MOWA Presents Florence Eiseman: Designing Childhood for the American Century 

A State of Fashion Featured Exhibition

May 10, 2017
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The Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) will dedicate all of its changing exhibition galleries to an unprecedented four-part sartorial-themed show, A State of Fashion, on view June 11–September 17, 2017. Florence Eiseman: Designing Childhood for the American Century will offer a cultural history of the Eiseman look from its inception in 1945 to the present through more than 125 historic garments gathered from museum and university collections, private collections, and the company’s own archive.

Image for Florence EisemanFlorence Eiseman (1899–1988) created the look of the ideal postwar American child. For more than seventy years, Eiseman’s iconic dresses, rompers and suits for children, featuring her A-line shapes and graphic appliqués, have projected an image of childhood that feels simple, visually distinct from adulthood, and somehow timeless. Her endeavor to “make a child look like a child” defined her philosophy and led to a new design perspective beautifully matched to the family-centered prosperity that followed WWII. Eiseman developed an aesthetic that wrapped children in bright innocence and creative possibility, using clothing to express both parental aspirations and treasured family memories. Her designs feature bold shapes, graphic cutouts, whimsical forms, and design schemes often trimmed with a bow. This visual vocabulary will set the tone for the exhibition gallery, allowing visitors to understand what makes an Eiseman garment unique.

Organized by the Museum of Wisconsin Art in collaboration with the Chipstone Foundation, the exhibition presents key aspects of Eiseman’s design aesthetic. Starting in 1945, whimsical pinafores, often shaped like dolls, define her early forays into designing children’s clothing. Sophisticated, stylish dresses propose new horizons for girls. Historically inspired Tyrolean outfits and matching families of sailor suits suggest a timeless aesthetic that Eiseman continually made new. “Brother-Sister-Go-Togethers” comprised sibling pairings differentiated along gender lines, reflecting the sharply outlined views regarding boys and girls that prevailed during the period of the Cold War. Red holiday velvets and gorgeous imported fabrics transformed children into finely dressed revelers and elegant flower girls and Easter babies. The Eiseman A-line, initially intended for children, helped influence the modern geometric silhouettes for women of the 1960s. Always attuned to the times, beginning in the 1980s, Eiseman looked to the digital era for inspiration in the creation of new materials and graphic possibilities. 

Tangential histories enliven the rich aesthetic story presented in the gallery. In the early 1960s, Eiseman was one of the first designers to create clothing for children with disabilities, allowing them to dress like their able-bodied peers. Many of her garments were linked to characters from books or toys, thus relating directly to imaginative play, a central postwar parenting goal. The Eiseman label was regularly mentioned in connection with status, celebrity, and affluence, citing, for example, the children of Princess Grace of Monaco, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, and the young Kennedys—some of the “notables” as Eiseman called them. Today’s Eiseman notables include Suri Cruise and Blue Ivy Carter. Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned the company to design special baby gifts from the White House. 

Florence Eiseman: Designing Childhood for the American Century is accompanied by a 135-page full color catalogue with three engaging essays as well as wonderful photographs by Lois Bielefeld of twenty-first-century children modeling historic Eiseman fashions. The exhibition will travel with the mannequins and other supports for the garments needed to present the Eiseman story. 

A State of Fashion begins with an opening party on June 17, 2017 from 2-5 p.m. Support is provided by the Hamilton Roddis Foundation, Chipstone Foundation, Wisconsin Department of Tourism, Wisconsin Humanities Council an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mount Mary University Historic Costume Collection.
Image for Florence Eiseman, Nautical Dress and Shortall, 1986, photo by Lois BielefeldFlorence Eiseman, Nautical Dress and Shortall, 1986, photo by Lois Bielefeld
Schedule an interview with MOWA exhibition staff and request high-resolution images.
Jessica Wildes, Director of Communications and Marketing
jwildes@wisconsinart.org, 262.247.2266