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.
worked for the
they would take
the idea of&
starting a fash-
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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. …