Elegance After Dark: Evening Wear in Louisiana, 1896-1996
Social activities have long played a prominent role in Louisiana's cultural heritage. Using evening fashions from its outstanding costume collection, the Louisiana State Museum has created an exhibition that spans the twentieth century. Elegance After Dark: Evening Wear in Louisiana, 1896-1996 shows that although costumes do not cause historical change, they do reflect and document these changes. The garments chosen for the exhibit were selected to illustrate the evolution of design, construction and use of fabric. Moreover, they clearly reflect the spirit of their times.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, elaborate dresses, ball gowns and gentlemen's attire were influenced by a strict code of etiquette and were individually made for their owners. The ideal of feminine beauty was a voluptuous, curvaceous figure. Fashion-conscious women were molded into their "S" curve styles by a corset. Servants of the wealthy assisted in caring for these elaborate costumes and in helping with the numerous clothing changes required by an active social life.
As the century progressed, rules of etiquette and ideals of beauty changed with each successive generation. Haute couture, the art of creating high-end custom-made garments, lost its dominance on fashion. Thanks to modern manufacturing, merchandising and a greater distribution of wealth, elegant evening wear is available for purchase or rental to almost everyone. Women are no longer molded into restrictive costumes. The opulent look of the past, which symbolized a husband's or father's wealth or power, has given way to luxurious fashions worn by today's women as evidence of their own success.
Over the decades men have similarly acquired a "new look" with the acceptance of the tuxedo as formal evening wear. Etiquette, too, has changed. On invitations, the terms "White Tie" or "Black Tie" are used not only to prescribe attire for male guests, but also to serve as a guideline for women by suggesting the level of formality.
The chronological sequence of the show culminates, fittingly, with the "retro" look of the 1990s. Although designs based on fashions of the past are nothing new - Worth, Poiret and Dior all sought inspiration from historic styles - today the practice is a little different. Our rapidly paced lifestyles and communications technology have caused fashion recycling to occur with greater frequency. Now, instead of recurring every fifty or hundred years, styles are being revived and popularized after only a generation.
What's next? One can only guess at what a similarly conceived exhibition may look like a century from now. One thing is certain, however. The Museum's enduring commitment to preserve and present the state's history and culture ensures that its costume and textile collection will continue to reflect Louisiana's unique legacy of style and joie de vivre.
The original exhibit displayed in the Presbytere in 1996-1997 was sponsored by Whitney National Bank, Shell Offshore, Inc., and First NBC.