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Costume exhibition at the Chicago History Museum features American fashion in the 1930's and '40's
Installation view. Photo: Sean Su.

CHICAGO, IL.- The Chicago History Museum’s spring exhibition “​Silver Screen to Mainstream: American Fashion in the 1930s and ‘40s​,” on display Monday April 8, 2019, through January 21, 2020, explores how a glamorous new American style emerged from the harsh realities of a tumultuous era.

Thirty ensembles from the Museum’s permanent collection trace Hollywood’s influence on American fashion. These garments illustrate how a distinctive American style emerged from Hollywood during an era that was bookended by the financial crash of 1929 and the devastation of World War II.

“Through the dark days of the Great Depression, Hollywood costume design inspired an enthusiastic response from American women, which gave birth to a new wave of American style,” said Virginia Heaven, guest curator and associate professor of fashion design at Columbia College Chicago.

Ensembles on view, many for the first time ever, demonstrate the shift in influence from Paris to Hollywood. Haute couture from Paris is shown along with high-end custom-made attire from Chicago, New York and Hollywood. “Silver Screen to Mainstream” includes garments worn by Chicago women from Parisian designers such as Gabrielle Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and Valentina, and Hollywood costume designers Adrian, Irene, Howard Greer and Omar Kiam.

“The exhibition highlights that it was not only the wealthy that cared about their appearance,” said Heaven. “Even the thriftiest could emulate a Hollywood starlet.”

Examples of home-dressmaking, catalog purchased pieces and middle-class clothing demonstrate how fashion for the masses was defined by thrift and elevated by celebrity style. Garments, text and archival images​ ​demonstrate how the emergence of man-made textiles and the zipper, which debuted in Chicago, provided greater versatility at a lower cost for middle-class women, helping to fashion a new American style.

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