Idaho History

What we wore: Historians tell Idaho’s story through clothing

Photo shoot: Inside Idaho's wardrobe

The Idaho State Historical Society owns thousands of historic garments, including ball gowns, hats, military uniforms, coats and children's clothes. All help tell the story of Idaho's cultural life,
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The Idaho State Historical Society owns thousands of historic garments, including ball gowns, hats, military uniforms, coats and children's clothes. All help tell the story of Idaho's cultural life,

The Idaho State Historical Society’s storage warehouse is where you’ll find the physical remnants of Idaho’s collective life — an iron lung from the days when polio ravaged the world, the menu board from the now-fallen College In-n-Out drive in, Victorian mourning keepsakes woven from human hair.

Furnishings from noted homes, farm implements and gubernatorial dishes are stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling.

It’s safekeeping for all the items that might end up on display when the historical museum, now in the midst of a $17 million renovation and expansion, reopens to the public in late 2017. Among the society’s holdings are 10,000 textiles, including dresses and suits, military uniforms, hats, shoes, accessories and furs. The collection also contains household linens like quilts and commercial fabric items like flour and sugar sacks.

“It really is the gamut of everything fabric that you can imagine,” said Sarah Phillips, curatorial registrar and collections manager at the historical society.

“When people think of a historical museum in the West, they think of saddles and mining equipment. They don’t always think of pretty dresses.”

The Idaho State Historical Society owns thousands of historic garments, including ball gowns, hats, military uniforms, coats and children's clothes. All help tell the story of Idaho's cultural life,

The pretty dresses and flour sacks alike are treasured items in the Idaho collection, both for their importance in the everyday lives of Idahoans and for what they reveal about industrial and social history. They answer questions about how certain fabrics and dyes were made, and what kinds of machines and production methods were in vogue during different eras.

“It gives a sense of science and industry. The styling of textiles also speaks to the values and trends of the time,” Phillips said.

You can study textiles and have history unfold for you.

Sarah Phillips, curatorial registrar

For example, women’s garments from the turn of the last century were designed to be worn over corsets that made women very curvy, albeit somewhat stationary. In the 1920s, after the 19th Amendment confirmed women’s right to vote, women became more active in the public sphere. Clothing styles followed suit and became looser, as in the classic flapper gown, allowing physical movement that echoed philosophical movement and freedom. Clothing styles during World War II reflected military styles, as seen in the broad-shouldered suits popular for women in the 1940s. The 1950s, a return to prosperity and traditional roles for men and women, also saw the return of a curvy silhouette, nipped waists and full skirts — wartime fabric rations a bygone at last.

Clothing styles, Phillips added, give a glimpse into pop culture, ideas of morality and where a person stood socially. Historians look at the quality of the garments, whether they were homemade or bought at a store — and if they were, what labels were sewn inside.

“Flour sacks and other packaging aren’t as sexy as the garments, but it’s the same ideas, glimpses of everyday life of what a house would have contained,” she said.

Such fabrics also document historical advertising and marketing styles that spoke to the aspirations of American families. Phillips described flour or potato sacks printed with idyllic mountain scenes and other bucolic images that suggest wholesomeness and purity.

“You can study textiles and have history unfold for you,” said Phillips.

Sarah Phillips, curatorial registrar at the Idaho State Historical Museum, shares her expertise in the best ways to store historic clothing.

Fashion in the round

When the museum reopens in 2017, one of the first exhibitions will feature inaugural formal wear. That includes first ladies’ dresses, but also governors’ suits, tuxedos and other ensembles worn by guests at inaugural balls.

The exhibition will have an online component. The museum is partnering for the first time with the Idaho Virtualization Lab at the Idaho Museum of Natural History to create an interactive online gallery featuring more than 50 items from the textile collection.

The museum at Idaho State University is home to one of the few “visualization labs” in the country, said professor Leif Tapanila, director and division head of earth sciences. Who else has one? The Smithsonian, where the X3D lab currently features an online exhibition of Chinese blue and white porcelain, the Wright brothers’ famous plane and Abraham Lincoln’s death mask, among others.

Online viewers of the Idaho State Historical Society’s garments will be able to do something called “deep zoom” — zooming, Google Earth-style, in on the most intricate parts, whether that’s stitch work, beading, lace or other details.

Viewers will also be able to see garments online in full rotation through “photogrammetry,” a technique used to make 3D virtual models of objects in the real world.

“It’s akin to taking a panorama on a cellphone, but with a much higher degree of detail,” said Tapanila.

Photographing the garments at the Idaho State Historical warehouse will begin soon. The process is exhaustive. Imaging a relatively small swath of a ballgown can take two days. When the photo shoot is done, the thousands of images will go to the lab at ISU where “heavy-duty brute computers will crunch away at them,” said Tapanila, knitting them into seamless whole images.

The new, expanded museum will include a “Treasures of Idaho” gallery that will showcase state collections. A primary focus will be a revolving exhibit of the museum’s sizable clothing and textile collection.

The process will take eight or nine months, said Tapanila. The online exhibition will go live just before the physical museum reopens to the public.

The historical society raised about $110,000 for the textile virtualization project through grants and private donations. The Idaho Legislature appropriated another $50,000 for the project, said Jody Ochoa, director of the Idaho State Historical Museum.

Sarah Phillips curatorial registrar at the Idaho State Historical Museum, shares ideas for safe storage of antique quilts.

Collections, visible to all

The online textile exhibition is in keeping with the society’s goal of making history interactive — that museums are not static places, but are part of an ongoing narrative to which everyone in a community is constantly contributing. The new museum will offer opportunities for visitors to share their own stories, interact with exhibitions through props and hands-on activities, and find expanded space in a “community gallery” for public events and exhibitions inside the museum.

Museums deal with historic objects. Therein lies a challenge, said Tapanila, “to show the public that in modern times, objects from the past are relevant. One of the best ways to do that is to see yourself through the lens of the past. You can immediately start relating.”

The textile photo project will promote that kind of interactivity. Plans include an app that will let viewers take a picture of their own faces and superimpose them onto mannequins wearing historic garments.

“The technology is such that we can take a real-world collection and do novel things. Our only limit is our own creativity,” said Tapanila.

10,000 items in the museum’s textile collection

There’s a big push in the museum world to “democratize” collections and make them accessible to all people, he said. Tapanila predicts that more museums will enlist visualization labs to put their collections online.

“Anyone with a museum and a collection deals with the same problem. We have an awesome collection, but unless you come to the museum to see it, you won’t see it. Visualization labs, at the very least, provide a service to the general public.

“To me, this is one of the biggest revolutions in the management of museum collections,” he said.

The Idaho State Historical Society will be part of the revolution.

Donate your own historic clothing

The Idaho Historical Society is interested in garments and other items (hats, shoes, glasses, purses, etc.) that tell a story about Idaho, or about what someone’s life was like in Idaho. If you have any questions about donating artifacts to the Idaho State Historical Museum, contact a member of the collections staff at 208-334-2120 or 208-334-2118.

But if you want to keep it ... here’s how to care for your vintage clothing

The Idaho State Historical Society advises keeping textiles in acid-free, archival packing materials. Keep them somewhere where temperature and humidity are as consistent as possible.

Crisp folds can eventually break fabric down, so pack items with soft folds. Also, the weight of the fabric will start to break down tiny fibers, so don’t let folds stay in place for too long. It’s good to remove textiles from their packaging from time to time and air them out before refolding them in a different way.

The society relies on volunteers to “rehouse” garments, or unfold them and “change their positions while they’re sleeping in their boxes,” said Sarah Phillips, curatorial registrar.

About this series

The Idaho Statesman worked with textile curators Sarah Phillips and Wendy Miller to choose some of our favorite garments from the collection for our own series and accompanying online gallery. See everything from a classic 1920s cloche hat to muleteer Jesus Urquides’ boots and a dazzling gown embroidered with bird wings, lotuses and thistles.

Follow Woven History: What Idaho Wore: An item from the Idaho State Historical Society’s textile collection will appear in the Explore section (published on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays) over the course of the next six weeks.

Find the growing online gallery attached to this article above.

Do you have a special item of clothing that tells the story of Idaho? Email a photo and a brief description to

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