Published on Show Me Mizzou April 27, 2023
Story by Dale Smith, BJ ’88
Fans of golden-age movie musicals are quick to deliver a classic quip about the era’s most famous dancing pair — Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. On a backdrop of the tux-clad and trig Astaire spinning the graceful Rogers through jaw-droppingly difficult numbers, the punchline goes: Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backward and in high heels.
But that’s not the half of it.
Despite the athleticism required, Rogers labored in constricting garments, aka shapewear, such as girdles.
And dancing in those magnificent gowns — gowns she proudly helped develop — sometimes entailed a world of logistical troubles. The feathered pieces she so loved had a habit of shedding on Astaire’s garments and flying into his face.
He was not amused.
She was not deterred.
They had entered “Let’s call the whole thing off” territory.
In the end, the price she paid for the feathers was spending precious energy and attention herding the exotic plumage as she danced. She wouldn’t allow it to so much as tickle her partner’s chin.
Rogers’ most taxing costume may have been a heavily beaded stunner of a gown that weighed in at 25 pounds. The garment hampered her balance to the point that she referred to its presence as the “third person in the act.”
Glamour comes to campus
Appearing in the trendsetting dresses was worth every ounce of preparation and accommodation to the Missouri-born performer, once a household name who rose to the top not only as a dancer and singer but also as a dramatic actor. Her look and star power inspired the tastes of millions of women who bought sewing patterns adapted from her dresses and stitched themselves into the Rogers fashion portfolio.
Now, Mizzou students are getting in on the action but with a curricular twist that has commandeered the imaginations and ambitions of design students across the Department of Textile and Apparel Management. And it all started with a polka dot dress Rogers wore in the 1959 TV film Tender Shoots. Said speckled dress is one of eight Rogers garments newly acquired by the department’s Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection, which specializes in garments of famous Missourians (and Tigers).
A special assignment
Enter the enterprising junior faculty member Mackenzie Miller, who saw in the polka dot dress an engaging project for her introductory sewing course. She wanted to offer students a special assignment, something “beyond the usual pencil skirts and button-up shirts.” So, museum-style, Miller donned white gloves, measured the dress and fed the numbers into CLo3D software to make patterns printable at any size. Students’ task would be to use the existing dress as a springboard to create their own garments.
In the meantime, costume collection Curator Nicole Johnston, BA ’97, MS ’11, had written a presentation about Rogers and took it on the road to Miller’s classroom. The hurdle? In fall 2022, few students in the department knew Rogers’ name, much less the scale of her legendary career.
With the patterns at the ready, Johnston’s talk catalyzed a major plot twist.
The class became an instant fan club, Miller says. “They really connected with Ginger, this Hollywood star from Missouri. She was so fashionable and glamorous, so feathers-and-beads. So wow.” Students now had a muse, and their design ideas came in a rush. “Some were inspired to create a dress Ginger might have worn.”
Others, Miller adds, wanted to give her garments a modern twist. “One student came up talking about how she wanted to do something pink in satin with feathers. She hesitated, though, wondering if it might be too much. Then she said, ‘But Ginger is too much!’”
Enthusiasm was so strong that Miller jettisoned the course’s final project and expanded the Rogers assignment to fill the rest of the term. Her 11 students spent six of the course’s regular three-hour sewing-lab sessions workshopping ideas and perhaps 30 to 60 hours more outside of class constructing the dresses, adding details and polishing designs.
Taking it home
For Johnston, this intensity is about much more than a sprinkling of Ginger Rogers stardust. It derives in part from the presence of her dresses — the artifacts themselves — which were on display in the department. “The language of dress contains so many factors of the time: technology, social structure, economics, politics, religion, communication, ideals of body types, even the period’s sewing techniques. It’s all there as a sort of time capsule telling us what that era looked like beyond the clothing.” Few universities have historic costume collections. Even fewer offer students a chance to work with such garments, and the opportunity to design from patterns painstakingly created from them is unique.
Hands-on sewing classes also give students a lesson on the value of clothing. “You can sit in a lecture and learn that people sewing your $5
T-shirt are only paid a dollar a day,” Miller says. “But by sewing for themselves, students realize that, ‘Hey, it took me 30 hours to make a dress. Making clothes is hard.’ Then they can look in their closet and see that garments are often worth more than we’re paying for them.” The knowledge coming in through the fingertips becomes part of their personal and professional repertoire ever after.
The Rogers vogue soon spread. Once students and faculty across the department got wind of the Rogers-inspired dresses, they wanted a chance to do the same. Now five other classes have taken up the design task. The project has generated so much interest that Johnston and the textile and apparel management department have decided to present a selection of the dresses at a university gala in 2024. It’s become a competition — a friendly one but a competition nonetheless. “I have students coming up to me asking how they can get their gown into the gala,” Johnston says. “It’s a new zeitgeist of creativity and energy here.”
At semester-end, students prepared to present finished dresses to Miller and fellow classmates. Several days had passed since their last meeting, and the work of refining the garments and adding embellishments had continued out of Miller’s view.
But what a sight the unveiling turned out to be. There were faux pearls glued one by one all over a floor-length gown. Other dresses boasted embroidery or detailed trim or rows upon rows of feathers stitched on by hand. “I knew they had it in them, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Miller says. “I was almost brought to tears I was so excited.”
Months later, Miller still beams with pride. “Instead of assigning my students to make a garment, I challenged them to be designers. They took risks and did amazing.”
Dressed to thrill
Senior, Kansas City
The polka dot dress assignment appears custom-tailored to Rosario’s lineage of sewing and history of watching old movies with her father, who introduced her to Ginger Rogers. Inspired by a Rogers coat — long and black with black fur trim — Rosario kept the basic fit of the original polka dot design but gave it a boat neckline, lengthened the skirt and lowered the back. She used dyed turkey feathers to trim the bottom and make a matching shawl that includes a phone pocket to avoid the visual distraction of carrying a clutch. When the time comes, Rosario adds, she hopes to have a daughter and hand it down.
Freshman, Kansas City
In high school, Owens upcycled vintage skirts and sold them to friends, rather than logging hours at a mall job. She’d buy a long skirt for next to nothing, transform it at her sewing machine into a miniskirt and fabricate a matching top with the leftover fabric.
Owens’ current venture requires an embroidery machine bought with upcycling profits to produce custom items for her sorority sisters. For the Rogers project, her entrepreneurial eye spotted an open niche. Seeing some classmates working on pink dresses with feathers, she went instead for “a big piece, something Ginger could have worn to an event or awards show.”
See more Ginger Rogers’ dresses and students’ designs
A webpage featuring the Ginger Rogers Collection (mizzou.us/GingerRogers) includes all of her dresses in MU’s collection. In July, some student designs will be on display in Gwynn Hall and online. Mizzou’s Golden Gala in April 2024 will be an evening of dinner, dancing and design showcasing creative scholarship, including students modeling their Rogers-inspired garments. The Center for Missouri Studies exhibition Ginger Rogers: Dressed to Impress, running February through June 2024 at the State Historical Society of Missouri, will include up to five student designs and a virtual exhibit of all student designs from multiple classes. You’ll find the exhibits at mizzou.us/MHCTCexhibits.
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