“It’s quite clear you wouldn’t get into a carriage in this,” Virgil Johnson says. “You wouldn’t wear lace in a carriage.” The dress he’s talking about, made of black satin embroidered with bright flowers, with a black lace underskirt and a high mandarin collar, belonged to Mrs. Samuel Allerton, and it probably never was worn in a carriage.

This dress, Johnson says, was designed specifically for hosting teas and other afternoon events. Like most upper-class ladies in Chicago in the 1880s, Mrs. Allerton changed clothes several times a day. Victorian fashion magazines and etiquette books dictated that a proper lady wear different kinds of dresses for different events, and Mrs. Allerton and her peers all had afternoon reception dresses–which were different from both evening reception dresses and afternoon “walking” dresses, also worn for shopping or paying calls.

Johnson is something of an expert in the complexities of Victorian fashion. He teaches costume history and design at Northwestern University’s School of Speech, where he’s chairman of the design-studies department. Over the years he’s designed costumes for more than 60 Chicago theater productions, and he also serves as guest curator of costumes at the Evanston Historical Society.

Most recently, though, Johnson has used his knowledge to curate an exhibit of dresses from the 1880s–a period when the number of millionaires in Chicago was increasing rapidly and when elaborate dress, the result of an elaborate social code, was the rage. “The Proper Lady: Fashion and Etiquette in the 1880s” runs through February 11 at the Chicago Historical Society.

The show was the brainchild of Elizabeth Jachimowicz, at that time the museum’s costume curator. She asked Johnson to work with her, and together they picked dresses from the society’s huge collection from the 1880s (the 35 in the exhibit represent about half the museum’s total holdings from that period). Johnson was no stranger to the collection: he’s worked on four previous exhibits with Jachimowicz. So when Jachimowicz resigned in June, Johnson was put in charge of the exhibit.

To show the dresses off properly, Johnson used mannequins made to fit 19th-century corset sizes. He had them dyed pale yellow, to pick up on the background colors in many of the dresses, and then he and his crew built them up with batting to fit the dresses exactly. For the dresses that required bustles (practically all of them), they made pillows out of more batting to sit under the dresses.

Originally Johnson and Jachimowicz had planned to use headless mannequins. But Johnson had the heads put back on when he decided he also wanted to display gloves, purses, and jewelry with the dresses. Satin ribbon was used for hair, and costume jewelry was colored the same pale yellow as the mannnequins–“a stylized abstraction,” says Johnson. The plain backdrops are yellow, too, and tall, so that the dresses can be seen against the lofty proportions of their time. “The idea, obviously, is to treat the mannequin and the gallery as a neutral and then to feature the dresses,” says Johnson.

Although the work of conservation started in June, about four months before the show opened, most of the exhibit had to be completed in about two months–record time. “You usually like to have about two years,” Johnson says. It will be open for four months, which is about as long as the dresses can hang on mannequins without damage. Normally they’re stuffed with paper to fill out sleeves and curves and stored in cardboard boxes; during exhibition, gravity pulls the dresses out of shape, dust settles in the fibers, and light fades the colors. “The fear of exhibiting a garment too long,” says Johnson, “is one reason costume collections always recycle.”

A few pieces in “The Proper Lady” have been in previous shows, but most are making their exhibition debut. Sixteen of the 35 dresses were made in Chicago, although only three of those have labels from stores. “The rest of them, as was typical of the period, were made by dressmakers,” Johnson says. The other 19 dresses were made in Paris and New York and brought back by wealthy Chicago women from their travels.

Most of the dresses in the exhibit fall into one of four categories: dresses for staying home in the morning, dresses for entertaining guests in the afternoon, dresses for going out in the afternoon, and evening dresses. (There are also wedding and mourning dresses on display.) Some of the dresses, Johnson says, had overlapping functions: a few of the walking dresses, for example, were fancy enough–“indoorsy” enough–to double as afternoon reception dresses. Others, with their sturdy wool skirts, were as unsuited to a parlor as Mrs. Allerton’s dress was to a carriage. Rarer still were day dresses that could make the transition to evening.

Johnson managed to categorize all of the dresses in the show, no mean feat for someone living 100 years later. There were several complicating factors: some dresses seem to cross categories, fashions changed (dresses with trains were popular until 1883 or so, for example, after which they were passe), and of course women had individual tastes–some women generally wore more modest dresses, others were more daring.

“I plowed through fashion magazines and etiquette books,” Johnson says. “One says do this, and then the next one says don’t ever do that. There’s no clear documentation as to the subtleties.” He drew inferences where he could.

The basic rules were that day dresses were more covered up, especially at the sleeves and neckline, than those for evening, and indoor dresses were more delicate than dresses designed for riding in carriages or walking. Dresses for the opera or the ball were the dressiest and barest of all. “Once you see what the component parts are, you can sort of figure out how they got through the day,” Johnson says.

He’s drawn two conclusions after working on “The Proper Lady.” One is that the 1880s was a particularly confusing time for a woman to dress fashionably. Two: “It was confusing for a reason. It was fashion’s answer to the need to be elite.”

A slew of special lectures and other events are happening in conjunction with the exhibit; call 642-4600 for a schedule. The historical society, on Clark Street at North Avenue, is open 9:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday; admission is $1.50, 50 cents for children and seniors, free on Mondays.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.