New exhibit examines fashion through the ages

‘Black White’ will open Jan. 30 at Renton History Museum.

It’s almost time to strut your way down the runway of Renton History Museum to see its newest exhibit “Black & White.”

The fashion exhibit focuses on exploring the various fashion trends through three lenses: the Church, Queen Victoria and Coco Chanel.

“We wanted to point out the origins of a lot of trends that have carried through to this day in fashion,” said Sarah Samson, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Renton History Museum. “Normally people in everyday life don’t even think about (fashion). They automatically put clothes on for work or school. This really digs back to where things started and why we do the things we do and where traditions began.”

The collection was largely inspired by the large amount of textile collections the museum had.

“We have a really fantastic textile collection that we don’t normally put out in public too often, mostly because the textiles are fragile,” Samson said. Many of them date back to the 1880s, but we have stuff going all the way back to the 1960s and 70s. We don’t have a lot of opportunities to get them out in the view of the public and focus on an exhibit mainly about fashion so we can get them out on view.”

The Church, Queen Victoria and Coco Chanel not only played pivotal roles in setting the fashion trends, but they also revolutionized what white and black fabric symbolized at various time periods.

For example, the practice of veiling and church hats can symbolize humility and reverence in many churches around the world. The Church has also influenced how many view and understand modesty.

“We have two different swimming suits, one from the 1880s and one from the 1920s,” Samson said. It shows how modesty changed from those two points. Obviously, people know what swim suits look like today. Taking from the 1920s, 100 years ago, to today is a large jump as well.”

Queen Victoria, who reigned over the Great Britain from 1837 to 1901, influenced fashion dramatically. The white wedding dress became a staple during her time.

The exhibit will feature three white wedding dresses from three different time periods, as well as a black wedding dresses.

Women’s fashion took a sharp turn when Coco Chanel entered the scene.

Perhaps the most iconic look Chanel contributed to the world is the little black dress. The exhibit will focus on the Little Black Dress (LBD), as well the suits for women Chanel introduced. There will also be a case full of jewelry that illustrate trends she started in accessories.

While the first half of the exhibit examines fashion through the aforementioned trendsetters, the second half will focus on how black and white photography changes the way we think of history and fashion.

“Because all the pictures are black and white, it colors how we think of history. We don’t think of it as a colorful place, generally,” said Samson.

Attendees will be encouraged to view photographs of garments and guess what color the garments might be before seeing the big reveal on the other side of the room.

“It’s kind of shocking when you see the juxtaposition because you really don’t think of things as bright colored but these textiles are very bright colored and pretty. We’re hoping that people keep that mind when they look at black and white photographs and remember (the past) was a colorful place and that it didn’t look gray and pastel, necessarily,” she said.

The museum is also attempting to recreate garments from photographs.

“We have a picture of a woman in a dress,” Samson said. “We had two people who were very well-versed in seamstressing and history recreating that dress. They’ve researched what color they think the dress might have been, though we’ll never know for sure. But it fits in with the color trends of that time. They have painstakingly tried to recreate that dress.”

Photographs, especially black and white photographs, can limit our ability to glean details of the historic fashions. As a curator, Samson isn’t dismayed. Rather, she’s glad that photographs have withstood the tests of time and exist to teach us anything at all.

“I’m super thankful for any photography we have… but it does illustrate the need for people to get out to museums to see what things really looked like because museums are the best place for you to go see actual artifacts people actually wore,” she said.

The “Black & White” exhibit opens Jan. 30 and will run until May 19. The opening event is scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Jan. 31 at Renton History Museum, 235 Mill Ave S.

For more information about the exhibit, visit