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.
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.
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.
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.
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