Behind the gown

Nicole Stempak

Go behind the scenes of the museum by viewing our slideshow.

How curator Sara Hume chose the 49 pieces in Kent State University Fashion Museum’s Stavropoulos exhibit


Curator Sara Hume had been on the job a month when she started on her first major exhibit.


It was a retrospective on designer George Stavropoulos’ decades of work. The exhibit had already been planned at the Kent State University Fashion Museum when Sara arrived, in part because of guest curator Kasey Bland’s master’s thesis on Stavropoulos.


Two weeks after Sara started, a designer came to Kent to look at the museum’s Stavropoulos collection. Sara noted which pieces impressed him.


“Some of the things that he really loved I was like, ‘Oh, I really should have that,’” Sara says.


After that visit, Sara began searching the museum’s online catalog of Stavropoulos’s work one garment at a time.


Then she brought the 49 pieces she chose from the museum’s 150-piece Stavropoulos collection. Then she went to her office and started designing the exhibit.


Sara has a plastic foam scale model of the Broadbent Gallery and little discs for the round platforms in her office. She printed out little pictures of the chosen pieces, stood them up on paper clips and arranged and rearranged the dresses.


These are the stories of some of the gowns.




The gold lamé dress with red flowers (See slideshow, photo 3) is showier and less practical than most dresses in the exhibit. It’s also a tad smaller.


The dress is one of two Stavropoulos garments designed for the museum’s “Modern Masters” exhibit in 1989.


Stavropoulos developed a friendship with museum founders Jerry Silverman and Shannon Rodgers in the 1980s. Back then, Silverman and Rodgers ran and designed a clothing line in New York. Stavropoulos also based his self-titled line in New York.


Sara says the founders and Stavropoulous would have known each other because they were in fashion and the same social circles.


“I think that dress epitomizes that (relationship) the museum had with the design industry, particularly in the early years,” she says. “There was such a sort of give and take between the way our collection was built. It really hinged around Shannon Rodgers’ relationship with designers. That it was a personal relationship with designers that led to the building of our collection.


“In that sense, very literally, that dress was a product of that relationship. It wasn’t simply that it came to us because of a friendship, but it was created because of that.”


In 1991, a year after Stavropoulos died, his archives — 150 garments, all of his sketches and all the modeled photographs — came to the museum.



“Superficially, it seems kind of simple, but then when you look at it, you see the sort of subtle way the shapes are created through the tucks,” Sara says.


The mint green dress (See slideshow, photo 7) has diagonal tucks that gather and open into a full skirt. The silk fabric is much heavier than most pieces in the exhibit.


On the back wall of the exhibit is the framed sketch of the dress and matching jacket, including fabric swatches in pink, purple and green. Sara says Stavropoulos often made dresses in multiple colors, citing two others and another in storage.


Part of the reason he made clothing in more than one color was because customers continued buying the garments.


The other reason was because Stavropoulos was a ready-to-wear designer, meaning he designed for a mass audience. His garments would often be available in different colors next to each other in high-end department stores like Henri Bendel and Bonwit Teller.


“You go to the store and you see a shirt in pink, and you see a shirt in green and you see it in blue,” Sara says. “There’s a lot of handwork and the craftsmanship is really good in his clothes, but it’s not haute couture. They’re not specially made for people.”


Stavropoulos developed his fashion label from a tiny Manhattan apartment to runway shows at the Regency Hotel with an elite following of clients. His clientele included Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Lady Bird Johnson during the life of his label, from 1961 to 1991.



Throughout Stavropoulos’ career, he continued to find inspiration in the simplicity of ancient Greek sculpture. He often chose white fabrics to emphasize the classic design.


On display, the cream chiffon peplos-style dress (See slideshow, photo 17) looks rather deflated. In the accompanying photograph and sketch, visitors can see how the model’s movement reveals three bubbles of a dress that would gently float on the body.


The sketches help show Stavropoulos’ works of art. Sara consulted the museum’s exhibits preparator Jim Williams, and he made blown up vinyl wall stickers of the sketches.


The sketches give visitors insight into the craftsmanship and attention to detail of Stavropoulos’ work. Looking at the sketch points out details onlookers might otherwise not see.


It makes them look at the dress again because it’s not necessarily easy to see diagonal lines or pleats on the fabric, Sara says.


When clothing is put in a museum, they become static. Sara says they no longer have motion, which for some clothing is quite a loss.


“It loses a lot of the sort of realm of possibility that dresses have as fundamentally three-dimensional objects,” she says.



Sara chose to put the dress (See slideshow, photo 5) in the exhibit because of a photo she found of George, his son Peter and a model wearing the dress.


The photo is framed and hung on the back wall of the exhibit.


Peter, his wife and their son George came to the grand opening of his late father’s collection. The opening was Jan. 22, 2010, on George’s birthday.


At the opening, Sara says she asked Peter about the photo. Peter was 2 or 3 years old at the time. He told Sara that going to shows and talking to models was part of the world he grew up in.


“That picture captured that whole time in his life, as did coming and seeing all of the dresses lined up, almost like a fashion show,” Sara says. “It was really emotional for him to see that again.


“It was so much a part of his relationship with his father because it was so much a part of who his father was, that he made all of those dresses.”



The Stavropoulos exhibit will be on display through Sept. 5. Meanwhile, Sara will continue to settle in, design exhibits and dress mannequins.


Contact public affairs reporter Nicole Stempak at [email protected].