Life is Short, Wear Sequins: Early 20th Century Couture on Display in “Experience Oregon”

October 29, 2019

By Helen Fedchak

The M & A Shogren dressmaking business, owned by sisters May and Ann Shogren, was Portland’s haute couture house during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This detail of one of their dresses from the early 1900s features delicate sequins, likely made of gelatin, which sparkle under the exhibit lights. The Oregon Historical Society is fortunate to hold several Shogren dresses in its museum collection, which will rotate approximately annually through this case in “Experience Oregon,” OHS’s permanent exhibit. Photograph by Andie Petkus Photography.
Ann Shogren, OHS Research Library, OrHi 103649
Ann Shogren is pictured here in about 1887.
May Shogren, ca. 1887, OHS Research Library, OrHi 103650
May Shogren is pictured here in about 1887.

One of my favorite parts of the new Experience Oregon exhibit is the costume case dedicated to the work of the Shogren sisters. In the mid-1890s, sisters May and Ann Shogren opened M & A Shogren, their Portland-based dressmaking business. These daughters of Swedish immigrants went on to make outstanding clothes for the wealthy women of Oregon and beyond, and for about twenty years, they operated Portland’s own haute couture house. You can read more about the Shogrens in the “M & A Shogren” entry on the Oregon Encyclopedia. Their dresses are exceptional, and it’s a real pleasure to be able to showcase them in the exhibit.

Detail of ca. 1900–1910 M & A Shogren dress, OHS Museum 86-181.1.1,.2
The evening gown currently on display in “Experience Oregon” dates from about 1900–1910 and is a typical design for that period — wide neckline, short, puffed sleeves, and a drooping “pigeon breast” bodice.

Because historic costumes are delicate and long-term display can cause damage, the Shogren dress on display in Experience Oregon will rotate out on an approximately annual basis. We are fortunate to have several Shogren dresses that are in good enough condition to be displayed. The dress we chose when Experience Oregon debuted in February 2019 is a real showstopper! It’s an evening gown dating from around 1900–1910, with very typical design details from that period. The wide neckline, short, puffed sleeves, and drooping “pigeon breast” bodice were all high fashion during that time. What is particularly spectacular about this dress is the amount and quality of beading and sequins. Under the exhibit case’s careful lighting, which the exhibit designers manufactured specially to hold these dresses, the dress simply sparkles. You can’t miss it as you go through the exhibit.

Shogren dress on display in 2019 in OHS’s “Experience Oregon” exhibit. OHS Museum 86-181.1.1,.2. Andie Petkus Photography.
The evening gown on display in 2019 in OHS’s “Experience Oregon” exhibit posed some technical challenges to mount — the dress is heavy and made of very delicate fabric. Creating the display required two people to lift it into place on the dress form while wearing gloves to prevent damage to the sequins. Andie Petkus Photography.

Mounting dresses on forms for exhibit is always somewhat of a challenge. For a dress such as this one, with such a wide neckline, we needed to find a dress form that had wide enough shoulders to support the bodice. Both the bodice and the skirt are heavy, but also very delicate, and required two people to lift it into place on the form. The spectacular sequins present a problem of their own; the ones on this dress are likely made of gelatin that can melt from the heat of a hand touching them, so wearing gloves at all times handling this dress is essential. We also monitor the heat and humidity inside the case to ensure ideal conditions for its preservation.

We know a little about the history of the dress. It belonged to Grace Noyes, who was born in 1886 in Newberg, Oregon. She married Ralph Williams in 1911. Originally from Dallas, Oregon, he was the Republican National Committee representative for Oregon as well as a banker, hop dealer, and wholesale druggist. They lived in Portland after their marriage. As Grace was from a prominent Newberg family, we don’t actually know whether the dress dates from before or after her marriage to Williams. What is certain is that it would have been very expensive and that it bears the distinctive Shogren label on the inside waist tape of the bodice.

Waist label of Shogren dress, OHS Museum.
This is an example of the type of label sewn into the Shogrens’ commercially made dresses. It resembles the label inside the evening gown worn by Grace Noyes (Williams) that is on display in 2019 in OHS’s “Experience Oregon” exhibit.
M & A Shogren employees outside the dressmaking shop, ca. 1912. OHS Research Library, OrHi 62453
Women who made dresses for M & A Shogren pose for a photograph outside the dressmaking shop in about 1912. The Portland-based business created couture gowns for wealthy women in Oregon and beyond.

Be sure to look out for future Shogren dresses in Experience Oregon. They are all amazing examples of dressmaking from the turn of the nineteenth century, and we hope that visitors enjoy seeing them on display.

The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of OHS. The Oregon Historical Society does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.