Is there a distinctive Seattle style? I think not; then again, why are so many of us running around in black leggings and black ankle boots?
The new Museum of History & Industry exhibit, “Seattle Style: Fashion/Function,” opening May 4, presents its own answer to that question, with dozens of outfits on display ranging from grunge cardigans and Utilikilts to Fortuny silk gowns and sequined flapper dresses. Every garment in the exhibit tells a story; here are just a few of them.
This timeless, elegant gray wool coat, with its swingy full skirt and intricate details (satin-ribbon trim, velvet appliquéd diamonds), was made sometime between the 1960s and 1980s, but could happily be worn today. Its maker was Clara B. White, who arrived in Seattle in the 1920s and lived in the Central District. For 60 years she taught Sunday school at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a wing of the building is now named for her. A gifted seamstress, White made this unique coat for herself, with palpable care and pride; you can imagine it regally attending church on a wintry day.
The Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli opened her fashion house in the 1920s, quickly creating a reputation for her elegant and often surrealist designs. (One of her signature gowns, worn by the Duchess of Windsor, had a very large Salvador Dali lobster painted on the skirt.) This floaty 1937 Schiaparelli gown, which looks as if a flock of butterflies landed on it, was owned and worn by Seattleite Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff (1892-1994), whose talents extended far beyond her obvious love for fashion: The longtime president of the Seattle Historical Society (founded by her mother, Emily Carkeek), Plestcheeff led the effort to create MOHAI in 1952, and was a key figure in founding Seattle Art Museum’s Decorative Arts Council.
Frederick & Nelson is long gone from Seattle; the flagship Nordstrom store now occupies the building that Frederick’s (as it was called) occupied from 1918 to 1992. But for many years it was the most elegant department store in town, with a swanky “Designer Room” beloved by fashionable locals. This spring flower of a dress was purchased there around 1955; designed by Hollywood costume designer Irene, it was exclusive to Frederick & Nelson. The enormous yellow bow gives it a dramatic touch, contrasting nicely with the ethereal softness of the appliquéd floral print.
Unlike many of the garments in the exhibit, this down coat looks a bit grubby and worn — for good reason. Eddie Bauer, who opened his first downtown store in 1920 (specializing, then, in tennis equipment), was a devoted outdoorsman who developed hypothermia after a wet, cold expedition to the Olympic Peninsula in 1935. Wanting to create a better option than rain-soaked wool for Northwest hikers, he experimented with down and quilting to create this jacket — the oldest known sample of an Eddie Bauer down jacket. (Down and quilting had been used before, but not together.) This design, called “Skyliner,” was patented in 1940, inspiring countless puffy coats to this day.
“Seattle Style: Fashion/Function,” May 4-Oct. 14, Museum of History & Industry, 860 Terry Ave., Seattle; 206-324-1126, mohai.org