Members-only: The 20th-Century Woman at Work
This picture taken of a woman at the Fairfield Shipyard in the 1940’s tells us a lot about her, even if we don’t know who she is. The way we dress for work can offer clues about what we do for a living, where we are employed, and even our professional rank.
Hear volunteer curator Debbie Farthing tell the story of how she used photos like this one, and the BMI’s garment collection to create the BMI’s exhibit, The 20th-Century Woman at Work.
Thursday, March 18, 2021
Watch the recording here
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About the Exhibit
The way we dress for work can offer clues about what we do for a living, where we are employed, and even our professional rank. In some cases, work clothes help tell a story about the nature of working life. Through the twentieth century, women’s role in the workforce expanded dramatically thanks to a rising economy, two world wars, new technologies, and vast social change.
Clothing worn and made by Baltimore women mirrored the changing status of women in the workforce. At the start of the 20th century, women were expected to wear dresses regardless of the rigors of the job. During World War II, female factory workers began dressing like their male co-workers. Pants eventually gained acceptance socially and at work as fashion trends responded to women’s needs. “Power suits” materialized in the 1980s as more women entered management. However, one thing did not change: as women made strides at work, they needed clothes that helped them get the job done.
Debbie is intrigued by the ordinary belongings of everyday people. From hats produced by local milliners to the uniforms of Baltimore’s historic workforce, Debbie uses the BMI’s garment collection to elevate the stories of the people of Baltimore. She is interested in fashion history and antique/vintage clothing, and has a personal garment collection that spans the 1750s through to the 1950s.
“Most museums collect clothing because it belonged to a particular person or because the design and workmanship rises to the level of true art—most of that clothing represents only a small portion of society,” says Debbie, “The BMI’s clothing collection represents the people of Baltimore…and that makes it far more relatable to most people.”