Arts & Entertainment

‘Bustles to Blues Jeans’: Local fashion history is more relevant than you think

Tacoma Historical Society’s new exhibition reflects the changing fashion of Tacoma residents and the impact fashion has on our lives.

Picture this: an emerald green dress adorned with intricate hand beaded designs. A pale white ivory dress accented by oval shaped embroideries. Mauve stockings paired with a bright magenta skirt. These were some of the colorful fashion choices made by Washingtonians in the 1920s. Despite what people may think, fashion at the time reflected bold prosperity and freedoms.  

To commemorate this fashion period and many others, the Tacoma Historical Society (THS) is premiering an exhibition titled “From Bustles to Blue Jeans.” The exhibition will include several pieces of clothing that showcase the changing periods of Tacoma and its residents.  

The exhibition will start from the 1880s to the 2000s to showcase several clothing items and accessories that were worn by Tacoma residents. Places where they shopped and made their own clothing will be included in the display. It aims to help people get a closer understanding of where people got their fashion sense and how their outfits reflected the time period they were in.  

THS Managing Director Jessica Smith and THS curator Elizabeth Korsmo were both creators of this exhibition. They loved the idea of doing a fashion exhibition that reflected the changing times of Tacoma residents while exploring several cultural norms.   

“The exhibition reflects the changing times of Tacoma but also explores how everyday life was for them,” Smith said. “People have this misconception that people 100 years ago were so different and couldn’t relate to how we live now but that’s not true. Many of the fashion trends we see today reflect similar cultural norms at the time of these residents.” 

1960s pale ivory embroidered dress from a Tacoma resident. Photo courtesy of Jessica Smith and the Tacoma Historical Society.  

During the Victorian era, approximately 1820 to 1914, fashion reflected the freedom of movement and expression–a trend that is still relevant today as seen through women leaving skinny jeans for looser pants. Victorian women were reckoning with their newfound freedoms, choosing pieces that emboldened them to try out different activities like cycling and sports, opting to wear light, flowy skirts. People chose colors that were psychedelic, and mismatched.  

The stigma against women who get assaulted for wearing short revealing clothes is also pushed back against in this exhibition.  

Jessica says, “During the 1850s you have women who wore clothing up to their neck to the floor completely covered and were still assaulted,” said Smith. “It doesn’t matter what periods and what fashions trends there were. You can’t blame the fashion trend for this happening to women.” 

The evolving fashion trends over time also reflect how sustainability has impacted the fashion industry and everyday consumer. People didn’t buy as many clothes as we do now. They didn’t have access to online shopping and convenience of shipping items straight to your home. Many people had to reuse their items several times over for many years and found ways to prevent the fabric from breaking down as quickly.  

“During the Victorian age, people had to repurpose their old clothes and would regularly upcycle materials that they had,” said Smith. “We plan on showing people some of these historic practices by hosting a workshop on ways to reuse your clothing.” 

1950s Japanese decal bracelet . Photo courtesy of Jessica Smith and the Tacoma Historical Society. 

The THS plans on doing many more of these workshops related to the exhibition, including one on thrifting and the role that fashion has had on societal roles throughout history. Currently, they have monthly programs which offer people a chance to learn more about certain topics that reflect Tacoma’s history.  

During the “Bustles to Blue Jeans” exhibition, people can also hear stories about Tacoma residents from previous decades and their fashion sense from different speakers. There will be a slideshow of different eras of fashion in Tacoma, including ones as recent as today.  

The exhibition will open on February 2, 2024, with a free opening event at 6:30 p.m. To find out more about this event, please visit: