By Clay Riness  

According to Peggy Derrick, executive director of the La Crosse County Historical Society, it was years ago when she met Jeff Stolz. Resident costume designer and professor in the theatre and music theatre department at Viterbo University, Stolz began bringing costume design students around to study historic garments in the LCHS collection. As a result, he got to know some of the garments well, and with that, he also came to know the stories behind them.

“I was fascinated by researching the pieces and the people who wore them,” admits Stolz, “but I didn’t know what to do with that. I was taking patterns off of the clothes and learning about these women, and I had this file of fascinating information. I would drive around and look for the locations where these women lived. Some of the houses are still there, like the Pettibone house, and some are now completely different—for instance, one location is now Goodyear Auto Service on Cass.”

It got him thinking about how things change, and he found it interesting that while the artifacts remain the same as they always were, the places are constantly in flux. How interesting, he thought, would it be to juxtapose the clothing, which hasn’t changed, against the places that had. That’s how plans for an exhibit entitled “Juxtapose” were born. One aim of the exhibit is the hope that people will come away from it with a sense of just how fast times do change.

“Jeff had this brainstorm idea to take the dresses back to places where they had been worn,” says Derrick, “pose them on mannequins and photograph them. When it actually happened, seeing the mannequins in place, it was really magic because it was like a ghost had come back from the past.”

The location photos, Stolz says, proved fascinating in that some of the garments look right at home while others look very foreign and out of place, as if the owners have stepped out of a time machine. 

The exhibit’s women and their garments were chosen to represent different eras in La Crosse history. Spanning over 100 years, the exhibit will include at least one dress from almost every decade ranging from the 1840s to the 1960s.

“These are such interesting women,” says Stolz. “Some were prominent because of who they were married to. Some founded foundations. Some, like Leona Linker, had their own businesses.” 

Linker invented, patented, manufactured and sold the Leona, a women’s undergarment, which was a combination of corset cover, drawers and skirt, in 1905. Other prominent women in the exhibit include Nannie Colwell, the wife of Captain Wilson Colwell, a man who fought in Company B in the Civil War and also founded Katanyan Bank. Nannie Colwell went to Washington to meet with the Lincolns. Mary Pettibone, daughter of Albert Pettibone, is also featured. 

For the six-week exhibit, the garments will be on display with Stolz’s juxtaposed photos. Displaying the artifacts themselves required extra attention to detail, according to Derrick. “Mannequins are not always the right size and shape,” she explains. “Even a 1970s store mannequin doesn’t look like a 2010 store mannequin.”

“We’re spanning a hundred years. Silhouettes change,” adds Stolz. “So, I made the mannequins myself, each one custom-designed for each garment.” Each mannequin was carved out of archival-safe foam after precise measurements were made of its matching garment. Derrick points out that when you see them all in a row, they all look individual, just like the women.

Stolz is quick to share credit, citing the hard work of Derrick, as well as Jen Brown, designer, and Amy Vach, LCHS collections manager. Anita Doering, archives manager at the La Crosse Public Library, has been of tremendous help with research, he says. And the library has also donated the gallery space used for the exhibit. 

“Since Jeff is doing this, belatedly, as a sabbatical research project, I think that Viterbo University can be counted as a collaborator, as well as the La Crosse Public Library,” adds Derrick. 

“Juxtapose” will run June 4 through July 13 at the Swarthout Gallery in the La Crosse Public Library. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 12-5 p.m. Free to the public!

An opening reception and fashion gala sponsored by the Women’s Fund of Greater La Crosse will be held Friday, May 31, from 7-9 p.m., with food and drinks. There will be a photographer and a red carpet for those wishing to make an entrance! The gala is a fundraiser to help pay for the costs of the exhibition. Tickets are on sale at www.lchshistory.org or by phone at (608) 782-1980
—$15 for LCHS members and $20 for nonmembers.