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Through the Ages 

A fascinating new exhibit at the Valentine breaks down fashion by how it advanced Richmond women.

click to enlarge Ensemble worn by Shirley P. Plotkin, circa 1955, and a day ensemble worn by Nathalie L. Klaus, 1972.

Jay Paul

Ensemble worn by Shirley P. Plotkin, circa 1955, and a day ensemble worn by Nathalie L. Klaus, 1972.

Three years before Grace Kelly's wedding dress sparked a bridal style trend, black Richmond dressmaker Delilah Cheatham designed a lace over-bodice wedding dress.

The frothy white confection of a dress from 1953 was created for the wedding of Joyce Hayes Melton because Melton, also black, was unable to buy her wedding dress at Miller and Rhoads or Thalhimer's.

At the time, blacks couldn't try on hats or higher end dresses at those stores so Melton's response was to become a patron of black dressmakers. Welcome to Richmond in the 1950s.

A fascinating new exhibition, "Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women," at the Valentine museum looks at the role of fashion in the creative, professional and social advancement of Richmond women using some truly impressive pieces of clothing.

While primarily comprised of millinery and clothes, the exhibit also displays artifacts relating to hometown fashion. Fashionistas who lived here in the '90s will instantly recognize the sign that once hung in the window of the hip Carytown women's boutique Pink, while even longer time residents can admire a fragment of decorative molding from Montaldo's, a bastion of style for generations of Richmond women.

Although the astonishing array of clothing on display will likely attract the eye of visitors first, the exhibit also resonates on a cultural level, explains curator Kristen Stewart.

"The fashion industry has always been one professional avenue open to women," she says, "not only as a source of income but as a path to true professional development."

The exhibition is broken down into three themes: the earlier side of Richmond's fashion history, Richmond-based and born designers, and Richmond women of style.

During the 1970s, Juanita Baker opened Nita's Tops and Bottoms because of a love of fashion and a need to support herself during an era when black-owned businesses were booming after marketplace desegregation. More recently, Richmond transplant and designer Laura Smith created her own company, Worse for Wear, in Scott's Addition, producing motorcycle wear for women. On display is a pair of jeans — available in slim or curvy cuts — designed to look stylish but minimize abrasion without the unattractive bulk of standard protective wear.

After training as a dressmaker in Germany, Otti Windmueller and her husband fled Europe in 1938 to escape persecution and she wound up at Richmond Polytechnic Institute, eventually becoming chairwoman of the department of fashion illustration and costume design.

"Her legacy to the department was an international point of view," Stewart says of the globally renowned designers Windmueller brought in to work with her students. "She was the first to take students abroad, which was unheard of at the time."

Daphne Style, the limited edition collection designed by Daphne Maxwell Reid, showcases Maxwell Reid's love of textiles, especially Chinese brocades. She designs her custom-made wearable art "toppers" as envelopes of color that float over the body. One particularly luxurious version features fur at the collar and cuffs thanks to a creative collaboration with Alan Furs' Dina Alan and a handmade frog closure designed by Virginia Commonwealth University adjunct professor Geneva Sessums.

When choosing the outfits for the Richmond women of style portion of the exhibit, Stewart discovered that the Valentine's collection of mid-20th century American women designers was unusually strong. She chose to organize the clothes by designer, acknowledging that some will be less well known to visitors, so she supplements the clothing with signs explaining why women chose particular designers.

"That case is my exercise in trying to understand why there's this strength in the collection and why these women donated these things to us," Stewart explains.

In the end, "Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women" is an exhibition that can be appreciated on cultural, economic and historic levels. "This is a very high-fashion exhibit," Stewart says with obvious pleasure. "It wouldn't be interesting to do that all the time in the context of the Valentine, but I'm certainly enjoying it."

"Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women" through Jan. 27 at the Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St., thevalentine.org.

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