The Secret Life of Clothes
November 5, 2021 – November 27, 2022
With over 8 billion people on Earth, one of the common threads that humans share is wearing clothes as a basic necessity for protection and also a means of self-expression. But when we think about clothing, it’s usually in connection to fashion and how and where the person is wearing their clothing, more often than not, outside of the home and irrespective of the origins of the very fabric the item is made of. While clothing began as a basic necessity to individuals who had a very intimate connection to the laborious process of its creation, care and storage, in more modern days, it has evolved into a highly accessible, but easily detached from and disposed of, means of societal expression.
The Secret Life of Clothes tells the everyday story of the “lifecycle” of clothes – the overlooked journey of clothing as a progression from fiber to finished garment, sale to storage, and finally to mending, disposal or reuse. This exhibit examines the purpose and need for different clothes, as well as the lifecycle processes over different time periods in Colorado: 1860 through modern day. Visitors will experience a variety of fashions, as well as the tools, materials, and context of how those clothes were made, worn, cared for, mended, and stored.
The exhibit also explores the future of clothing, considering the economic, cultural, and environmental impacts of the massive growth of the fast-fashion clothing industry and how, in response, new innovations are leading the way towards a more sustainable clothing lifecycle for future generations.
The Secret Life of Clothes opens on Friday, November 5, 2021, and runs through Sunday, November 27, 2022.
Fashion & History
Rats for Hats: Hunting Beaver Fur
If you’ve seen photographs of men from the 1800s, you’ll know that beaver fur hats were popular headwear at the time. But that popularity came at an extraordinary cost. Beaver fur hats came into fashion in the mid-16th century in Europe, causing a rapid decline in European beaver populations over the next hundred years. However, colonies were being established in North America by the French, British, and Dutch, coinciding with the near extinction of the European beaver.
Trappers and fur traders in these colonies found an abundance of beaver and, with the help of Indigenous allies, hunted North American beaver to satisfy the demand for pelts in Europe. Beaver fur hats were popular until the 1850s, when North American beaver populations were depleted, like their European cousins, and silk hats became more fashionable.
No (r)egrets: Plume Hunting
Feathers have long been used as adornment on headwear, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that demand began outpacing supply. Egret feathers became so popular that hunters killed entire colonies to meet an ever-increasing demand, leaving unhatched eggs and starving hatchlings to perish. Predictably, US egret populations declined rapidly in the face of such an onslaught. With the fashion trend in full swing by 1886, nearly five million birds, including egrets, were killed every year to provide feathers to milliners in Europe and the US.
In the early-20th century, prices rose from $32 an ounce in 1903 to $80 when birds became rarer due to population decline. Egret populations have since rebounded, thanks in large part to the efforts of Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, who founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and Congress’s passage of the Migratory Bird Act in 1918.