Wagoner Museum Preserves Fashions from Oklahoma's Past

By Nichols, Max | THE JOURNAL RECORD, May 29, 1991 | Go to article overview

Wagoner Museum Preserves Fashions from Oklahoma's Past


Nichols, Max, THE JOURNAL RECORD


WAGONER, Okla. _ It was more than 20 years ago that Mildred Oglesby of Wagoner called Nellie Harris, then society editor of the Muskogee Phoenix, and said she was getting rid of her historic old dresses _ some dating back to the 19th century. Harris and& Doris Gilbert, who also& worked for the Phoenix, said they would take them. They& talked with& other Wagoner women about the idea of& starting a fash- ion museum. "We had all been collecting old things from our families," said Gilbert. "We wanted to preserve the fashions of residents of territorial days and early Oklahoma, and we wanted to help students understand how fine clothes were made in the past." That was the beginning of the Oklahoma Historic Fashion Museum, located since the early 1980s in an historic home owned by Harris at 810 N. State St. With about 5,000 items, it is one of the most remarkable museums in Oklahoma, because it has no city, county, state of federal funding but contributes to the education of fashion students. "We just keep it going ourselves," said Gilbert. "We get most of our income from luncheons, style shows and admissions (more than 2,000 a year at $2 each). It's a constant struggle. Everything we have, including the mannequins, has been donated." The museum, displaying fine garments back to the 1850s, is operated by Oklahoma Historic Fashions Inc., a non-profit organization with Clista Hall now president. Directors include Lanette Leonard, Marian Williams and Ardith Simmons as well as Harris and Gilbert. The organization pays $100 a month and utilities to use the home, which probably was built before 1899. The earliest record is a $5,000 mortgage given by Kate Hellen to Capt. H.F. Jones that year. Why Wagoner? Why is a museum protecting some of the finest antique clothing of old forgotten fabrics and styles located in this sleepy northeastern Oklahoma town? The answer is in the history of Wagoner as one of the oldest towns in Indian Territory with numerous buildings and homes preserved from territorial days, and in the dedication and loving care of these Wagoner women. There actually are two fashion museums in Wagoner, since the original one was split during the early 1980s. Oklahoma Historic Fashions Inc. moved to the home owned by Harris at that time. The women work solely for their own enjoyment and satisfaction to maintain and show off these delicate items from gowns of silk to hats, accessories and lace lingerie _

and to teach each student about the heritage of the fashion business. "We also have a lot of male clothing, including military uniforms," said Gilbert, "but we don't have enough mannequins to display them properly." The care is illustrated in a delicate white peignoir, or house coat, from the 1880s. When it was donated by an Oklahoma City woman, it was torn, dirty and yellowed from age. "I washed it by hand in my kitchen sink," said Harris, who heads the difficult garment cleaning operations. These fabrics are too delicate to put into a washing machine. "You have to hold them up and let the water drain out. This one took two or three days." The result was a perfectly white garment repaired so well that it looks new to the uneducated eye. The history of each item is researched with an effort led by Gilbert, who has a background in research for an agency in Washington. Each item is marked by the period of use, description of fabric and its history when available. About six rooms are filled with the garments, which are changed to match the spring, fall-winter and Christmas seasons. The rest are kept in a storage room. The oldest gown on display this spring is a brown plaid of watered silk with a full hoop skirt. …

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