Through the ages

Exhibit of fashion in Nevada

Great Basin Costume Society members Dana Reeser and Debbie Sessions pose with a vaudeville costume.

Great Basin Costume Society members Dana Reeser and Debbie Sessions pose with a vaudeville costume.

Photo/Sage Leehey

The exhibit is free at A an Art, 40 E. Fourth St., Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. until Aug. 3. For more information, visit

When thinking about a specific decade in history, the first thing to come to mind is often what kind of clothing people wore. History and fashion are intertwined, and the Great Basin Costume Society members enjoy experiencing history through making and wearing clothing from specific time periods.

And GBCS has put together an exhibit of clothing that spans 100 years of Nevada history starting from the birth of Nevada in 1864. The show is called “Wearing History: 100 Years of Fashion in Nevada.” You can view it at A an Art from now until Aug. 3, Thursdays through Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. as part of Artown. There will be GBCS members there to act as tour guides and answer questions as well.

“It's handmade clothing made by members of the Great Basin Costume Society, which is just a group of people who love to sew—usually—historical clothing and go to different history-themed events around town and just live history through the clothing,” said event facilitator and GBCS member Debbie Sessions. “So this is our chance to support Nevada's birthday this year as well as share a little bit about what we do and the talent we have for making things, making clothing.”

Most of the clothing in the exhibit is women's clothing, but there is some men's and children's clothing included as well. There is a children's outfit from each decade on display as well as some men's pieces, including a vintage suit and a '50s/'60s smoking jacket.

“Most of the members of the costume society are women,” Sessions said. “And it's very difficult to make men's clothing if you're used to making women's clothing. It's a totally, completely different form of sewing and tailoring. We don't have very many handmade examples of men's clothing. We've got one set up that we hired some people to make some handmade clothing mixed with some contemporary items that give the approximate look of the area and reproduction clothing, which is usually what most men do instead of making their own.”

The women's clothing on display is more extensive.

“Starting in 1864 is when you get to see the big hoop skirts that were popular during the time of the Civil War, and people usually think of Scarlet O'Hara and her huge, huge dress that she made out of curtains, so that's the beginning style,” Sessions said. “We also have some kids' and infants' clothing on display, as well as the lingerie that went underneath, so you can see what the hoop skirts looked like and you can see what kind of underwear they wore, and what the corsets looked like, and how they fit.”

Sessions said her favorite decade represented in the exhibit is the 1870s.

“This is when the hoop skirts were gone, but the big bustles were out and long trains and everything just kind of moved to the back of the gown,” she said. “They're still very curvaceous. They still wore corsets and had lots of elegant trim, but just the amount of detail on some of the costumes on display is just a really excellent example of some of the talent we have here in Reno.”

She explained that part of the fun of this exhibit is that everyone finds a different decade or look to be their favorite, and that thinking about the time period and people who wore clothes like those on display can be entertaining.

“Some people really love the baby gowns, the christening gowns, because they've got pictures of their family that go back to that time period, they're aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, with pictures of these white gowns and these formal pictures,” she said. “They just get a kick out of seeing what they imagine their family actually wore. Everybody sees something different that they like.”

GBCS hosts and attends historically themed events throughout town to wear their creations throughout the year. They have a Titanic tea annually remembering the sinking of the boat and the fashion of 1912, for example.

“If there’s an era that people really want to dress in, and there’s no event to go with it, we will create one or we’ll do just a general wear whatever you want to a party or a tea or a picnic or we’ll go up to Tahoe and wear your vintage bathing suits or make one,” she said.

Sessions explained how fashion can tell a lot about what’s going on in history at the time that a specific style was popular and how you can see the changes in women’s rights in some of the clothing starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“You get the natural form dress where it’s kind of very hourglass, curvy shape with lots and lots of beautiful lace and silk and beading,” she said. “It was a very extravagant time, so the clothing really emphasizes the elegance of the area as well as a progression for women’s rights. Some of the clothing starts to branch into more sportswear, skirts that are actually walkable and riding skirts that are split like pants so that they’re not just one big gown. And then into the 20th century, we have the ’20s where it’s free and easy. There’s no corsets anymore.”

The ’30s are a Hollywood-inspired look and the ’40s—because of the war—were a very minimalistic but elegant time. The ’50s bring back some larger, puffier dresses and then the ’60s has short dresses and go-go boots.

Some of the clothing is Sessions’s own work, too.

“I have my 1893 wedding gown—remake, not original,” she said. “I have a 1920s day dress along with a dress I made for my daughter that matches, and then I have some vintage clothing on display in the ’40s through the ’60s section.”

The exhibit is meant to be a trip through time via fashion and a display of local talent, according to Sessions.

“It’s people who do this as just a hobby,” she said. “No one’s getting paid for it. We just enjoy making costumes, learning about the history that goes with it, and going to different themed events around the area and getting to teach people a little bit about Nevada’s history by wearing the clothing, by talking about how the fashion of the day formed.”