How much history can one hemline hold? The League of Women Voters of Kern County and American Association of University Women aim to show just that with the "Fashion Through History" event on Sunday.
Lifting the skirt on this mystery is Kathryn Clowes, a lifelong lover of history, fashion and theater who will spill social and political secrets of the past -- and the styles made to match.
Every year the league recognizes Women's Equality Day (Aug. 26), marking the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. This year led to a stylish twist, according to vice president Lynne Rosenstein.
"This year, to celebrate, we wanted to do something interesting, but different from what we've always done in the past. Then we came up with the idea of fashion through history: Why do hemlines go up and down, why do women dress as they do, what social issues affect the clothes we wear?"
Enter Clowes, founder of the Bakersfield Historical Costuming Society and former costume designer for Bakersfield College and the Spotlight Theatre, whose cedar chest is packed with vintage pieces worthy of hanging in a museum. (In fact, she did donate many pieces to the Kern County Museum.)
For her presentation on Sunday, Clowes, also a talented seamstress, managed to stitch all of her passions together into one talk about fashion, history and the women who helped create them both.
"The presentation itself is based on how fashion is a reflection of society from the 1900s to the 1950s," Clowes said. "It's incredible how much fashion changed during those 50 years. Think back to the 1900s. Then, women still wore restrictive corsets and petticoats, and by the 1950s, we had the traditional '50s silhouette. They could wear skirts and pants, and even show some leg. That's a big change. In fact, fashion hadn't ever changed so rapidly before in all of history."
The alterations the United States underwent throughout the periods Clowes will cover in her talk were rapid, dramatic and punctuated by booming highs -- say, the short, decadent dresses of the 1920s, and some pretty significant lows. But women's closets rolled right along with the punches, including two world wars and the economic collapse of the Great Depression.
"I think one of the highlights for fashion would be the Edwardian lady; people might refer to that as the 'Titanic era,' from 1909 to 1913. Some of the lowlights would be the war period from about 1914 to 1919, and during the Great Depression, certainly. The 1930s were a little bit lost as far as the fashion goes. After the market crashed, people had to do the most with the least amount that they ever had. You didn't throw away anything, you mended it; you turned it into something else. Skirts got a little bit longer, the general attitude was subdued -- even the colors weren't as vibrant."
Clowes will illustrate the stark differences among these early decades, as well as the restrained, no-nonsense looks of the 1940s (a nation, again at war, rationed its resources, and new dresses weren't high on many women's priority lists), to the fun, full-skirted frocks of the 1950s. To do this, she will enlist the help some models, each sporting actual antique threads from their respective decades.
"This isn't just a frivolous fashion show," said Rosenstein. "Even though this program is going to be a lot of fun, because we're seeing how women dressed through decades passed, we're also going to learn a lot. I don't think people usually give a lot of thought to how fashion has developed, and this is an opportunity to learn."