A MOHAI Exhibit Explores Seattle’s Fashion History

By Gavin Borchert

May 15, 2019

It's not all about flannel and Gore-Tex

Image Credit: 

Courtesy of MOHAI

What is the defining characteristic of Seattle’s fashion sense? Not caring about fashion? (Or merely pretending not to care?) Taking on this slippery question, the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) ransacked its holdings of clothing and accessories, from the mid-1800s to today. The result is the carefully curated exhibit, Seattle Style: Fashion/Function, running through October 14.

You’ve probably heard the jokes about Seattle fashion, most of them with “fleece” in the punch line. And it’s true that the prioritization of practicality has been a hallmark of the way we dress—and of how we think about the way we dress—since Seattle was a city, as quotes on the gallery walls from Seattleites make clear. My favorite, from designer Marie Hills, from 1956: “Women here want a skirt that will get them from a muddy driveway to a wiener roast.”

Clothes on display range from snowsuits to couture, from a seersucker gym-class frock to a Generra Hypercolor sweatshirt, c. 1991. The most fun is the display of evening wear; without looking at the wall labels, see if you can guess which gowns are 10 years old and which are 110. (I bet you can’t.) There are nods to our iconic suppliers (Eddie Bauer, REI), our manufacturers (UNIONBAY, Tommy Bahama, B.U.M., Shah Safari) and our grand downtown temples of retail, especially those no longer with us (Frederick & Nelson, I. Magnin, The Bon Marche). 

Behind-the-scenes videos salute designer Luly Yang and high-end outerwear maker Filson, and flamboyant suit jackets pay homage to John Doyle Bishop (1913–1980), fashion guru to Seattle’s upper crust. Marvel at a World’s Fair-patterned day dress; shirts from 1952 covered in Seattle centennial logos; author Lindy West’s actual flower-bedecked wedding dress; and (the exhibit’s climax) a cap and cardigan owned by Kurt Cobain, recalling that brief shining moment when grunge, an anti-fashion movement if ever there was one, rose from the Northwest’s Value Village outlets to conquer the runways of the world. MOHAI is even looking to the future of local fashion, hosting a show of designs by Seattle Pacific University students this Friday, May 17, at 7 p.m. ($10–$20).

Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), South Lake Union, 860 Terry Ave. N; 206.324.1126; mohai.org