You can tell a lot about a person by the clothes they wear. But you may not realize how much the clothes are revealing about the world and the times that person lives in.
For the past 20 years, Mary Anna O’Malley has been creating and collecting authentic period costumes to rent out to local theater groups through her costume rental business, The Clothes Rack, in Oakwood. Inside her shop, the walls are lined with all items of dress from bygone eras. The shop is packed with rows of historically accurate clothes, shelves of shoes and handbags. Period specific hats literally hang from the ceiling.
While her costume shop also offers the animal suits and masks one would expect, it’s the period pieces that capture O’Malley’s interest. O’Malley said it’s important for her to help her clients find exactly the look of the time period they’re trying to convey. To do that, it takes research.
“Even though I’ve done it before, I try to refresh my memory on the period and the look,” O’Malley said in a recent interview. “I have to research on an ongoing (basis). I have to constantly reacquaint myself with what was worn by children and adults.”
O’Malley created many of the women’s costumes herself and tries to keep them as accurate as possible — though she uses modern, machine-washable fabrics.
In years past, O’Malley would orchestrate fashion shows for school children with period costumes and give the students a history lesson about the period they wore. She still assists students who come in looking for specific styles.
“When you get into it, it’s really fascinating,” O’Malley said. “History is really boring for me otherwise. You know you just learn it by dates and remembering. But if you flesh it out with people and you know these things were done in a certain way ... it’s more interesting.”
O’Malley said she used to think fashion choices were simply something designers would “come up with off the top of their head.” Though it’s not always obvious, a particular style of dress can show how the design of the clothes were influenced by world and cultural events.
“When you go back and look at it, you see a pattern and you see the influences,” O’Malley said.
One particular period heavily influenced by world events was during and after World War II. Governmental restrictions on materials for rationing purposes and the subsequent lift on the ban resulted in some very telling fashions. O’Malley said for many years, women and men weren’t allowed to make skirts or pants longer than a certain length. Dresses couldn’t have too many frills or any other motif that wasted resources.
“That was industry wide and everybody had to comply with that basically,” said Lori Gann-Smith, fashion design program director of Breanu University. “Then after the war was over, we have Christian Dior with this new look which was this voluminous skirt.”
Gann-Smith said the fuller skirts which became the fashion after the war, were something of a “celebration.” Designers and the women who wore their clothes celebrated not just the end of the war but a return to normalcy.
However, what came after the “iconic ’50s housewife” look, illustrated the changing attitudes of one of the most pivotal points in women’s history.
“In fact, the ’50s were a volatile time because women, a lot of them, were dissatisfied with the way they had worked during the war and then were made to go back into these more subordinate roles,” Gann-Smith said. “That set the stage for the ’60s women’s movement.”
O’Malley said she still remembers telling her boss in the 1960s she would wear pants to work. He was concerned the look would be too “casual” for the office.
“But he really couldn’t say anything, because I wore pant suits just like he wore only in different colors,” O’Malley said laughing.
Brenau University currently has several examples of the changes in women’s fashion in its exhibit, “The Good Wife,” The exhibit, created by fashion design student Jackie Willis, features clothing and accessories from the Brenau Historic Clothing Collection and is open until Sept. 1.
Gann-Smith noted world events are still influencing fashion.
In times of economical prosperity, fashions can afford to be more trendy, more experimental. In times of economic difficulty, people tend to wear more traditional clothes, often inspired from past eras.
“When things are uncertain in the world, people like their fashion to have a very strong grounding,” Gann-Smith said. “Designers usually go back to things that are more classic because people feel more comfortable buying that in a recession because they know it’s something that they can wear for a long time. But when everybody is flush with money they’re more likely to accept more frivolous kinds of trendy things. Because you know, ‘if it goes out of style tomorrow, no big deal. I have plenty of money.”