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Time Pieces

Fashion is making history at the University of North Texas

DENTON, Tex. — Last fall when Susan Ingram was looking for inspiration for designing children’s apparel, she found it at the University of North Texas.

The university houses the Texas Fashion Collection, which Ingram calls one of her “best-kept secrets.” It’s an impressive collection of 10,000 pieces dating from 1820 to the present.

In a vast, climate-controlled room within Scoular Hall hang choice creations by about 250 prominent designers of the 20th century. Custom-made garments that bear no label are arranged chronologically, while labeled clothing is grouped by designer.

“We’re not always in Paris or New York, but we can always run up to Denton to get rejuvenated,” said Ingram, owner and designer of Helena and Harry IV Co. here, which makes sportswear, dresses and coats. “It’s very easy to be inspired by looking through the garments. It makes it much easier for a designer to find all these dressmaker details instead of always having to rely on your memory bank.”

Visitors must wear white cotton gloves while perusing the fashion trove to avoid damaging the fabrics. Highlights include almost 400 gowns by Balenciaga, 150 ensembles by Norman Norell and 101 couture and ready-to-wear dresses and suits by Hubert de Givenchy that were donated last fall by Mercedes Bass, wife of billionaire Sid Bass.

“You can see just about anything you want from any decade,” noted Myra Walker, director of the Texas Fashion Collection. “A lot of the garments are evening or cocktail wear because they tend to survive. They don’t get worn out as much.”

Sportswear, lingerie, men’s wear and exotic furs also are part of the collection.

Stanley Marcus and his brother, Edward, started the fashion treasury in the late Thirties in honor of Carrie Marcus Neiman, their aunt and co-founder of the Neiman-Marcus store. They stowed away key looks each season and encouraged customers to donate styles.

“The strength of the collection lies in its regional flavor — the taste level of Neiman-Marcus and the people who shopped there,” Walker pointed out. “The clothing was worn by people who attended parties and made debuts in Dallas. There’s a lot of history here.”

The oldest piece is a men’s yellow silk-blend frock coat from the 18th century, and the earliest women’s dress is a pink and white striped cotton frock from about 1820. About 6,000 of the items are clothing, and the rest are hats, shoes and accessories.

“Ours is very much an American collection,” Walker noted. “It’s not that we don’t have French designs, but all the clothing was worn by Americans and reflects American tastes.”

UNT, which offers degrees in fashion design, merchandising and marketing, uses the collection to teach fashion history and also allows students to see specific pieces by appointment.

“We have not had as much contact with the design industry as we would like,” Walker noted. “We’re thinking of implementing a yearly membership so designers can come to look at things. People are in a bad habit of chopping up magazines and making presentation boards when designing a new collection.”

“Here, they can see a wonderful combination of color and fabric,” added David Newell, manager of the collection. “It’s such a vast resource. Everybody sees something. They can call our office for an appointment.”

The clothing also is lent to various institutions for fashion displays. It was the chief source for the popular Sixties fashion exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth in 1990-1991.

Walker, who served as curator of the Kimbell show, hopes to stage a fashion retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art. The DMA is considering scheduling a show blending stylish cars and high fashions, but nothing is final yet, a spokesman said.

Newell is midway through creating a computer data base of all items in the collection with video images and descriptions.

“We’ve got some weird things,” Walker acknowledged. “We’ve got endangered species coats, like tiger skin, ocelot and a full-length monkey fur cape from the Forties.

“We’re interested now in more Seventies garments so that we include a lot of sportswear looks, and Eighties also.” But Walker is selective about what goes into the archives.

“We’re looking at it from an art and design viewpoint,” she explained. “Everything is not wonderful just because it has been collected. You want classic pieces from each decade. You need to know the designer’s career peak.”