Whether you’re a devoted fashion maven, a “Project Runway” fan or simply a local history buff, a visit to the new exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society should be on your fall calendar.

“Spectrum of Fashion: Celebrating Maryland’s Style,” which opened on Oct. 5, includes approximately 100 items from the MdHS’s fashion collection, including men’s and women’s garments, accessories and decorative art objects. The oldest item in the exhibition is an embroidered silk apron dating to 1724.

“With our fashion archive, we can represent fashion from almost every decade beginning in the 1700s,” says Alexandra Deutsch, lead curator for the exhibition and former vice president of collections and interpretation for the MdHS. “We have a broad sweep of time and narratives you don’t see at other places. We have fashion from people who were formally enslaved, suffragettes, first ladies and all types of people connected to Maryland.”

Deutsch first learned about the MdHS’s extensive fashion collection when she began working at the cultural institution in 2008. Since then, she has collaborated with staff members and summer interns to get the clothing out of storage, processed and properly cared for.

“For me, this exhibit is a decade in the making,” says Deutsch. “We are doing a range of fashion, instead of focusing on a single time period, because costume has never been displayed on any large scale at the Maryland Historical Society. This exhibit will give visitors the opportunity to see the depths of our collection.”

That collection includes clothing designed by Frederick native Claire McCardell, as well as iconic designers such as Hermès, Pierre Cardin and Charles Frederick Worth. A gown worn to George Washington’s inaugural ball, and apparel worn by Baltimore native Wallis Simpson, the duchess of Windsor, are also on display.

On a more somber note, livery worn by enslaved people who worked and lived at the Hampton mansion in Towson reminds visitors of Maryland’s legacy of slavery and servitude.

The MdHS collection also contains a handful of pieces that belonged to prominent members of Maryland’s Jewish community, including a rare men’s dressing gown called a banyan worn by Pvt. Samuel Etting, who defended Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

A fur coat that once belonged to Gretchen Hochschild Hutzler, a member of the family that owned one of Baltimore’s largest department stores, also is part of the exhibition. (Hochschild Hutzler married into the Hutzler family, which owned another top-tier Baltimore department store.)

“Back in the day, Maryland was a big center for manufacturing and had some of the grandest department stores,” Deutsch says. “As a port city, you had the highest textiles in the colonies being imported into Baltimore. And we have Marylanders like Elizabeth Bonaparte who had connections to France and was arguably one of the first American women bringing French couture into America. And she was bringing it to Baltimore.”

Fashion as Survival

For Baltimore-based fashion designer Bishme Cromartie, legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham’s quote “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life” describes perfectly what fashion means to him. Growing up in East Baltimore, the “Project Runway”finalist, who started sketching dresses and garments at age 9, used design as his way to survive.

“The neighborhood I grew up in was rough, and I could put my feelings and emotions into fashion and use it as my escape,” says Cromartie, 28. “I remember teaching myself how to hand-sew, and then having my aunt teach me more of the basics. I would then work with any fabrics I could get my hands on and make garments for my G.I. Joes.”

Throughout his childhood and teenage years, the self-taught designer would spend his days designing masterpieces, creating his first gown as a high school freshman.

“My first actual client was in ninth grade when one of the girls asked me to sketch a design for her prom dress,” Cromartie remembers. “The following year, it was the buzz around town, and by my senior year I missed my own prom because I was so busy making everyone’s dresses.”

It was also during Cromartie’s senior year that he was approached by a stylist to create two floor-length printed gowns for an Elle Vietnam New York photo shoot.

“I design with passion and meaning behind the garments,” says Cromartie, who describes his clothes as a mixture of avant-garde and contemporary. “I use my clothes to send out positive and uplifting messages, and I hope those wearing them feel confident and capable no matter where they came from.”

Beginning in October, one of Cromartie’s dresses designed for the 2009 Elle photo shoot will be on display at the “Spectrum of Fashion” exhibit.

“I never thought a garment of mine would be in a museum,” says Cromartie, who has dressed celebrities such as Mel B, Fantasia and Dascha Polanco from Netflix’s hit series “Orange is the New Black”and has been a part of Los Angeles, New York and Brooklyn fashion weeks. “I have always wanted to keep a connection to Baltimore, so to have a piece in this collection makes me see myself as what I have always dreamed. It’s always been important to me to have recognition from my hometown because I feel if you have that, there isn’t a thing you can’t do. You can take on the world.”

Dedicated Followers of Fashion (Oh Yes They Are!)

Barbara Katz, the MdHS’s first woman president and a major donor to the exhibition, says she has always loved fashion and remembers shopping at Hutzler’s.

“Hutzler’s French Room carried everything,” says Katz, 85, who collected fashion books as a teenager. “I love the history of clothes and have made a study of it, which is why this exhibit means so much to me.”

It’s that kind of passion for fashion that led Katz to make a generous donation, — along with other patrons donations and a grant from the Richard C. Von Hess Foundation – to help make the exhibition possible.

Katz notes the exhibition isn’t only comprised of clothes and garments from past eras.

“We are doing new pieces as well, and it’s fascinating to see how fashion has evolved. I donated a Geoffrey Beene long red-and-black dress to the exhibit that I used to wear to local parties, “ says Katz, whose personal collection of scarves numbers more than 300. “The Maryland Historical Society’s costume collection is awesome. There is something for everyone in this exhibit.”

To celebrate the exhibition’s opening, the MdHS hosted a “Spectrum of Fashion” gala on Oct. 5. The evening included food, drinks, dancing and a fashion show emceed by famed fashion designer and Maryland native Christian Siriano.

“As a history museum, we want to bring history into today, which is why we are tying the exhibit into a fashion show that will showcase contemporary designers,” says Allison Tolman, MdHs’s vice president of collections. “Our fashion archives are a unique way to teach social history.”

The runway show will feature more than 120 looks from Maryland designers who create contemporary clothing, as well as vintage looks and jewelry designed by the Maryland Institute of College and Art.

“We want this to be a fashion moment for the state,” says Deutsch. “This exhibit is setting up our future for the fashion archives, and I think this show will be a game changer.”

Local full-service design studio Stephanie Bradshaw is the event planner for the evening, Bradshaw says she’s proud to help bring awareness to “the local entrepreneurs, students and designers that make up the Baltimore fashion community.

“One of my brand initiatives is to showcase creativity and a positive perspective of our city,” she says. “I think this event is going to do just that for so many people. We want Baltimore and beyond to see this amazing collection.”

For information, visit mdhs.org.

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