, and the exhibit includes a pair of men's bell-bottom jeans from the 1960s. Polyester made a splash then too; check out the striped number from that era.

Most of the exhibit is older, some of it dating back to the 1850s. A black and wine-colored satin dress from the 1860s belonged to Mary Bard's mother. Her daughter, Elizabeth Bard, wore a satin and net gown for her 1913 wedding at the family mansion, Berylwood, which now serves as the Officer's Club at the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme.

A maroon-trimmed silver gown was worn at President Ulysses S. Grant's inaugural ball in 1892. It was altered later for the owner's daughter to wear at President William McKinley's inaugural ball in 1897.

Men's fashions are sparse. In fact, Henri is seeking donations of men's clothing from all time periods. But the exhibit does include a man's full-dress tuxedo, tailor-made in 1912, surrounded by wedding dresses from 1907 to 1941. Also exhibited are Navy uniforms from World War II.

A evening dress of gold netting holds an unusual distinction: It was worn in Egypt in 1923 during the splashy celebration that marked the opening of King Tutankhamen's tomb.

"We don't realize what a big deal that was," Henri said.

One of the newer items is an orange and green Indian sari, donated by venerable Ojai artist Beatrice Wood who took to wearing saris after a trip to India.

Interspersed with the clothing are photos taken by Neal Barr, a Ventura native who became a fashion photographer in New York City. He was a contributing photographer at "Harper's Bazaar" from 1966 to 1974 and some of his work is on the walls.

The exhibit isn't all clothes. There are beaded purses, parasols, a 1930s crocodile skin purse with attached claws. A bamboo cane, circa 1850, conceals a sword inside.

The shoes run the gamut--from men's 1890s black leather lace-up shoes to a pair of ladies' clear plastic 1950s Spring-o-lator mules, designed with an elastic band to keep the shoe from sliding off the foot.

Also on display are gloves, handkerchiefs, stockings made of silk and cotton, and a black wool bathing suit. About 20 hats are in the exhibit, including an 1880s white sunbonnet, along with some feathered creations of Venturan Grace Simpson, who whipped up three dozen of them as a hobby in the 1950s.


WHAT: "From Bloomers to Bellbottoms: 100 Years of Fashion From the Museum's Collection."

WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, through Sept. 15.

WHERE: Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura.

HOW MUCH: $3 for adults, children 16 and under free.

FYI: 653-0323.

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