May 12, 2024 - News

Chicago History Museum's eclectic costume collection

Black velvet cape on a mannequin and green plaid button-down dress on a mannequin.

Cloak allegedly worn by Mary Todd Lincoln on the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and a plaid gown of Mrs. Lincoln. Photos: Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

For the past 50 years, the Chicago Costume Council has helped the Chicago History Museum build one of the nation's premier costume collections.

The big picture: The collection is a valuable resource for fashion history research and provides a window into how Chicagoans have dressed throughout the decades.

  • It dates to the 1700s and features 50,000 objects, including Civil War uniforms, suits worn by George Washington and a cape believed to be worn by Mary Todd Lincoln.
Diamond encrusted thick chocker style necklace.
Bertha Palmer's platinum and diamond encrusted chocker necklace. Photo: Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Flashback: In the 1970s, curators from the Met and Fashion Institute of America were so impressed by the museum's collection that they suggested creating a council of volunteers to help the museum acquire more items and fundraise.

  • The Chicago Costume Council first gathered in 1974, led by socialite Helen Wrigley, who used her connections to get big designers like Ralph Lauren to attend costume council fundraisers.

Zoom in: The archive goes beyond military gear, period pieces and couture.

  • "As we were collecting Dior gowns, we were also collecting football uniforms," as well as books, and illustrations from designers, collections manager Jessica Pushor tells Axios. "We were also collecting United uniforms and a McDonald's uniform."

How it works: Most of the items are donated, and Chicago Costume Council assists families willing to donate their clothes to a museum rather than sell to The RealReal or an auction house.

  • "When you buy things at auction, they don't have a story attached to them," Pushor says. "We would rather acquire a piece from someone who's like, 'My mom bought this at the store, and she wore it and I have this picture of her wearing it.'"

The intrigue: When Sally Field played Mary Todd Lincoln in 2012's "Lincoln," the film's costume designers looked through the museum's Lincoln artifacts to design Field's dresses.

What's next: Anyone can view the collection online, but museum visitors will get to see it up close when "Dressed in History: A Costume Collection Retrospective" opens at the museum on Oct. 19.

💭 Carrie's thought bubble: A fashion lover could spend days drooling over this collection, not just because of the beautiful dresses, but in my case because it features 1950s nurse's uniforms — probably like what my grandma wore!


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