Those pouffy hoop skirts and slinky flapper dresses tell the story of our time

The bell skirt made its fashion statement in the mid-1800s.
The bell skirt made its fashion statement in the mid-1800s. N.C. Museum of History

While some might dismiss it as frivolity, fashion can be a powerful tool in examining societal trends throughout history.

That’s the thinking behind a new exhibition at the N.C. Museum of History. “The Shape of Fashion” explores cultural shifts in North Carolina through the garments worn during different eras of the 1800s and 1900s. The exhibition, which is on display through May 6, 2018, includes everything from the frilly hoop skirts of the Civil War era to slinky flapper dresses from the 1920s.

“I think one of the most obvious things that visitors will notice is how much less restrictive women’s clothing became once women began entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1900s,” says RaeLana Poteat, who curated the exhibition. “All those undergarments that had been used to squeeze or pad or contort the shape of women’s bodies began to fall out of fashion in favor of looks that emphasized easy movement and a more natural shape.”

Whittling down the choices from the museum’s expansive collection of apparel was daunting, but Poteat and her team focused on the exhibition’s theme – shape – to select the most appropriate frocks.

“They had to be good representatives of the shape they were depicting, they had to have been worn by North Carolinians, and they had to be visual showstoppers,” Poteat says. “Visitors may not find every shape to their taste, but I bet most people will immediately be drawn to a personal favorite.”

In addition to the garments, the exhibition includes photographs further illustrating the trends, as well as several videos of models going through the multi-step process of donning some of the historical looks.

“When you’re looking at a mannequin, it’s very hard to get a sense of all the layers and the particular structured undergarments that go into making a dress look a certain way,” Poteat says. “So we thought visitors would enjoy seeing modern women getting dressed, step by step, in reproduction clothing – reacting to what it feels like to dress up in these older styles.”

And just like today’s world of fast fashion and knockoffs that mimic the haute couture looks, these pieces from the past show that fashion styles were adapted across class lines. Further proof that no matter the era or trend, fashion holds a place of importance.

“I find it fascinating to see how less wealthy North Carolinians adapted high-end fashion trends,” Poteat says. “The sleeves may not have been as large or the skirts as wide, and the fabric may not have been as fancy, but all levels of society clearly wanted to wear the look of the moment and be stylish, just as we do today.”

Trunk Shows

▪ Kannon’s Clothing in Cameron Village hosts a Copley Custom Clothing event at its men’s store Sept. 27-28. Shoppers will receive special pricing on all made-to-measure orders during those two days. Call 919-366-6902 for details. At Kannon’s women’s store, also in Cameron Village, fall and spring looks from Joseph Ribkoff will be in store Sept. 28-29. The store also will feature new jewelry from Gigi & Sugar, and light lunch and wine will be served both days. Call 919-365-7074 for more information.

▪ The fall trunk show series at Dovecote Style in Pittsboro’s Fearrington Village continues Sept. 29-30 with pants from Lisette L. The company is known for pants designed to fit women of all body types. For more info, call 919-542-1145.

▪ New pieces from Elizabeth Locke jewelry will be available at Bailey’s Fine Jewelry during a trunk show at its Cameron Village location. Call 919-829-7337 for the details.

Adore under new ownership

Change is in the air at the Cary location of Adore Designer Resale Boutique. The store is under new ownership and has a new name – J’Adore. New owner and former Adore employee Nicole Denny plans to retain much of the existing staff, and the store will have a similar concept. The Raleigh location of Adore will not change, according to an email from owner Nancy Alinovi.

Heidi Klum at Lidl

Other than their mutual German roots, the pairing of model and television host Heidi Klum with bargain grocer Lidl might seem an odd match. But the fashionista recently launched a clothing line dubbed Esmara at the store. Available for while supplies last, the line includes 70 pieces ranging in price from $6.99 to $29.99. A genuine leather jacket is more than reasonably priced at $49.99. To check out the collection, visit or go to the Wake Forest store.