‘Follow the Thread’ up to Arrowhead

'Follow the Thread' up to Arrowhead

‘Follow the Thread’ up to Arrowhead
By Amanda Giracca, Special to Berkshires Week
Posted: 06/09/2011 01:32:17 PM EDT
Updated: 06/09/2011 01:32:37 PM EDT

Thursday June 9, 2011
PITTSFIELD — “Hoop skirts were sometimes made with piano strings,” said artist Jacqueline Cooper on a misty May afternoon. We were at her rural Ashfield farmhouse, her antique wood stove churning away, when she came out of a back room with a series of metal hoops looped over her shoulder like a garden hose. At first glance, the concentric circles resembled scrap metal — her specimen was not constructed of strings, but of flat metal hoops adhered with twill tape. But when she lifted the contraption and let it unfold, it became three-dimensional — there hung the frame for a Victorian-era skirt. It was easy to imagine petticoats draped over it.

The 1859 hoop skirt is on loan to Cooper from the Cummington Historical Society and is the first piece in a fashion show exhibiting 25 to 30 vintage garments from 1859-1960.

And the show is one element in Cooper’s multimedia exhibit, “Follow the Thread: America’s Jewish Immigrants and The Birth of the Garment Industry,” on display at Berkshire Historical Society’s Arrowhead from Friday to Sept. 5, which tells how the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe gave rise to the garment industry.

Hoop skirts represent one of the first pieces of women’s clothing mass-produced using machines. The fashion show will present a mix of garments — silk taffeta dresses, World War II minimalist designs, a wool “Jackie-O” suit — from each decade, ending with a 1960’s Betsey Johnson outfit – spandex culottes and top in one, revealing more than a little bit of midriff.

While Cooper’s entire collection of vintage clothing will appear at the show on Aug. 14, the Berkshire Historical Society (BHS) will display garments from its own collection in the exhibit, including a locally donated Civil War uniform.

“Clothing is an accessible way to talk about local history,” said Betsy Sherman, executive director of BHS. “Even without touching it’s a very visual and tactile experience. It changes the way we see things.” She explained that ready-to-wear clothing originated with Civil War: Uniforms were the first garments in which standard sizes were used.

It’s hard to believe the Betsey Johnson one-piece has origins with Catherine the Great. At the turn of the 19th-century “decrees made it so Jews could not own land,” Cooper said. The Russian Empress forced Jewish people into confined shtetls between the Black and Baltic Seas. By the late 1800’s, Jews sought to escape devastating pogroms, and the late 19th and early 20th century saw the influx of more than 2 million Jews to New York.

“In the shtetls,” Cooper said, “while the men were busy building, studying the Talmud, and educating male children within the synagogues, the women dominated the marketplace. They traded textiles, learned negotiating techniques, and became very entrepreneurial.”

These skills proved highly useful once in New York.

“It was a fertile place to become independent and successful,” she said. Women became “the movers and shakers of the industry on a daily level.”
Not only did they have entrepreneurial skills: They obviously understood women’s fashion. Soon, ready-to-wear garments became affordable, allowing women of lower economic classes to partake in more societal events.

Cooper, whose own grandparents were from Odessa and Minsk, worked in the fashion industry from 1970-2004, but her personal history had little to do with her idea for “Follow the Thread,” she said. She originally wanted to do a Holocaust-related project. A spiritual adviser put her in contact with an older couple, Holocaust survivors, who suggested instead a project that showed the contributions of Jews to society rather than portraying them as victims. It was in the middle of that conversation that Cooper began to envision “Follow the Thread.”

“The way I put things together is layered,” she said.

As a result her exhibit has evolved over several showings. The exhibit at Arrowhead will include Cooper’s latest addition to the project — a series of living history performances. She will collaborate with local theater arts professionals to create dramatic monologues from different time periods represented on her timeline, performed on several Tuesdays throughout July and August.

As a hoop skirt is an outline to envision an old-fashioned dress, Cooper’s project is a frame in which she hopes to express the universal theme: “adapting to a changing world.”

“To preserve the culture of our ancestors and infuse it with new life,” she said, “is to gift the next generation with strong roots and seeds of inspiration.”

If you go …
What: ‘Follow the Thread’ exhibit
Where: Arrowhead, 780 Holmes Road, Pittsfield
When: Opening Friday,
through Sept. 5

Fashion Show: Sunday, Aug. 14, at 7 p.m.
Guest Speaker: Humanities/History Scholar Michael Hoberman, Tuesday, July 19, 7 p.m.
Living History Performances: Tuesdays July 26, Aug. 9, Aug. 16, Aug. 23, all at 7 p.m.
Information: (413) 442-1793, http://www.mobydick.org

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