The garments on display will be divided into three categories — work, style and politics — but visitors can expect the lines to be blurred. “Being able to imagine the full-bodied experience of history is one of the wonderful things that studying fashion allows us to do,” said Haller. Fashion is inextricably linked with women’s history, she explained, having been used to make a political or social statement from the early days of the suffragette movement to the 1960s counter-culture.
“One of the things that I really wanted to highlight is that politics is more than just
formal politics,” explained Haller, and to broaden the lens of what most visitors might consider political. One such example is a 1968 paper dress given out as part of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. The eye-catching youthful pop art “confounds what people think about Nixon and shows that young women were excited about this candidacy,” while also giving a glimpse of the era’s young conservative movement. “We have a certain view of the 1960s as so liberal, so the conservative movement of the ’80s seems like it came out of nowhere,” she said. The paper dress is an example of how fashion provides greater historical context.
For the contemporary end of the collection, State Sen. Harriette Chandler loaned the white pantsuit she wore when she signed An Act Negating Archaic Statutes Targeting Young Women, or the NASTY Women Act in July 2018 that repealed 19th-century laws restricting access to abortion. The white pantsuit links back to the white clothing worn during the suffrage movement, said Haller, so women politicians will often wear white to commemorate that progress on special occasions such as this.
While the project has been in the works since July 2018, Haller was brought on board about a year ago, and spearheaded the effort to expand on the museum’s already massive collection and reflect the diversity of Worcester’s history. As an industry, she said, fashion tends to be overwhelmingly white, and this carries over to when museums spotlight fashion. Covering a full century up to the present day was part of the vision from the beginning and one of the real strengths of the exhibit. The range of outfits can outline how modern garments are referencing the past and changing silhouettes and style over time.
Upon joining the project, one of Haller’s first goals was to promote outreach to different groups within Worcester to donate a greater variety of garments. “I specifically wanted to reflect the centrality of immigrants to our city,” she said. Worcester is home to a large Ghanaian community so any collection showcasing the city of Worcester’s clothing range would not be complete unless they were represented as well. The WHM reached out to local dressmaker Effie Danquah of Danquah’s House of Fashion, who provided a traditional Ghanaian wedding dress. Kim Toney, whose background includes both Native Americans of the Nipmuc tribe as well as African American, also contributed beaded earrings she makes that connect to her Nipmuc ancestors.
Dressing the mannequins was an intensive job in itself and took about 80 hours. Of the 15 designers credited with producing items in the exhibit, seven are women and six of them have long-term connections to Worcester.
Haller was not the only one actively working to ensure the exhibit had a greater degree of diversity on display. Jade Nortey, Worcester native and grad student in Public Health at Boston University, painted the mural serving as the backdrop to one of the exhibit sections. The mural portrays multiple women wearing a similar outfit, but different in every other way.
“The goal really was to be representative of the women important in my life,” said Nortey. “When you flip through magazines and look at TV and media, there’s usually one idea of what a woman is like in terms of what she looks like or how she behaves.” To counter this, Nortey ensured that a variety of hair styles and skin tones could be seen to diversify the women, yet all wearing the same dress based on a garment in the exhibit. Nortey was on an exceedingly tight schedule — the mural was started at the beginning of August, and was completed later that month in the span of two to three weeks.
The inclusion of minorities and attention to diversity is key not only to accurately portray Worcester’s melting pot culture, but also because minorities were specifically excluded when the 19th amendment was first ratified. “We often think that women got the right to vote in 1920,” said Haller, but it was far from inclusive or simple. The amendment made it unconstitutional to restrict voting by gender — no more and no less. It had no effect on Jim Crow laws so Black women were still barred; it did not give Native American women citizenship, and immigrants who couldn’t speak English were often restricted as well.
Though certainly a huge shift in American culture and politics, it would take years of mobilization for most women to gain the right to vote, according to Haller. Similar to the case of gay marriage: some states allowed it and some didn’t, until the Supreme Court ruled on it for the nation.
“Politics isn’t settled in one day,” Haller said, “and the fight to expand people’s rights goes on.”
“Pretty Powerful: 100 Years of Voting and Style” will open Oct. 23, from noon to 6 p.m. Sneak previews will take place on Oct. 21 and 22 from noon to 4 p.m. Online registration for the sneak peaks is mandatory and no tickets will be sold at the door. After the opening, the exhibit will be open Oct. 26 to March 31, 2022, during museum hours.