The layperson, coming upon the garment in the magical kingdom that is The Valentine’s costumes and textiles collection, sees only a dress.
A lovely dress, to be sure. Simple. Slipped over the head, white, cotton, with an empire waist and puff sleeves. A drawstring tightens the neckline, gathering the material just so. It has a train so it probably isn’t some summer shift worn by a barefoot beauty of the early 19th century. It could have been a wedding dress, though who knows because the layperson also mistook a coronet as a crown for very tiny people.
But such are the perils of allowing the uninitiated backstage for a peek at a new exhibition by a new curator, who begins with a fundamental truth: A dress is never simply a dress.
It is a symbol. It is a story. And in this upcoming exhibition, called “Classical Allure,” it is a chapter in the story of old republics and new, of Greek and Roman mythology and history, of art and rebellion and the ways in which women have deferred to and defied masculine ideals of femininity.
As all stories do, this one requires a storyteller. Officially, Kristen Stewart is the Valentine’s Nathalie L. Klaus curator of costumes and textiles. A fashion and textiles scholar, Stewart is a native of Richmond who most recently worked as a curatorial assistant in San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums. Before that, she was in collections at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The curator job was long vacant when Stewart, 39, took over in September. She immediately plunged into preparing an exhibit. Tables are piled with fashion illustrations and photographs in the crowded workspace outside the climate-controlled room that houses the 40,000-object costumes and textile collection.
Four of 14 mannequins donated from the Metropolitan Museum’s recent Alexander McQueen show stand together, a statuesque gang awaiting its finery. On their way to Richmond are four more mannequins, designed by the Kyoto Costume Institute and prized because they’re molded to reflect the ideal body shapes of each century.
“They just made it through Customs at JFK,” Stewart says. “It was quite a thing to get them here because apparently a big box that says ‘18th-century body’ coming in from Japan has a tough time.”
Stewart knew she wanted to use her first exhibition to explore Greek and Roman influences on Richmond fashion. Such influences are evident in the city’s architecture and in the philosophy that shaped the Virginians who shaped the republic.
She found her inspiration in Virginia’s official seal. It bears the images of four Roman goddesses: Virtus (virtue, honor) on the front, and on the back Aeternitas (eternity), Libertas (liberty) and Ceres (agriculture, fecundity).
When the exhibit opens next month, the galleries will offer a dialogue in classical garments carried out by women in Richmond from 1798 to 2015.
Libertas will look at the way in which clothing celebrated freedom of the body. Some pieces both reflect a time of “rising civic interest in human liberty” and expose its hypocrisy, Stewart says. Liberty meant liberty for property-owning white men.
The gallery devoted to Virtus and Ceres explores the tensions of “strength versus beauty,” she says, and juxtaposes ideals of virtue and fecundity. Let us recall for a moment the quest of a former attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, to cover Virtus’ exposed left breast with armor.
And finally, there is Aeternitas, timeless ideals in beauty most often evoked in the draped form, Stewart says.
“Draping and pleating a piece of cloth on the human being is the first form of the use of cloth because cloth was so valued you wouldn’t dare cut it,” she says. “You had to pick it or pluck it or cut it off a creature. You have to card it, comb it, dye it, weave it. By the time you are done, it is a precious, precious thing.”
And where does the simple white cotton dress fit in with the story? It came from Paris and was worn in Richmond by Ann Barraud Taylor Preston, the wife of Virginia Gov. James Patton Preston, who served in the early 1800s. Over time, its loose silhouette will evolve, becoming more structured. But in 1810, it was an evening gown of Libertas, unbound and clad in the fine muslin of India.
“Classical Allure: Richmond Style” opens May 3 and runs through Jan. 31 at The Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St. For more information call 649-0711 or visit thevalentine.org.