Chicago Down Under: Costume Vault

November 3, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Each time-honored ensemble is kept *new* with tender care for generations to come, 50,000 pieces, each with a story to celebrate.

This is the second largest "costume" collection in the world. The term costume isn't about Halloween but refers to any apparel of historic value.

There's a vest from George Washington's wardrobe circa 1770s in his "expansive" years and a well-traveled garment to be sure.

"This piece being connected to a president has the highest level of dress making, so you have exquisite material. The material was woven in France, sent to England to be embroidered and back to the United States," said the museum's Timothy Long.

The first family from the Land of Lincoln is represented in the treasures.

"What we have inside here is an ensemble that was worn by Mary Todd Lincoln during the presidential years of her husband at the White House in the 1860s," said Long.

Jackie O's fashion statements are in the mix. Fast forward to the stylings of Michael Jordan and the fans who made him a star.

"We have workers, CTA bus drivers uniforms, high fashion, the celebrities. We are the history of Chicago, so our goals is to represent all walks of Chicago life," said Long.

Garments are housed in archival boxes and never touched with bare hands. Unbleached muslin preserves them for display, each tagged to identify its pedigree. Even the "curve" appeal reflects the anatomy of eras going back 250 years.

"Every five years or so there'll be a new silhouette, a flattened silhouette or a very voluptuous silhouette, and that was all created by a corset or even undergarments," Long said.

Madonna may have introduced some tweens and teens to corsets, but they're old news in this lingerie trove. Women who wore them trained their torsos down to 18- to 22-inch waists.

"You simply couldn't put a corset on a woman today who hasn't had previous experience with a corset and expect her to get her waist down. You would cause great damage. The internal organs need to be displaced, the lung capacity is reduced," Long said.

A bride is never out of style. That's why the lavish "I Do: Chicago Ties the Knot" exhibit is such a hit. It took Long and his staff more than a year to create the exhibit from heads to toes. Gowns unfurled carry the love stories of more than 150 years of Chicago couples beginning their shared history. Precious memories, every one, lovingly cherished. Just a chapter from the Chicago History Museum's costume vault

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