“What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language.” — Miuccia Prada

The Estonian History Museum’s “Fashion Line: Estonian Ladies’ Fashion 1920–1940” captures a snapshot of local life in textiles. The small exhibit is organized not by color or style – the way a closet might be – instead, the thirty-two outfits are grouped by the places or times when they were worn (e.g. weddings, vacations, or a night at the theater). Many of the occasions are events that still fill our lives today.

To take full advantage of this exhibit get your reading glasses (or your knees) ready. The clothes hang on easy-to-see mannequins around the room and accessories are displayed in glass cases along the walls, but the descriptions displayed at ground level add a lot of context. For example:

“Widows spent six months withdrawn from social interaction, and wore heavy black clothes. After a year, she was allowed to switch from black to grey.”

“An old custom said you should put on your oldest and most worn clothes before Christmas so that you could replace them with new ones when the holiday came.”

“The daily schedule in any resort city was simple: you tanned and you swam.”

“The groom was responsible for a white bridal bouquet of seasonal flowers. In the 1930s, orange blossoms became more popular.”

While the clothes themselves tell a story on the surface, it was these little written details (provided in English, Russian, and Estonian) that really helped me envision the clothes coming to life in each category: funerals, holidays, parties & dances, spa resorts, university & cafes, confirmation, baptism, & weddings.

According to the organizers, this exhibit “offers a look into the life of an urban woman […] helping to understand the cultural processes of the time and showing how closely fashion ideas are tied with the values and spirituality of an era.” While I can’t say I have a deep understanding based solely on this exhibit, it did make me want to go out and find some old movies or novels that would incorporate these costumes into a full story of Estonian life.

I was probably most fascinated by the black-and-white video playing on a loop that is embedded in the wall near the entrance to the room. In these vintage film clips, you could see women of various shapes, sizes and ages actually wearing the clothes, enhanced by their expressions, their posture, and their interactions with the people around them. The chance to see the clothing up close was a nice way to spend roughly half an hour, but it was these little glimpses of the people who wore them that truly sparked my curiosity.

As an added bonus, the exhibit also includes family-friendly puzzles and art supplies in one corner of the room, so that younger (or older) visitors could entertain themselves as the fashion fans browsed the exhibit more slowly.

The exhibition remains open at the Estonian History Museum until May 12, 2019.

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