Barbara Peters celebrates her favorite season with exhibition titled ‘The Autumn Leaves, a Century of Fall Fashion’

Barbara Cole Peters
Barbara Cole Peters

“The lands are lit with all the autumn blaze of golden-rod,” wrote Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th century American journalist and novelist, “and everywhere the purple asters nod and bend and wave and flit.”

Jackson’s quote — along with several others like it, all in celebration of fall — adorns a wall of the NIU Art Museum to provide a loving and apt description of the fashions surrounding it.

Barbara Cole Peters, NIU’s first lady, has created a new and season-long exhibition of fashions from her 1,000-piece collection of 20th century women’s wear.

“The Autumn Leaves, a Century of Fall Fashion” features 37 fall garments that showcase deep and rich autumnal colors as well as luxurious and substantial fabrics. There are coats, day dresses, evening dresses, evening gowns and suits, some sewn by famous American and European designers and others stitched by ready-to-wear manufacturers and anonymous-but-talented dressmakers.

Peters spent a year researching, planning and designing the exhibition, which remains open through Saturday, Dec. 4. An opening reception is scheduled for 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, during which she will give a pair of gallery talks at 5:15 and 6 p.m.

Visitors who are fortunate enough to tour the gallery with Peters will clearly understand her affection for each piece.

“I only buy what I like. For instance, I do not have a felt poodle skirt in my collection,” Peters says in the 1950s section of the gallery, which reflects the decade of her childhood. “I grew up in a family of working class women who all made most of their own clothes, and their clothes were beautiful and stylish.”

She began collecting women’s vintage clothing in the 1960s — “I hated the baby doll clothes of the mid 1960s,” she says — and started collecting clothing from the 1930s and ’40s. “I never stopped,” she says, “and after about 20 years I realized I had the makings of a 20th century collection.” 

Printed information on the walls shed light on the tenor of the times and the fashion trends for each decade, as well as descriptions of individual garments.

Fashions from the 1910s offered great creativity and complexity. In the 1930s, anxiety regarding the Great Depression brought more somber choices in colors. World War II introduced rationing of fabric, although a little more color was introduced.

Women and designers in the early 1960s were inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy’s couture elegance, but the mid-decade gave way to a little girl style followed at decade’s end by ethnic and nostalgic references. The 1970s brought knits. The 1990s are remembered for their minimalism.

The Autumn Leaves, a Century of Fall FashionFurther historical context comes via a decade-by-decade timeline of cultural events that occurred during the autumn months. Peters describes these events and provides supporting visual depictions.

During the century’s first decade, for example, it’s the 1903 first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

NIU alum and World War I veteran Frank Dadds, and his 1918 words, hold the spotlight in the teens. Dadds was in the Argonne forest of France at the time of the Armistice and recalls the noise of war one moment followed by the silence of peace the next. Sound waves visible on a graphic recording that resembles an old film strip prove his memory correct. 

Nineteen-twenty-two brought the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the catalyst for some of that decade’s fashion revolution. In 1938, it was Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.”

She chose film for the 1940s — “Casablanca” — and theater for the 1950s: Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Music represents the 1960s with Pablo Casals’ concert at the White House. For the 1970s, it’s television and the debut of “Saturday Night Live. I.M. Pei’s architecture of the “Louvre Pyramid” came during the 1980s; and Tony Morrison’s Nobel Prize for literature in the 1990s.

“The Autumn Leaves” is sponsored in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, Friends of the NIU Art Museum and the Arts Fund 21.

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