The Valentine's latest exhibit remembers the stores that once kept the city bustling. 

Downtown's Halcyon Days

In "The Ladies Who Lunch," a biting showstopper in the 1970 Sondheim musical "Company," Elaine Stritch asked in her rumbling, whiskey-voice: "Does anyone still wear a hat?"

The Valentine Richmond History Center recently opened an ambitious and pitch-perfect new exhibition, "Fashion Stores of the South: Thalhimers, Miller & Rhoads, and Montaldo's." Upon visiting it, one would think that Richmond ladies, from the 1920s until, well, the '70s, built their worlds around hats.

Among the eyepopping fashions in the comprehensive show are 30 chapeaux, most from the museum's nationally impressive costume and textile collection. These hats range from an elegant, feathery black number by designer Hattie Carnegie to a fezlike chapeau based on a portrait of Pocahontas dressed in 17th-century British garb. The latter was created in 1957 on the occasion of Jamestown's 350th anniversary. It was part of a hat line introduced that year and titled "Magnificent Heritage" by Sara Sue Sherill. The local milliner whipped up creations for Miller & Rhoads from the 1930s until her death in 1973.

But the hats on display are emblematic of something larger: They were the flamboyant icing on the cake of a time when Virginians dressed, really dressed to shop downtown. And they really dressed because shopping downtown was what ladies did.

Whether one commuted from Ginter Park or Westhampton, or motored up from such Southside tobacco towns as Lawrenceville, Blackstone or Alberta, for many women, spending their days downtown was a major part of one's existence.

For most of the 20th century, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers department stores faced off across Sixth Street and filled the greater part of two city blocks stretching from Fifth to Seventh. Shoppers darted back and forth, comparative shopping and often lunching at the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room. This fifth-floor dining room was famous for its fashion models who twisted gracefully up and down the central runway accompanied by the sprightly tunes performed by Richmond organist Eddie Weaver.

The more understated Thalhimers' Richmond Room was equally popular. (While men were welcomed at these luncheon spots, they usually ate in separate dining rooms.)

In addition to everyday wear and high fashion, these emporia also sold sundries, furniture, books and baked goods. The department stores both fit and manifested a lifestyle: One could have her hair done and make reservations for an ocean cruise.

In the shadow of the two big department stores were a number of smaller fashion stores and haberdasheries. Montaldo's, a women's boutique at Fifth and Grace, was the chicest.

For this examination of bygone attitudes and lifestyles, curator and exhibition designer Colleen R. Callahan (who oversees the History Center's extensive costume and textile collection) could have veered in a number of sociological, historical or commercial directions. But, wisely, she let high fashion guide her.

In large, glass-enclosed showcases, she presents one knockout ensemble after another — from day dresses to a wedding gown. There is a sleek, floral silk chemise that Grace Coolidge might have liked. Or a poofy-skirted, brown silk, black-satin-striped 1952 cocktail dress that Mamie Eisenhower could have worn.

But what makes this exhibition so evocatively Richmond is that this is not the Smithsonian's hall of First Ladies' gowns; all of the clothes on display were purchased and worn locally. To read the exhibition labels closely and find the names of the donors or the ladies who wore these dresses, is to scan a social "who's who" of midcentury Richmond: Blanton, Bryan, Hyde, Klaus, Rennolds and Thalhimer.

What makes the exhibition such a visually dynamic experience is that curator Callahan has an eye for strong line, understated design, exquisite workmanship and variety of texture and color.

Each outfit reads to the back row, as they say in showbiz. Each is efficiently displayed on a mannequin (space is always a premium at the History Center), but nothing is crowded. Somehow Callahan and her lighting and installation collaborator Ken Myers manage to get Oleg Cassini, Pierre Cardin, Malcolm Starr and Christian Dior creations to coexist in one, modest-sized case.

The clothes get center stage, while supporting graphic material — dozens of mostly black-and-white photographs of store promotions, fashion shows, exterior building shots and advertisements — are presented in a secondary manner. This approach creates two parallel experiences. One can approach the exhibit on an aesthetic level, savoring the fashions — a colorful array of hats and shoes, as well as a number of men's and children's outfits. Or, one can read the walls for a close-up examination of a wealth of archival material.

A particularly evocative photo shows the intersection of Sixth and Grace during the Depression-era 1930s. Men and women all are quite dressed up. And almost everyone in the street scene wears a hat.

What happened to fashion? What happened to this lifestyle? What happened to these now-defunct stores?

By the '70s, blue jeans, T-shirts and casual jogging attire were OK for women and girls. Synthetics were the rage. The baby-boomer-generation women went to work. They didn't have days free to shop the upscale couturier Virginia Room or French Room, or the European-like Montaldo's.

"Fashion Stores of the South" is like visiting Brigadoon. Did it, could it, really have ever been like this?

During the holidays, baby boomers, now in their 40s and 50s and too old to sit on "legendary" Santa's knee, should give their mothers a present: Take them downtown. While the grand department stores are gone, they can still pass under the Miller & Rhoads clock (on permanent display at the museum), descend the steps to the exhibit, and be transported back in time. They will hoot at a display that includes two mannequins seated in the familiar Tea Room Chippendale chairs, at a linen-covered table set with the distinctive dogwood china. The Valentine's rearview mirror look at the ladies who lunched and shopped downtown is brilliant because it lets the handsome clothes shine.

Performing-arts troupes present holiday crowd-pleasers at this time of the year, but it's the History Center that has the makings of a long-running hit.


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