Photo: KMS Photography.
“Because it reflects the designer’s original intentions,” he said. “There’s a truthfulness, an authenticity, an integrity to what’s shown on the runway and sometimes that can be diluted when it involves working with a client.”
Mr. Bolton, who oversaw last spring’s “Manus x Machina” exhibition with a wedding ensemble designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel that looked like a flying carpet ready for takeoff, and sculptural offerings from Iris van Herpen and Issey Miyake not intended for any female earthling, is most concerned with anointing members of a canon.
“I have a predilection for designers who in a way make us think differently about fashion, who go beyond notions of wearability or functionality,” he said. “Obviously utility and practicality is one aspect of fashion, but so are ideas and concepts.”
But the value of the Roddis togs on display at the Henry Ford, many of which are anonymously made, lies precisely in their cumulative serviceability.
Though better known for showcasing planes, trains and automobiles, such as the Lincoln Continental four-door convertible that was carrying John F. Kennedy at the moment of his assassination, the museum is no slouch in the wardrobe department either. Stored in its subterranean morgue (along with quilts made by the African-American sharecropper Susana Allen Hunter and countless other treasures) are its own Diors, Balenciagas and other couture items owned by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, of the tire family, exhibited here in 2005, as well as an example of the short-lived bridge line of the pilot Amelia Earhart.
Yet, said Edward Maeder, an alumnus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who oversaw the restoration of these items and, with one of Augusta’s nieces, Jane Bradbury, wrote the substantive and mesmerizing book that accompanies the exhibit of the Roddis collection, “When I first took it out of the closet, with a few exceptions, it was kind of a thrift-store collection — ordinary suits, ordinary dresses.”
Shown here are lives spent devoted to public service as well as private recreation. Along with being an ardent amateur archivist, Augusta was a longtime member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and a fierce advocate of education. Her father, Hamilton, known as “the dean of the U.S. plywood industry,” outfitted ships for World War II (as well as Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose), and along with the frocks there are walking sticks, seersucker suits and spectator shoes.
“Even the men were so interested in this,” said Jeanine Head Miller, the Henry Ford’s curator of domestic life, who winnowed the collection into nooks of Americana such as teenagers — themselves a postwar invention — theater and travel. Though there is also a sprinkling of recognizable brand names like Bill Blass and Jeanne Lanvin, “I wanted people to be in this exhibit and not feel they have to be fashionistas to enjoy it,” Ms. Miller said.
Laid out are the sewing projects that produced marvels like a red day dress fit for Joan Crawford with a tightly cinched metal belt and asymmetrical collar zigzagging heavenward; a green cotton bouclé plaid cape over cream rayon dress for golf; and an ermine-trimmed, hooded silk velvet evening coat with hood worn to “formal brawls,” as an invitation reads.
Later, when the family grew more prosperous, there were shopping trips to long-forgotten salons like Roy H. Bjorkman in Minneapolis and Ruth McCulloch near Chicago; the department stores like Blum’s and Marshall Field; and purchases from designers forgotten by history, like David E. Gottlieb, a.k.a. Gothé, and the gamine Gladys Parker, who also wrote the cartoons “Flapper Fanny” and “Mopsy.”
Their work is entwined with thousands of letters saved by Roddis that tell the story of “everything that was going on in America,” said the endearingly bearded Mr. Maeder, from the steamy love affair of Gussie’s parents (“I know all the inside dope, let me tell you; all the naughty bits are there,” he said) to her ancestors’ commitment to abolition and women’s suffrage. Mr. Maeder and Ms. Bradbury carefully document how a puffed leg o’ mutton sleeve on one gray striped frock of the late 19th century was shrunken and lengthened by the early 20th as evidence of the family’s frugality.
By contrast, though the Costume Institute has not ignored Middle America — in 2010, it staged an exhibit called “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” (sponsored by the Gap) — its focus is emphatically on the creator over the customer.
“The bottom line is always the artistic merit of the garment,” said Mr. Bolton, ever in search of “a textbook example of the period, hopefully with no alterations, which enhances its rarity. It’s about an exemplary silhouette.”
To that end, “Unpacking Fashion” offers pure extravagance. While it includes pieces from the 18th century to the present day, it privileges (as they say in museum-ese) theme over time, juxtaposing a Vionnet haute couture pink tulle confection with the ominous date of 1929, for example, next to a peach nylon lace one John Galliano made 70 years later. A punk wedding dress of Zandra Rhodes from 1977 — itself inspired by Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous “tears” dress — is displayed next to a 2016 interpretation of a 1994 Versace safety-pin gown made famous by Elizabeth Hurley (and given unintentional significance by the current protest movement employing the household utility as a symbol of support for the vulnerable).
Kim Kardashian West didn’t show up, but the Roddis descendants turned out in full finery for the black-tie dinner on Nov. 2 that doubled as a viewing party and family reunion. They had flown in from places as far-flung as London and Whitefish, Mont. One man wore a kilt. Gold charm bracelets jangled. A great-niece of Gussie’s, Jennifer Connor, an entrepreneur known as the Mustard Girl whose products are sold at Target and Publix, had chosen for the occasion a black silk Yves Saint Laurent gown with brocade down the sides, passed down from her mother’s side, accessorized with a mink wrap.
Ms. Connor drolly remembered vacations spent at the Marshfield home with medicine cabinets filled with outdated toiletries and “mattresses so old all the blood would rush to my head.”
“Aunt Augusta was an inspiration to me for being a true pioneer woman of her day,” she said.
Before Ms. Connor’s foray into condiments, she started a cowbell business while attending the University of Wisconsin as an art history major. Her instruments clanged at football and hockey games and both Democratic and Republican national conventions and ended up in another historical museum, the Smithsonian in Washington, where the inaugural-gown choice of the next first lady, Melania Trump, will soon take place beside its predecessors.
Nearby, Ms. Bradbury was wearing a dress by a designer from Martha’s Vineyard, where she summers, and contemplating the 1856 gown with its print of flowers and fuzzy abstractions that, like a Seurat painting, didn’t come into focus until one took a few steps back.
“Took us a while to realize,” she said, “but those are hearts.”