Given that Chicago isn't particularly known as one of the nation's most fashion-forward cities, you might be surprised to find out it is home to the world's second largest costume collection.
With over 50,000 costumes and textile artifacts dating from the mid-18th century to the present day, the Chicago History Museum’s costume collection is one of the nation’s most complete fashion repositories, second only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.
Last week, the Chicago History Museum launched its online Digital Collection, meaning you can check it out without even leaving your home! The collection features, to date, 1,382 high-resolution digital images representing nearly four hundred costumes, accessories, and fashion drawings, including all the costume materials exhibited in the museum’s Charles James, Dior, Bertha Palmer, Chic Chicago and I Do exhibitions.
The slideshow below highlights 14 of the most glamorous, iconic garments featured in the collection, which is made possible by the museum's Costume Council.
Revolutionary-era wedding dress, 1770-1775
This wedding dress was originally worn by the great-great-great-great-grandmother of the donor. The homespun linen lining of this gown was scraped into lint in 1776 and used to dress the wounds of soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/339/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Worth & Bobergh evening gown, 1861
Englishman Charles Frederick Worth and Swede Otto Bobergh founded Worth & Boberg in Paris in the fall of 1857 or 1858. In 1860, the business appeared in the local trade directory under "couturiers et nouveauts confectionnes" (designers and prepared novelties). By the 1870s, Bobergh was no longer involved with the company, and the solo House of Worth was well established as an arbiter of fashionable dress. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/265/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Charles Frederick Worth evening gown, 1884
Worth often worked directly with textile manufacturers to produce the best fabrics for his designs. The stripes in this fabric are alternating weaves of satin and cut velvet with a tiny floral pattern. The back of the skirt gives the appearance of gathered drapery, complete with tassels. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/272/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Paul Poiret "Sorbet" evening dress, 1913
The "Sorbet" evening dress designed by Paul Poiret is considered one of the most important pieces in twentieth-century fashion. Many believe it was the first haute couture dress designed to be worn without a corset. With that move, Paul Poiret broke the prevailing mode of cinching the female waist into an unnatural shape, a practice dating back to the Renaissance, and became known as the father of modern fashion. Today, only three examples of this dress exist, and the Museum's version is the only one that follows the original sketch featured in the 1913 Gazette du Bon Ton. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/321/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Nicole Groult dress with stole, 1926
Paul Poiret was not amused when his sister, Nicole Groult, became a fashion designer, bitterly calling her that woman "who used to be my sister." Although never Poiret's equal, Groult had a successful career in the 1920s, producing works including this embroidered flower and leaf design dress. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1312/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Fortuny "Delphos" dress, 1948
Mariano Fortuny is best known as the creator of the "Delphos" dress, which was styled after classical Grecian garments. Although it originated in 1907, Fortuny continued to produce versions of the popular "Delphos" until his death in 1949. Each Delphos dress came with instructions for protecting its fine pleats. Fortuny instructed the dress owner to twist the gown into a loose rope, coil it into a ball, and store the ball in the small box provided at purchase. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1414/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Dior evening gown, 1953
This dress, alongside others in the Chicago History Museum's collection, is a perfect example of the 'trickle down' effect of haute couture on mainstream fashion. This Christian Dior couture design, which would have required three laborious fittings, was subsequently translated into an affordable ready-to-wear dress and sold at a fraction of the cost. Popular fabrics and designs from haute couture collections were often picked up on by ready-to-wear designers in subsequent seasons. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/search/searchterm/i52053/order/title" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Charles James "Butterfly" gown, 1954
Charles James originally designed the "Butterfly" ball gown for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr., at a price of $1,250. The sculptural design lives up to a comment once made by Spanish couturier Cristbal Balenciaga: "Charles James is not only the greatest American couturier, but the world's best and only dressmaker, who has raised it from an applied art form to pure art form." <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/82/rec/1 " target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Scaasi wedding dress, 1958
Canadian-born fashion designer Arnold Isaacs is best known for dressing numerous American first ladies. Shortly after Isaacs got into fashion, he flipped the spelling of his last name to give it an "Italian air"--and Scaasi was born. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1058/rec/1 " target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Yves Saint Laurent "Nautical" dress, 1966
Donor Genevieve W. Urbain served as Vice President and Fashion Director of Marshall Field & Co. This dress was a signature piece in the launching of Yves Saint Laurent's nautical look, and was the most publicized garment of the collection. Ms. Urbain wore this dress while aboard the S.S. United States on her way to Paris to attend the couture shows in 1966. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1466/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Valentino "Black Panther" dress, 1967
It is no mere coincidence that Valentino printed this silk evening gown with black panthers in 1967. Social change never influenced fashion more than it did in the 1960s. The feminist, civil rights, and environmental movements of the 1960s, as well as the war in Vietnam, greatly affected clothing and style well into the 1970s. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1523/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Hanae Mori evening dress, 1974
This Hanae Mori evening dress of multicolored silk was worn by Mrs. William T. Ylvisaker, née Jane Mitchell, to Richard Nixon's second Inaugural Ball in 1973. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1502/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>. <br> <em><strong>CORRECTION: </strong>A previous version of this slide had an incorrect date on Nixon's second Inaugural Ball.</em>
Halston International dress, 1975
This dress is from the 1970s, the most successful decade of Halston's career. Its bias-cut and draped style fits perfectly with the glamour of the disco era. Roy Halston was born in Iowa and later moved to Chicago to attend to the School of the Art Institute. He opened a millinery studio in Chicago in the early 1950s, and later moved to New York to start his dressmaking career. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1263/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.
Comme des Garçons dress, 1996
This dress harkens back to Christian Dior's New Look silhouette, with its small waist and full, flaring skirt. Although one of the more conservative designs produced by Comme des Garçons, the label's creativity and penchant for surprise are found in the broken line at the top of the dress and the 'key-hole' in the back of the skirt. Mrs. Ronald Krueck, wife of a well-known Chicago architect, originally wore the dress to a party for John Szarkowski, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. <a href="http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16029coll3/id/1064/rec/1" target="_hplink">More information</a>.