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Crimes & Fashion

Armstead, C., and Evans-Thomas, P. (October 3, 2019-November 21, 2019). Crimes and Fashion: Clothing to Die For. Presidents Gallery, Simmons Visual Arts Center, Brenau University, Gainesville, Georgia.


Murder mysteries are a perennial favorite, and why not? At the beginning of every new story we can delight in meeting our favorite detective(s) again and solving a mystery with them. The slow build and burn of the story captures our imagination just as the twisting plot spikes our adrenaline and pulls us through to the end.


Beginning with Wilkie Collins’ seminal 1868 detective novel The Moonstone and continuing through Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels (written 2005-2013), this fashion exhibit explores over 150 years of murder mystery fiction, bringing characters to life using clothing from the Brenau University Historic Clothing Collection.  For this exhibit, we styled fictional characters in clothing suitable to their time periods, personalities, socioeconomic status, and physical characteristics. The clothing and objects shown in the exhibit span the 1840s through the 1960s.


Descriptions of dress and appearance for mystery characters vary in their level of detail.  In some cases, the exhibit curators were guided by illustrations from the fiction we selected (as in the cases of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and Clue); in others, the curators had significant leeway in the interpretation of the characters’ dress (Sherlock Holmes’ clothing, for instance, is almost never described in the stories).  Some characters span decades: Nancy Drew, always portrayed as either 16 or 18 years old, solved mysteries from 1930 until 1979 -- nearly fifty years of fashion shown in the covers and illustrations of the novels, as her style changed over time to keep pace with fashion trends and remain relevant to young readers.


Historic clothing collections, in and of themselves, contain mystery.  To whom did these clothes belong? How were they worn? Where did they come from?  How old are they? Close examination of extant garments provide clues. Here the elbows are worn out, indicating that it was frequently worn; there the measurements of a formal dress indicate that it was worn by a young lady in high school.  We might find a tuxedo in a trunk, carefully preserved alongside baby clothes and a pair of dainty satin evening shoes, indicating sentimental value. A hem has been taken up to keep the garment in style; a side seam has been let out as the owner gained weight.  Silhouettes, fabrics, modifications to garments -- all of these things offer clues about the wearer’s identity, the value placed on the garment, and how the garment was used. Sometimes the donors of garments give us clues; mostly, the objects we collect remain shrouded in mystery.


We invite you to enjoy this broad selection of objects from the Brenau University Historic Clothing Collection, which consists of over 6000 objects donated to the university for preservation, exhibition, and study.

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