Fall for Fashion 2011
Fashion inspiration

Fashion forward: HCC Steampunk exhibit combines Victorian styles with an edgy flair

Fashion forward: HCC Steampunk exhibit combines Victorian styles with an edgy flair

Since Houston isn't known as a fashion design center, the work of students and faculty at Houston Community College is sometimes overlooked, which is too bad because their first-rate efforts add an important and consistent fashion edge to the Bayou City. The latest example: They've taken a fashion collection from Elizabeth S. Brown, a New Jersey fashion lover who donated her extensive collection to HCC, and punked it up with a Victorian edge.

The result is Steampunk Chronicles, an exhibit at the HCC Fashion Gallery in Midtown, that is like no other fashion exhibition we've seen.

When the HCC students unpacked Brown's collection of 97 UPS boxes containing 4,000 items, with pieces dating back more than 200 years, they knew they would have to do more than simply exhibit the clothes if they wanted to showcase them in a fresh and modern way. So they looked to the Steampunk fashion revolution of the 1980s, in which designers combined silhouettes and details of 19th-century fashion and the Industrial revolution with a rebellious punk rock attitude.

 "It's never a unified look; it's a lot of looks in your own personal style," said collections manager Freddy Saucedo. "There's a touch of fantasy."

 "It has the silhouette of the Victorian age but the accessories of the S&M culture," said HCC fashion instructor and exhibition designer Alex Chapman. "For true Steampunk, you have to focus on the silhouette and styling. The juxtaposition of the two different things has to have that fetish feel to it."

So a striped silk taffeta 1850s bodice with bell sleeves and brown cord trim is punked up with a black ruffled silk Victorian mourning collar and a marabou stole as a sash. Or a 1950s taffeta pouf dress is combined with a jacquard skirt and cream embroidered net petticoat overlay from the 1890s and a stain beaded chocker from the 1960s.

In the exhibit, the looks are shown on custom-made mannequin stands that include propellers, gears, faucets and pump valves to set the industrial attitude reflected in the clothes.

"It's never a unified look; it's a lot of looks in your own personal style," said collections manager Freddy Saucedo. "There's a touch of fantasy."

Walking through the exhibit, it's obvious that such designers as Alexander McQueen, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood were heavily influenced by the look. The mourning capelets and intricate corsets have frequently showed up in their collections over the years.

HCC received the donation from Brown as a result of her friendship with Kay King, retired chair of the HCC fashion and design department and former president of the Costume Society of America, an organization that promotes the study of fashion and costume.  Brown had attended the University of Texas and told King, "I always liked Texas, so I decided my clothes should be there."

The collection includes exquisite 19th-century wedding and mourning gowns, some of which are on display at the exhibit. Some of the older pieces needed restoration, so King organized a clothing preservation workshop taught by Arizona textile conservator Martha Winslow Grimm for 15 fashion design students and three faculty who committed to learn preservation techniques.

The collection's remarkable finds, affirmed by Fort Worth vintage clothing dealer and appraiser Caralee Smith, include a 30-inch miser’s purse, a gold-beaded Worth 1920s gown, an Adrian 1940s black and gray wool suit and coat, a 19th-century gold silk embroidered gown embellished with 19 yards of gold bouillon fringe and an 18th-century men’s embroidered linen waistcoat.

The pieces have been invaluable in showing students construction techniques. "It's a great tool for fashion history," Chapman said.

But some are so delicate, Chapman added, that after the exhibit ends, "We'll give them one last hurrah and then we'll put them in a box to rest.

Steampunk Chronicles: The Elizabeth S. Brown Fashion Collection through Oct. 31 at Houston Community College Fashion Gallery, 3601 Fannin St. Open Monday-Friday 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
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Steampunk fuses Victorian touches with modern styles Photo by Clifford Pugh
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19th century wedding gowns from the collection of Elizabeth S. Brown, part of the Houston Community College fashion archives Photo by Clifford Pugh
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Alex Chapman, left, and Freddy Saucedo Photo by Clifford Pugh
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A menswear look featured in the collection included one of its oldest pieces; this vest dates from the 1700s but still looks modern. Photo by Clifford Pugh
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HCC Fashion students take a break during a preservation workshop taught by textile conservator Martha Winslow Grimm.   Courtesy of Houston Community College
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HCC students and faculty created Industrial Age mannequins to showcase the styles Photo by Clifford Pugh
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