PRETTY POWERFUL: A Peek into the Past of Worcester Women

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On October 26, 2021, The Worcester Historical Museum opened PRETTY POWERFUL – an exploration and celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, as seen through fashion. As an intern with the City of Worcester’s Cultural Development Division, I was given the opportunity to experience a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition with the media and creative staff. Immediately upon receiving an invitation, I was excited for this opportunity to learn more about the history of women in Worcester – the city I call home – through a lens of fashion. I majored in Art History at Clark University, so naturally my favorite way to learn about history is through art, fashion, and culture.

Upon my arrival at the museum, I was greeted by six members of the POWERFUL team. While not all represented, I learned that the entire team consisted of experts in diverse fields – artists, clothes makers, women’s historians, Worcester natives and more. Over the past 39 months, each member has contributed their expertise, time, and efforts to bring this exhibition to life. For this exciting insider look of the exhibition, I was joined by local news channels, blog writers, and journalists. The sneak-peek began with an overview of PRETTY POWERFUL and its goal to showcase the evolving roles of women in the century following the approval of the 19th amendment – which prohibited denying someone the right to vote on the basis of sex. My interest began to grow even more as each member of the team explained their personal experiences and goals of the exhibition.

The guest curator of the exhibition, Dr. Charlotte Haller, is a History professor at Worcester State University who specializes in American and Women’s Studies. Her talk provided an in-depth historical background of PRETTY POWERFUL and women’s voting rights. She provided us with an important reminder, which is reflected in the exhibition, that not all women gained the right to vote in 1920. Voter suppression tactics and inequality robbed minority women from accessing the right to vote – a right which was gained only after marginalized groups fought for their own enfranchisement throughout the 20th century. Especially after the important voting year that this country has just experienced, I was glad to see that the exhibition brings up vital conversations on inequality and voter suppression that remain relevant today.

Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, Bill Wallace, also described how PRETTY POWERFUL aligns with the museum’s commitment to be stewards of Worcester’s collective history and his ambition that every person in Worcester who walks into the exhibition gallery feels that their story is represented and included.

Finally, exhibition co-chair Marlene Persky explained her hopes that the exhibition may help us connect and honor the women who come before us. Her speech reminded me that much of what I am able to do today is possible because of the women before me who fought to pave the way for modern women’s success. It is a reminder to celebrate every single woman who worked hard so that we may continue to break barriers and shatter glass ceilings. Even before seeing the exhibition, I sat amongst inspirational Worcester women of all generations, women who have worked hard to get to where they are, women who made me feel pretty powerful.

On the surface, this exhibition celebrates the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. However, as I walked through the gallery and heard the backstory of each of the 35 showcased outfits, I quickly realized how much more there was to the display. Every mannequin had been meticulously dressed in an outfit that shared a little bit about its owner – their personality, life, and the time they occupied. I was taken aback by the effect. Here I stood amongst beautiful art deco ball gowns, handmade 1950s cocktail dresses, work clothes worn by women on the frontline of World War II, a suit worn by first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, and much more.

As you enter the room, the outfits loosely flow in chronological order – creating a visually impactful timeline of changing roles through adaptations in styles, fabrics, hemlines, and inspirations. Walking through the gallery, I felt as if I just had the pleasure to meet many incredible Worcester women and catch a glimpse into the beautiful and meaningful lives they led. Not only did I feel connected to the women who have come before me, but I also felt more connected to Worcester, a city which has been the breeding grounds of change and innovation over the past three hundred years.

Perhaps most striking was the skillful way the exhibition presented the evolving story – each outfit so different from the next, each outfit so intricately intertwined with the time period in which it was created, and yet each lends a unique perspective to the collective tapestry that reveals the history of women in Worcester. The exhibition leads you to a final photo mural of Morgan Johnson, a young woman and modern change-maker who represents the next generation of women who continue to challenge convention and make the world a better place. This exhibit became so much more than an exploration of fashion or the history of voting – for me it was one of the most breathtaking and unique opportunities to remember and honor some of the women who have enabled me to be where I am today and to reach further than they could tomorrow.

Whether it is because the story resonated with them or because they found inspiration for their own wardrobe, I believe every visitor will leave with one or two outfits that they cannot stop thinking about. I sat down to write this with the intention of sharing one outfit that spoke to me the most, thinking it would be an easy task. While reflecting on the experience, flipping through my notes, and scrolling through photos, I proved myself wrong. Every single object in that gallery deserves to be highlighted in a moment of recognition and I know I could spend hours delving into the rich histories that each one shares.

However, if I am to highlight just one, it would have to be this stunning sequined gold minidress that tells the story of two survivors, and a family bond that flourished in Worcester. This 1960s dress was made in Worcester by Fela Hermann for her cousin, Marcia Weissman. Both women were German natives born into Jewish families. As Nazis began to occupy the country, Weissman escaped from Germany through Sweden in 1939, came to America and eventually settled in Worcester. Hermann, on the other hand, assumed a false identity to avoid being identified as Jewish and worked as a servant for Nazi officers. After surviving the war, Hermann studied fashion design at the Ort School of Design in Munich, worked in the fashion industries of Austria, England, Italy, and France, and eventually moved to Worcester in the early 1960s to reconnect with her cousin, Marcia Weissman. With hopes of introducing European fashion to Worcester, the cousins opened Fela Boutique on Pleasant Street in 1961. The sequined minidress was made soon after the boutique opening for Marcia Weissman to wear to a social event.

To me, this dress is a symbol of the two cousins’ collaboration and a celebration of their lives and accomplishments in Worcester, as well as the hardships and dangers that these two overcame before settling in Massachusetts. Its presence in the show is a reminder of the many backgrounds of Worcester residents, of the diverse cultural history present in the city, of the incredible obstacles people have overcome – and the beauty, peace, love, and power that can be contained within something as seemingly-simple as a cocktail dress.

I left the Worcester Historical Museum with a new perspective and found myself thinking a little bit more about how I express myself through my clothes as I got dressed each day. This exhibition helped me step outside the busyness of my life to take a moment of gratitude for all those who have come before me. This is a gratitude that I carry with me every day as I navigate the opportunities that the PRETTY POWERFUL women helped me achieve.

PRETTY POWERFUL is open now at the Worcester Historical Museum through March 31, 2022. Click here to learn more at WorcesterHistory.org.

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