The Shape of Fashion

September 22, 2017, through June 3, 2018

Adore it? Or wouldn’t be caught dead in it?

For centuries women have squeezed, padded, and puffed up their bodies to fit different shapes, or silhouettes, that were fashionable. From massive sleeves to enormous backsides; from wide bell-shaped skirts to straight-and-narrow shifts—the look of the moment has always been in flux, changing along with societal roles and norms.

The Shape of Fashion explores how these fashionable silhouettes changed over time, particularly in women’s clothing, by introducing visitors to 10 very different “looks” from the 1800s and 1900s. The lobby exhibit features more than a dozen period garments that were once worn by North Carolina women, men, and children, as well as many photographs of additional pieces in the museum collection.

Looks include:

Your Own Personal Greek Statue

The Column Look (late-1790s–mid-1820s)

Dress, early- to mid-1820s, worn by Phoebe Caroline Jones Patterson (1806–1869), of Caldwell County.

Ring My Belles

The Bell Skirt, or Crinoline, Look (late-1840s–mid-1860s)

Dress, late-1850s–early-1860s, worn by Mary Eliza Battle Dancy (1829–1905), of Edgecombe County.

I Like Big Backsides

The Bustle Look (late-1860s–late-1880s)

Dress, mid-1870s, worn by Nancy “Nannie” Grimes Haywood (1856–1908), of Raleigh.

Keep It Short and Straight

The Flapper Look (1920s)

Dress, mid-1920s, worn by a member of the Daniels family, of Raleigh.

After looking at the various styles, you may wonder . . .

  • How did anyone sit down while wearing a hoop skirt?
  • How did a woman walk in a bustle dress?
  • Exactly what did go under those dresses to give them such a distinctive shape?

Answers can be found in three museum-produced videos in which models demonstrate how particular looks were achieved, layer by layer, using modern reproduction undergarments and outfits that represent 1860, 1885, and 1900.

Visitors can also glimpse life in the past by perusing a wall of period photographs that feature North Carolinians wearing many of the looks explored in the exhibit. They can even picture themselves in the past by snapping photos at cut-out stations.