CHICAGO — Before clothes were disposable, there were stories behind every piece women owned.

A thick brown wool shawl kept a young girl warm on a crossing from Eastern Europe to the United States. A heavy engagement belt worn with a dress proclaimed the promise of marriage for a young woman in 19th-century Greece.

These items are part of two exhibits in Chicago focusing on the role clothing has played historically in people’s lives.

The shawl is part of “Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920,” showing at the Chicago Historical Society through Nov. 13, 1994. Researchers gathered items of clothing and combed diaries and family lore for stories about a generation of women trying to fit in in their new country.

“Everyone had a story about clothing,” said Barbara Schreier, costume curator at the Historical Society.

The younger, unmarried women in particular were determined not to stick out as greenhorns. They soon adopted everything from the shirtwaist to the corset, all the while creating their own variations of popular American dress. In addition to the clothing, the researchers also display snippets from diaries and family stories to illustrate the history behind each piece. From questions about hairbows to how the clothing reflected their religious beliefs, it is a captivating show.

A separate exhibit, “Threads of Tradition — Greek Costumes from the Dora Stratou Collection,” at the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center until June 1, 1994, focuses on 19th-century Greece. The collection includes elaborately colored bridal and folk dresses.

The more than 40 original costumes show off intricate embroidery and lace and were all made by hand in villages throughout Greece. Decorated with gold thread, coins and jewelry, they have never been shown in the United States before, according to Matina Papoulia, vice president of the Dora Stratou Society.

Each village had its own distinct designs: fish, lambs and crosses embroidered in the garments. Dresses from the mountainous regions were made of wool and came with heavy leggings, while warmer climates used cotton or silk.

In many cases the bridal costumes were worn until the second child was born and sometimes until the bride’s 30th birthday. In order to afford such expensive material for the ensembles, many families had to sell off portions of their land. It seems not much has changed today.

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