Happy birthday to us! This month, Women’s History Month, marks our two-year anniversary—and what a ride it has been! We started out learning to wear masks and asking, “WTF is social distancing?” Now we’re starting to take them off, sort of, seemingly for good? Maybe we shouldn’t jinx it! 

Fun fact: On this day in 2020 the two of us squeezed in one socially distanced photoshoot with Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman of Refugee Artisan Initiative. Talk about an artifact of the time—we also brought containers so we could score some homemade hand sanitizer from Bob’s Liquor in Lake City to bring home for the lockdown to come. Thanks for being with us—we’re grateful to all who have shared their stories and to all of you who have subscribed and don't just hit “delete” when we pop up in your inbox.

Before we dive in, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the war and daily devastation being waged in Ukraine—here are some local organizations working to help. We also want to acknowledge the bravery of journalist Marina Ovsyannikova’s protest. We are profoundly moved by what women in Russia and Ukraine are doing to stop the war.

In this issue, Nia talks to Clara Berg about what artifacts and historical fashion can tell us about the past—and what gets left out. And, Niki springs forward with one woman’s fresh approach that challenges the image of a popular practice.
If you like our work and support our mission of valuing the work that women do, please consider celebrating our two-year milestone with a contribution. Every little bit boosts our efforts to provide original, quality journalism and to grow and bring you more voices and stories. Thanks to those who’ve been pitching in—it means the world!
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Unbuttoning the Past 

What do clothing and textile artifacts tell us about women in Seattle’s history? A lot, says Clara Berg, the Museum of History and Industry’s curator of collections—and also not enough.

Clara Berg’s passion for clothing artifacts and museums goes back a long way. She has been with the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) for a decade, becoming the curator of collections in 2019. But her history goes back even farther: In high school, she did her senior internship project with MOHAI and continued to volunteer between college and graduate school; she finally joined MOHAI as a staff member when she earned her master’s degree from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. She curated the Seattle Style: Fashion/Function exhibit in 2019 and authored the exhibit’s companion book. Photo: MOHAI, Kathleen Kennedy Knies.

For every woman’s name in local history that we do know, there’s many more we don’t. Much of history is written by men, about men. Clara Berg, curator of collections for the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), says that when it comes to history, as a society, we tend to value the above-and-beyond accomplishments of women over those who conducted everyday, routine work—which mostly goes unsung: “It doesn’t mean that they weren’t working hard, that they weren’t ambitious. That they weren’t loving people or making incredible impacts in people’s lives,” says Berg. Whether remembered in history, or not, women have always been invaluable to their families, friends, workplaces, and communities.

The Seattle area (Duwamish territory) is home to many memorable and groundbreaking women throughout its history, such as Kikisoblu, Bertha Knight Landes, Ruby Chow, Zoë Dusanne, Lou Graham, Tina Bell, and Ramona Bennett (to name just a few of many).

It’s necessary to honor the stories of revolutionary women, but it’s also essential to interrogate how institutions and processes of preservation influence who we know and who we don’t—and how we can learn more. Berg’s work—she has been at MOHAI for a decade and was promoted to curator of collections in 2019—relies on acquiring and studying the items from people’s lives that are saved and passed down. But what makes one artifact a candidate for preservation versus another? And who, historically, assigns value to them? These questions fall under the umbrella of what Berg refers to as “survival bias,” also known as “preservation bias,” and it factors into any museum display you see, as curators attempt to identify, and fill, historical gaps in their collections.

Berg’s specialty is in clothing and textile artifacts. “I just find it really powerful to have this stuff from the past that has outlived people and the stuff that probably will outlive me.” Things that are made for women’s consumption are mocked or treated as frivolous in our culture, and that includes fashion and clothing. But apparel can be a gold mine of information about how women lived. There’s a particular intimacy in it as well, says Berg. “It’s so kind of personal that somebody wore this. Somebody had this on their body,” she says. “Just everyday things that kind of evoke a moment in time. And it can be this really powerful connection to the past.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many (though not all) of the examples of women’s clothing in MOHAI’s collection (which were exhibited in 2019 for Seattle Style: Fashion/Function; you can access several of the pieces through the digital collection here) belonged to women in upper classes.

This evening gown with lace overlay was worn by retail shop owner Helen Igoe circa 1911. A favorite subject from Berg’s research, Igoe successfully owned and operated her shop as a single woman from 1910 until her retirement in 1960. Image courtesy of MOHAI.
A “casual” outfit of the 1940s from Best’s Apparel run by Dorothy Best and her husband Ivan—he, and all her children, used her maiden name as their surnames. Nordstrom purchased Best’s after her death in the 1950s. This outfit was worn by the donor’s grandmother at Madison Park beach. Image courtesy of MOHAI. 

“It’s the fancy clothes that sort of survive best,” says Berg (more on that in a minute), “but there is a pretty strong theme of women wanting practicality in Seattle.” Many items reflect an affinity for casual attire and sportswear, from cotton and patterned clothing, to athletic wear and pants—before it was commonplace for women to wear them. “And that’s been a pretty consistent theme of comfort, of practical clothes being a staple of a Seattle woman’s wardrobe.”

About those fancy clothes: If you’ve ever seen clothing in a museum, you’ve probably thought that, women especially, were often dressed to the nines, or “Wow, everyone used to be so small!” But that’s not the whole picture. When it comes to displaying clothes, museums have to work with what actually gets passed down—and a housecoat or favorite workday blouse are harder to come by. “There’s the challenge of what things get saved, versus what really tells people’s stories,” says Berg.

People throughout time have existed in a diverse spectrum of bodies, but you often wouldn’t know it from browsing a museum collection, because the clothing with the least wear and tear is what lasts and typically gets displayed. Smaller clothing in particular might have been worn by someone who was still growing, which means it was likely worn significantly less. Similarly, with special occasion clothes, a woman could have worn a cotton house dress every day of her life except her wedding day—but that single-wear wedding dress is what survives. A displayed garment is just one frame from the much larger reel of women’s lives. But, for an observer, it’s easy to take what's visibly displayed as fact—and harder to conjure what isn’t right in front of them without the larger context.

In addition to upper-class women, the MOHAI collection also includes clothing from many notable shop owners: That was one of the few professions women could have to earn their own living, though the field was still heavily male-dominated. One such woman was Helen Igoe, who opened a store in Seattle in 1910. “I feel like I’m buddies with her,” jokes Berg, who has studied Igoe extensively. “She was making buying trips to Paris, basically, from then [until] she retired in 1960.” Traveling to and from Paris from Seattle as a woman in the 1910s–1920s was no easy feat. Igoe was only briefly married, but never changed her last name and became incredibly successful as a single woman at a time when that was extremely rare.

Another influential businesswoman is how Nordstrom came to sell clothes in addition to shoes. The Nordstrom family purchased Best’s Apparel after the death of co-founder Dorothy Best in the late 1950s. Dorothy—Best was her maiden name—and her husband owned the store for over 30 years: “He changed his last name to hers,” says Berg. A Russian immigrant, Dorothy’s husband Ivan felt his last name was less marketable than hers. “She had children from an earlier marriage who used her last name. Their children, her and Ivan’s children, used her last name. That's uncommon even today, and unheard of in the ’20s and ’30s.”

A 1920s two-piece hiking outfit. Considered rebellious for the time, these cotton knickers mark a shift in fashion and lifestyle; women previously had to hike in long skirts. Image courtesy of MOHAI.
Circa 1960s–70s cotton and synthetic dress. This example of an everyday clothing item was made by Marontate-Jones, Inc., one of Seattle’s oldest and longest-running womenswear manufacturers. Image courtesy of MOHAI.

However, women of color, and women who didn’t come from means, were largely shut out of industries that only let a very small number of women break through to begin with, Berg explains. That’s another dilemma with preservation bias—what’s saved may only be from a very narrow sample of society. Even those items are more often specialty, instead of pieces that tell us about people’s day-in-day-out lives.

This is also partly because certain models for collecting have been in place for a long time. “There used to be, kind of, this art museum mentality,” says Berg of how museums operated (and in many cases still do). “You want the highest quality craftsmanship, you know, everything in the best condition. And history museums kind of collect like that, too. You want the most incredible gowns from this period, you want, you know, the finest examples of china that would be on people’s tables.” But things are changing and Berg herself gets particularly excited when everyday pieces from lesser known women are brought into the museum. “We do want to recognize important people in Seattle’s history. But everyday stories are really compelling, too,” she says. On the surface an ordinary piece may not seem special, but “then when you read the story about them, you're like, ‘Oh, wow, I can’t believe that someone saved this, this is such a cool thing.’”

Museums, like other institutions, are having to address how they’ve operated and functioned, and, in many cases, are starting to work towards improvement. “We have not been telling enough stories of people of color, lower income people, the LGBTQ community, the disability community. There’s so many important Seattle stories that haven’t been told,” says Berg. “We’re working on changing that.” Part of that change is examining what’s included or excluded, who is brought on to share their expertise and perspective, and pulling away from the idea that there can only be one correct theory about an artifact.

Take, for example, our own treasured clothing and textiles we’ve kept and utilized for years. They have multiple stories behind them that only we can know—and when we’re gone, others who look at them will also have their own perspectives about those pieces in relation to our lives. Engaging with the past is about learning as much as we can to honor the truth of someone’s story, but it’s also about being aware of the variety of possibilities available.

“There’s no single set-in-stone history,” says Berg. People, she says, often find history and museums boring because information is often drily presented as facts to absorb, rather than as a connection to humanity. But curators and those who run museums can work to change that. “We want to have programming where people are kind of discovering things for themselves,” she says, “programs and lectures where people are talking about parts of history that we haven't thought about before—seeing it as this continual process of discovery.” By Nia Martin

Further Resources

For more local resources that include the history of women, MOHAI’s Clara Berg recommends:

Museum of History and Industry

Wing Luke Museum

Black Heritage Society of Washington State

Northwest African American Museum

Vanishing Seattle

The Seattle Times and Seattle P.I. archives, available through the public library 

history archives at University of Washington


Our additional recommendations:

Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center and Burke Museum

The Fashion and Race Database

National Women’s History Museum

She Made It

What makes this yoga practice stand out and who’s behind it? Tap the image to find out...


What to see or do this week/end

Currently, mask and vaccine mandates have been lifted. However, Covid-19 variants are still a risk, especially for some. Please follow the rules of the businesses or events you patronize and protect your and your community’s health by getting vaccinated and boosted if you haven’t already.

This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing opens today at ArtsWest. The family-friendly (age 7 and up recommended) play is a fairytale about triplet sisters left in the forest who decide to take separate journeys, reconvening 20 years later as adults and sharing their stories. While you're there, check out artist Vanessa Ly-Nguyen’s exhibition, also on view today through April.

I hoard lotions and creams to a possibly unhealthy extent, so I need to shout out Acacia Corson’s Badder Body and her current “IMSPRUNG 2022” seasonal vegan body butter blends based in coconut, jojoba, and olive oils plus shea butter. The limited edition scents, like Down2Marz (cucumber rose) or By Da P(#)und (lemon pound cake) are song- and dance-inspired so you just might get an earworm with your jar too.


Recently released, artist 
Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe's Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk reveals her journey to reclaim her heritage through blending the aesthetics of punk with the traditional spiritual practices of women in her lineage.

SIFF passes, packages, and ticket bundles are now on sale for next month! Back in person, and with virtual screening options, SIFF showcases local filmmakers as well as several films made by women. I can’t wait for the full lineup release on March 30th

Newly opened Lazy Cow Bakery serves up delectable plant-based cakes and pastries. Helmed by Lara de la Rosa, the bakery runs on a socialist production model and is in partnership with La Casa Del Xoloitzcuintle—a Latinx mutual aid organization and community center.
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