Gowning achievements: Updated ‘First Ladies of Arkansas’ exhibit introduces the women behind the finery

Posted: September 11, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Curator Jo Ellen Maack (left) and conservator Harold Mailand with Textile Conservation Services work at the Old Statehouse Museum placing the gown of first lady Eula Terral in preparation for the unveiling of “First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times.”

This time around, it won't just be about Mary Eagle's regal, 1889 pink silk brocade gown with its high collar and magnificent Juliette sleeves.

Or Eula Terral's ivory, flapper-like gown from the Roaring '20s.

Or Sarah McMath's sleeveless black movie-star gown with matching floor-length cape.

Or Janet Huckabee's burgundy-and-gold, wearable-work-of-art halter gown, with matching overcoat.

It won't even just be about the new kid on the block: Susan Hutchinson's stunning black velvet, single-sleeved gown with asymmetrical lace bodice overlay.

Oh, those gowns will still dominate the new version of what has been the most popular of the permanent exhibits at Little Rock's Old State House Museum -- and the largest exhibition of first ladies' gowns outside the Smithsonian in Washington. But now, visitors will have a chance to learn a thing or two about the wives of Arkansas governors, more than simply what they wore to the inaugural balls.

"First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times," an update of the "First Ladies Gowns" exhibit, opens Friday with a fresh look and other tidbits about the women who wore them.

One major change to this exhibit: "You'll be up close and personal to the gowns now, and you'll be able to see every detail. Every detail, the front and back of the gowns," says curator Jo Ellen Maack. "The last exhibit, it was so dark in there, you couldn't really see the gowns."

This exhibit upgrade has been in the works over three years.

“First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times”

Old State House Museum, 300 W. Markham St., Little Rock. Museum hours are 9 a.m -5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday

Opening reception: 5-8 p.m. Friday

Admission: Free

(501) 324-9685

oldstatehouse.com

"The one that we just ... dismantled had been up since 1999," Maack says. "Technology has changed so, and everything from the lighting and the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system ... has changed so much. It gets old."

Maack and Gail Stephens, exhibit director, went three years ago to Washington and sat all day with the curator of the American first ladies' gowns exhibit at the Smithsonian, seeking gown-preservation advice. Some of the Old State House Museum's gowns have actually been on exhibit for 63 years, Maack says. "Those dresses were not made to be on exhibit that long. We asked them what they do."

The Smithsonian now only displays the last eight first ladies' inaugural gowns and no longer shows its older gowns. "They just stopped doing it," Maack says. "They can no longer put Martha Washington's gowns out on exhibit." To officials there, it was more important to save that gown than have it succumb to the ravages of constant exhibition. The same goes for the 1889 gown of Arkansas first lady Mary Eagle, wife of Gov. James Philip Eagle. "It's more important to save that gown for future generations, future Arkansans to be able to see Mary Eagle's gown from 1889, than for it to just turn to dust and it be gone forever."

MORE THAN JUST DRESSES

The Old State House has also taken the Smithsonian's lead in its interpretive approach to the new Arkansas first ladies exhibit, says Old State House director Bill Gatewood.

"It's no longer about 'lining them up for a moment in time -- the inaugural ball,'" he says.

Stacy Hurst director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which oversees the museum, explains further, saying the refreshed exhibit "tells a great story of Arkansas."

"Part of the redesign ... tells a broader story about the initiatives and the passions of the various first ladies," she says.

Grant money from the Natural and Cultural Resources Council Trust Fund, as well as private support, went toward the exhibit redo, Hurst says. She cites the 2015 fundraiser hosted by the Old State House Museum Associates at the Governor's Mansion, in which several first ladies were involved and which helped raise "a significant amount of money" for gown conservation.

One of the exhibit highlights will be a showcase of the causes the governors' wives took up while their husbands held office, as well as after. "For me, it's interesting to see that some of them were very involved in their husband's gubernatorial campaigns, and some were not so involved, but they had other outlets and causes," Gatewood says.

Gathering information for the first ladies' biographies, Maack noted the change in available information about the women through the years.

"We'd go through and we'd go, 'there's nothing, nothing, nothing to say about these women except 'she was a good mother and a good housewife and she went to church,'" Maack says. "No matter how much we would dig, that's all we would find from them. And then after World War I you would start finding, 'Oh, she did this and she did that.'

"You've got some really remarkable women."

Take the wife of Gov. Harvey Parnell, for instance. Maack found it interesting that Mabel Parnell, after her husband died, ran a 5,200-acre farm. Then there was Ewilda Robinson, wife of Gov. Joe T. Robinson, who was appointed postmaster for Little Rock and held that office 15 years after her husband died. There's Betty Tucker, wife of former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who among other things helped women in Asia start businesses.

And there are their causes. Visitors will learn about Susan Hutchinson's efforts on behalf of children and families; Janet Huckabee's involvement with Habitat for Humanity; Barbara Pryor's involvement in the film industry.

Of course, the gowns -- for whose preservation the museum received an outstanding conservation work award from the Arkansas Museum Association in 2017 -- will again be front and center.

"It is exciting to have my inaugural gown on display in the historic Old State House Museum, and thrilling that its debut is in the newly renovated and updated display cases to be protected for years to come," Hutchinson said. "It is humbling to become a part of history."

FINELY WOVEN EFFORTS

Maack and Gatewood credit Harold Mailand of Indianapolis, who has been conserving these gowns since 1984.

"He has really saved the gowns," Maack says. "One in particular, Mrs. Eagle's gown. You can see the areas of the gown that are stabilized ... Those are the areas that Harold has worked on. And he has just been incredible." Mailand was also a consultant on the exhibit. In addition to routine conservation, he has been the conservator for the various incarnations of the exhibit.

The latter-day gowns made with man-made fabrics are much hardier than the early gowns made of natural materials and will therefore age better. And the difference in sewing methods, too.

"My favorite quote is Barbara Pryor," Maack says. "She said 'You could take a blowtorch to [mine] and it would still be here,' 'cause it's solid polyester. And the only thing of her gown that has changed ... is, the bow has faded, ... a little velveteen bow in the center. The color has faded on that. But [other than that], there is not one thing wrong with Barbara Pryor's gown." It has been more than 40 years since it was worn.

There are a few of the earlier gowns that have some hardiness to them, however. First lady Ina Davis' gown is mostly wool, "so it's in pretty good shape. We haven't had to do any conservation to her gown," Maack says. "It's the ones that are silk, and have lace and things like that. Or especially heavily, heavily, embellished with bead work." They have a conservation table now that shows "what happens when you have 2,000 beads on a dress." The now-horizontally displayed dress is that of Eula Terral, the wife of Gov. Tom Jefferson Terral. The beads make the dress so heavy that, displayed vertically, "it was just constantly being pulled ... We just had to take it off the form."

Speaking of beads, the museum officials say they love the story about the late former Gov. Frank White sewing beads back on wife Gay White's dress in the car with the hotel sewing kit while they were on the way to President Ronald Reagan's inaugural ball.

The exhibit will feature 16 to 17 of its 28 gowns for now, then they'll be rotated. The current first lady's gown will always be on exhibit; via the museum website, videos, posters, printed materials and other features, all the gowns will be represented.

A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA

Those on display will be sharing some of their spotlight with some interesting accessories. Take, for instance, those duct-taped hiking boots donated by Gay White, a board member of the Old State House Museum Associates. She takes people on hiking tours of the Grand Canyon. One of those tours was so grueling that "when she got to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, her hiking boots fell apart," Maack says. "And so the only thing they could do was duct-tape them.

"She was going to be buried in these but decided to be cremated instead, and so she gave them to us."

And there are Ginger Beebe's tennis shoes.

"She had broken her ankle right after the election and she couldn't wear her high heels that she had purchased with the dress," Maack continues. "She said, 'I'd like to tell it like it is.' So we put her Adidas tennis shoes next to her gown, because that's what she had to wear on inauguration night. Everybody loves that story and they love the fact that she was so down to earth about it."

A tidbit about Betty Bumpers' gown: It really wasn't hers.

"She was getting dressed for the inaugural ball and her sister Maggie came in -- Maggie Schaffer," Maack also shares. "She liked Maggie's dress better and so she made Maggie give up her dress. So the dress [on display] is her sister Maggie's. I love that -- sister to sister."

Handbags and jewelry are also displayed, along with extras with which the museum will surprise the first ladies' families when they are brought in for a sneak preview. One artifact, Ann McMath's lipstick case, bears a delicate scroll design that was reproduced and used as the main visual design feature for the exhibit.

Greeting visitors will be wallpaper murals. Printed window shades that share information about the first ladies' causes. A slideshow panel that features painted portraits or tinted photographs of the first ladies. A kiosk where visitors can touch the names of the first ladies to reveal information about them, including video interviews of them -- interviews that, Gatewood says, are "really revealing and touching."

This is Phase I of the museum's "First Families" exhibit. Work has already begun on Phase II, which will focus on the governors themselves; that part of the exhibit is expected to open in the summer of 2019. One day they hope to do the children -- and even one on first pets.

Says Maack, "We've heard some good dog and cat stories."

The tennis shoes former first lady Ginger Beebe wore with her inaugural gown due to a foot in- jury are shown at the foot of the gown.

Old State House Museum curator Jo Ellen Maack demonstrates an interactive feature that is part of the Old State House Museum’s new- ly renovated exhib...

Along with inaugural ballgowns, jewelry and accessory pieces grace the Old State House Museum’s newly renovated exhibit.

Jo Ellen Maack, curator at the Old State House Museum, and Harold Mailand, director of Textile Conservation Services, assess the condition of dresses ...

Former first ladies Gay White (bottom left), Janet Huckabee (top left) and Ginger Beebe (center) listen as first lady Susan Hutchinson (right) speaks ...

Style on 09/11/2018