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  • Kara Annett

All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go: The Smithsonian's Hidden Costume Collection

By: Kara Annett


Let's face the music and give this dress the attention it deserves. Source: The Smithsonian Institution.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a museum, especially one as large as the Smithsonian, owns more objects than it can display. In fact, it is estimated that less than 1% of the Smithsonian’s vast collection is on display at any given time. Yes, you read that correctly: less than 1% (imagine all the cameos we missed out on in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian).

Thankfully, more than 1% is viewable through their digital collections database. Sure, it’s not the same but it’s better than nothing, right? At least, that’s what I kept telling myself after falling down a bit of a rabbit hole and exploring the National Museum of American History’s offerings. All this simply because I wanted to know where Midge Maisel’s iconic black dress from season 1 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ended up. After going through 56 pages of their collections and clicking through countless objects, my heart shattered as nearly every piece had those 4 dreaded words on their page: Currently not on view. Yes, that includes Midge’s dress.

Thank you and goodnight! Midge Maisel's dress.

Of course, with such a large collection I knew that not everything I’d be interested in would be on display. What I didn’t expect was that to be the case for nearly every object I clicked on. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of film and television history, and while that’s not everyone’s cup of tea (but also what on earth do you mean you don’t want to see Ginger Rogers’ dress from Follow the Fleet’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number?), some of the most interesting (and arguably important) pieces from pop culture history are waiting for their chance to step back into the spotlight.

You're right, Indy. This does belong in a museum.

While most of my articles have focused on what museums have on display, today I want to talk about what’s not on display. Namely, the hat and jacket Harrison Ford wore in 1988’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (shouldn’t Mr. “This-Belongs-in-a-Museum” have his actual hat on display in a museum?). All jokes aside, the Smithsonian is home to many iconic pieces, and it’s interesting to see what they choose to display. While Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow costume from The Wizard of Oz is currently being kept behind the scenes, a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers are proudly displayed. This makes sense given that the shoes are what everyone remembers about the movie, but isn’t the rubber mask made to resemble burlap just as impressive?

I haven't got a brain, only straw (and lots of it).

I’m happy to see Constance Wu’s gorgeous Marchesa gown from Crazy Rich Asians get the appreciation it rightfully deserves, along with Mr. Rogers’ iconic red sweater, but it seems to me that the focus is on objects that will be more easily recognizable to audiences of today instead of piquing curiosity for the bygone era. There’s much we can learn from the past, and while we absolutely should critique the problematic practices and themes present in old movies, does that mean we should forget their achievements too? Just because Judy Garland’s performance in The Harvey Girls isn’t as iconic as Dorothy, shouldn’t we show audiences that she continued to steal the show for decades after? By hiding the past, we’re likely to forget why the Smithsonian has these pieces and their place in American pop culture in favour of prioritizing what’s familiar to audiences.

Somewhere over the rainbow...this costume will also get its credit. Source: The Smithsonian Institution.

Even though I know it’s not possible for museums to put their entire collections on display (not just due to space but imagine how overwhelming it would be if every museum felt like the Louvre?), I can’t help but wonder when these objects will have their chance to shine again. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but for now, I’ll settle for sharing these glorious pieces with you.


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