Say ‘Yes’ To The Dress

Say ‘Yes’ To The Dress

Old State House showcases first ladies’ gowns


From the post-World War II elegance of Anne McMath’s sleeveless black sheath to Hillary Clinton’s oh-s0-1979 bell-skirted, empire-waisted pink dress reminiscent of that decade’s popular Gunne Sax brand, the inaugural gowns worn by Arkansas’ first ladies return to the Old State House Museum on Sept. 14.

Conserving the gowns and evolving with technology to showcase and protect them has been a labor of love — one that started in 1942, seven years before the Old State House became a museum to house them.

It was the Arkansas Pioneers Association of Pulaski County that set the preservation plan in motion and the Old State House’s first curator, Agnes Loewer, who spearheaded the collection of the gowns and the funds to preserve them, says the museum’s current curator, Jo Ellen Maack. The first exhibit of them opened in 1955.

“We believe that after 1955, they remained in that same exhibit until 1984,” she says, when they went through a round of conservation with Washington, D.C., textile expert Harold Mailand and were moved downstairs to a new exhibit that offered the best conditions possible for that day and time. “Then in 1999, we moved them upstairs, brought Harold Mailand back in and once again used better techniques and better conservation methods for displaying them,” Maack says.

Since 1999, Mailand has come back several times to repair gowns that needed it, she says, but in 2014, “we noticed several gowns in really dire need of conservation work,” and that’s when a call went out to the former first ladies to raise the money for repairs and a new state-of-the-art exhibit. Included in the planning was a visit to the Smithsonian to meet with the curator of the first ladies’ gowns there. Maack says it was wonderful “to pick her brain,” but the news wasn’t all good.

“She said they just don’t put all the gowns out anymore,” she recounts. “They’re not all in the best shape — and they made that hard decision. No matter how much care is taken in how they’re displayed, it’s still hard on the gowns. Gravity and age are just not our friends.”

Maack made the same difficult decision for the Old State House, which has the largest collection of first ladies’ gowns outside the Smithsonian. Only 16 or 17 gowns will be on exhibit at any given time, and the gowns will be rotated off exhibit so they are not “standing up” on a dress form all the time. The gown worn by Arkansas’ current first lady will always be the centerpiece, she says, and one gown will be shown in a separate “conservation case” to share the work of maintaining the textiles, an undertaking that earned an Outstanding Conservation Work Award from the Arkansas Museum Association in 2017.

The beautiful glass showcase isn’t the only change to the “First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of their Times” exhibit, however. The newly renovated gallery also includes video interviews with many of the state’s first ladies detailing their accomplishments during their time in the Governor’s Mansion and exploring their work after their husbands left office.

“This exhibit isn’t just about the gowns,” Maack says. “This is also about the women that were first ladies — what were their causes, what were they champions of — education, health, the arts, children’s issues? It’s not just about one night that these women wore a pretty dress. It’s about the woman herself and what she did for the state of Arkansas. The things these women did are phenomenal.”

Curator Jo Maack (left) and conservator Harold Mailand with Textile Conservation Services work placing the gown of First Lady Eula Terral in a case in preparation for the opening of “First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times” exhibit. The exhibit opens Sept. 14.

Courtesy Photo
Susan Hutchinson’s gown will be the centerpiece of the new Old State House Museum exhibit while Asa Hutchinson is governor. It was designed by Helen Benton of Heber Springs, who also made inaugural gowns for Betty Tucker and Janet Huckabee. Her goal, Benton has said, was to create a dress that would make guests at the ball say, “Wow.



Opening Reception:

‘First Ladies of Arkansas’

WHEN — 5-8 p.m. Sept. 14

WHERE — Old State House Museum in Little Rock

COST — Free

INFO — 501-324-9685

Categories: Galleries