On a recent Wednesday evening, a small group of history enthusiasts with an interest in fashion met in the grand lobby of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. The people that made up this gathering were dressed in comfortable yet stylish shoes, prepared for a fashion-focused walking tour of downtown Seattle led by MOHAI’s Clara Berg, Collections Specialist for Costumes and Textiles at the regional history museum.
Clara led a similar tour last year, and she has two more unique tours slated for this summer. Over the course of two hours, the small group meets the affable Ruth Hill, whom Clara proclaims with utmost respect to be the Grand Dame of Seattle fashion. Mrs. Hill’s cozy, high-end sportswear store is located just off of the motor court in the Fairmont. Inside the store, one can find comfortable but ever so stylish garments sourced from around the world, many directly from the family-owned companies that produce the textiles in Scotland, Switzerland and Italy. Mrs. Hill has earned the unofficial title of Grand Dame through her connection to one of Seattle’s most colorful fashion personalities and clothier to the best dressed of Seattle’s past, John Doyle Bishop.
Ruth Hill, who acquired the Bishop store a few years after the designer’s passing would continue the tradition that Bishop started. As the taste for casual attire grew, Mrs. Hill adapted but never sacrificed the quality of goods or the customer service that she knew was an invaluable part of what Bishop was known for. Hill’s current store—although not in the original location of the Bishop store—is bedecked with the elegant Waterford crystal chandeliers, an homage to the man responsible for outfitting generations of Seattle’s best dressed.
Clara Berg is actively writing the history of Seattle fashion, past and present, starting with John Doyle Bishop. Long before Berg pursued a graduate degree in fashion history from the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, she was volunteering at MOHAI, where curator of the costume and textile collection Mary Montgomery assigned her to inventory and research a collection of John Doyle Bishop garments. Berg knew that she liked history at that point and was considering majoring in it in college, but Bishop’s story gave her a more definite direction. In fact, it ultimately led to a master’s thesis on Bishop, something that her New York professors questioned initially before Berg’s research and enthusiasm on the subject revealed to them what a fascinating and highly relevant subject it was to fashion history and Seattle in particular.
The tour’s highlight is a stop at Luly Yang after business hours. The charismatic Andrew Hoge guides the group through glamorous rooms stuffed full of cocktail dresses, evening gowns and the bridal suite, then below ground to the on-site sewing room, where custom creations are made for some of Seattle’s most discerning clientele. Luly Yang is running what is called a couture house, not to be confused with the extremely rigorous French standards of haute couture. A large part of her business consists of creating custom garments, many of which are based on designs showcased in the designer’s annual runway shows, but are entirely new creations made to match each of the client’s fifteen unique measurements and color preferences. Repeat customers have specially padded mannequins, called muslins, that are used when creating these garments from scratch.
The tour then winds down 5th Avenue, past the corner on Union where Brooks Brothers now stands, once home to the San Francisco-based I. Magnin, purveyor of high fashion and specialty goods and Seattle’s original luxury department store. The storefront would later become the fabled John Doyle Bishop store, maintaining this corner in the downtown retail core as one of Seattle’s most fashionable destinations for three decades. Across the street, where Fox Jewelers is located, was once the Helen Igoe store, Bishop’s predecessor and another fashion personality that Clara Berg is actively researching.
Department stores play a crucial role in the story of fashion in Seattle, and our city is home to one of the nation’s most loved retailers, the store known for its shoes, and above all its customer service. That would be Nordstrom, a family-run, Seattle-based company that has spread around the nation from its humble origins as a shoe store founded on a small fortune procured in the Klondike gold rush. Nordstrom occupies the grand terracotta clad building that was once home to the esteemed Frederick & Nelson, continuing the tradition of fine department stores in the downtown retail district.
Across the street from Nordstrom was once the storefront of another personality that Clara Berg would like to learn more about, hat designer John Eaton, who by some accounts was so influential that nearly every milliner in Seattle today either trained under him or learned from someone who did. Berg is gathering up firsthand accounts from some of those people in order to piece together this fascinating story.
The tour concluded at Pacific Place with a special treat: The ladies of Hourglass Footwear, Kira Bundlie and Lisa Strom, brought along some of their exquisite hand-painted shoes that have been making quite the splash of late. These elegant shoes are a favorite among brides that desire unique accessories for their special day, as well as a world famous Drag Queen, winner of the national hit TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Seattle’s own Jinkx Monsoon. Berg asked the owners and designers of the relatively new fashion endeavor to join the tour, as they are a great example of a young company that is able to pursue a business in fashion in Seattle. The crowd was obviously much impressed and quickly lined up to make inquires.
After the tour I asked Ms. Berg what would be the next fashion focused exhibition coming to MOHAI, and more importantly, what would be a ‘dream’ exhibition? Her reply: “I’ve submitted a proposal for an exhibition and I have lots of support from my colleagues, but the trick is finding the right slot in the exhibition schedule. It might be a couple of years so I can’t announce it yet. What I will say is that when I get the chance to do a fashion exhibition, I want it to really showcase the most stunning and exciting pieces in the collection. I want to get out the 1930s Chanel suit and Eddie Bauer’s first down jacket.”
It is important to know that you can add to the history of Seattle, and MOHAI is a great educational resource for future generations. Berg told me If you have something you are interested in donating, use the “Donate an Artifact” tool on the MOHAI website: http://www.mohai.org/research/donate-an-artifact. (She strongly emphasizes to “please, please go through our process and don’t just show up at the museum with something. We can’t accept drop-off donations.” To Berg, things that have a Seattle connection are the most important. An interesting story and good condition make it something that she is sure to get excited about. Berg tells me “people assume we only want ‘old’ stuff so I very rarely get offers for things from the 1970s to present. Any offers of grunge clothes from the 90s or jeans from Generra, Brittania or Union Bay and I’ll get really excited.” Did anybody say Hypercolor?
In the meantime, she has lots more going on. MOHAI currently has ten dressed mannequins in the core exhibit and several more in Celluloid Seattle, an exhibit about Seattle’s rich history in film and the movie palaces of Seattle past and present. Clara tells me that the pieces in the core exhibit get rotated out every six months so all the dresses are different now than they were for grand opening back in December. In addition, Ms. Berg also does several fashion-related programs each year. Already she has spotlighted John Doyle Bishop in a lecture and special showcase of the collection, and in September the museum will have a fashion-themed Free First Thursday.
To many Seattleites that are enthusiastic about fashion but wary of Seattle’s seemingly feeble grasp of it, Clara Berg provides hope, reassuring us that our city has had a rich history of fashion, full of interesting characters and citizens with sartorial inclinations. Berg enthusiastically states, “Seattle fashion history is a delightful rabbit hole. Once you start looking, you just find more and more stories.” And when asked about her job, she remarks with wit, “It is one of the few jobs where you need to know about Paul Poiret and how to operate a pallet jack.”
You can follow Clara Berg’s musings about the MOHAI collection and fashion on her own blog Things That I Vacuumed Today, a blog mostly about the artifacts that inspire her, but also a little bit about the daily upkeep of those artifacts that does require some very delicate vacuuming.
Photography by Tuffer Harris Photography. Tuffer’s work can be found on his Web site.
Jeremy Buben goes to art galleries, museums, performance dance shows and the best gumbo restaurants in Seattle. All of the time. You can read more of his suggested events and short subject posts at his blog Le Dandysme.