Preserving History, Educating the Next Generation

Mount Mary University’s Fashion Archive consists of thousands of garments and accessories as well as fashion art originals and periodicals ranging from the 18th century to the present with a broad representation of 20th century fashions. It features both couture and ready-to-wear garments from such fashion luminaries as Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Norman Norell, Bonnie Cashin, Oscar de la Renta, Jean Patou, Karl Largerfeld and more. Original illustrations of Archive garments by esteemed fashion artist Steven Stipelman and fashion photographs and articles by Milwaukee Journal fashion editor Aileen Ryan are preserved within the Archives.

Maintained by the University’s Fashion Department, the Archive is the only such resource in the state of Wisconsin. Many items are one-of-a-kind museum quality pieces, appropriate for both exhibition and research. This vast array of artifacts from internationally renowned designers serves multiple purposes.

Fashion Archive History

Conceived 50 years ago by Sister Aloyse Hessburg, SSND, (Fashion Archive) the first chairperson of the Mount Mary Fashion Department, the Archive is a teaching tool for the University’s fashion students, providing them a treasure trove of items that highlight various aspects of high-quality design and general clothing construction. Mount Mary fashion faculty use items from the Archive in the classroom to illustrate construction techniques, fabric selections, embellishments and other elements of fashion design. Students research the collection for additional information and inspiration for their own designs.

Once called “one of the best regional costume collections in the country” by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Fashion Archive is truly a rich educational tool and an important historical resource.  Items represent the evolution of fashion and provide a historical context for daily life. From the most elegant designer gowns, to an 1840 maternity dress, to a pair of embroidered jeans fashioned during the protests of the 1960s, each garment is a window into the past.

Items from the Archive have been featured in exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Ten Chimneys, The Museum of Wisconsin Art, the Pabst Mansion, the Wisconsin State Historical Society and other venues in our region and beyond.

Noteworthy Collections

The Archive includes garments from the closets of prominent Wisconsin women including designer Florence Eiseman, chanteuse Hildegarde, actress Lynn Fontanne, Wisconsin First Ladies and more. Many items chronicle the history of the garment industry in Milwaukee, including notable manufacturers Reliable Knitting, Jack Winter, JH Collectibles and others that were important collaborators of Sr. Aloyse and Mount Mary’s premier Fashion program.

Collections designed in America and many by distinguished American women including Valentina, Claire McCardell, Pauline Trigere, Irene, Hattie Carnegie and Bonnie Cashin are fundamental to fashion history and are featured within the Mount Mary Fashion Archives. 

An exceptional collection within the Fashion Archive consists of 34 Ebony Fashion Fair designer garments that were part of this annual fashion event that traveled across the United States and other countries between 1958 and 2009. Created by Eunice Johnson, co-founder of Johnson Publishing Company, the Fashion Fair was inspired by the photographs published in Ebony magazine, and helped redefine beauty, style, and empowerment for African Americans. Mount Mary hosted four shows between 1996 and 2001, and in 2015 was a presenting sponsor of Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Friends of Fashion

Items in the Archive have been purchased through auction and obtained through gifts, including the Charles Kleibacker Collection of European and American designer garments amassed by the American designer and donated to Mount Mary in recognition of his long-time support of the Fashion Program. The Friends of Fashion, a group of individuals dedicated to the conservation of historic clothing and cultural artifacts, were integral in supporting the preservation and growth of the Archive from the 1990’s through the mid 2010’s.

Arts and Culture

The Archive is also an important artistic and aesthetic resource. Members of the arts community can utilize the Archive for information and inspiration to help them authentically incorporate fashion into their own work.

Mount Mary Digital Fashion Archive

In 2020, Mount Mary was proud to receive a substantial grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to uncover this ‘hidden collection’ by funding a 2-year 360° digital photography project. The Mount Mary Digital Fashion Archive opens up this extraordinary resource to a local, national and international audience. The ability to access the collection at any time, in any place, establishes the Archive as a prominent resource for educational, cultural and artistic inspiration.

Plans For The Future

Moving forward, Mount Mary strives to increase awareness of the Fashion Archive and the university’s fashion program, to protect these irreplaceable artifacts, to offer community and scholarly access to the Fashion Archive and to establish a permanent exhibition gallery to showcase the Fashion Archive to a wider audience.