Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hats Off to the Museum

Last Friday, I was privileged to speak at the Texas Tech Museum Association luncheon as they celebrated a current exhibit at the museum appropriately named "Hats and Purses and Shoes...Oh My!" Approximately ninety women gathered, many dressed in hats and attire from eras long past, to view the exhibit and hear my memories of shopping in Lubbock, Texas in the 1950s.

In an attempt to describe the event, the first phrase that ran through my mind this morning was this old description, once seen in newspaper accounts of ladies' gatherings in the 40s and 50s: "a good time was had by all." Poor grammatical structure to be sure, but I think it adequately describes the level of excitement in the Helen DeVitt Jones Sculpture Court at the Tech Museum that day.

While I recalled incidents from my own shopping excursions as a youngster, and shared pictures of former stores and merchandise from that era, the ladies themselves reminisced and shared tales. Some told of working at Hemphill-Wells department store during its golden days, others recalled owning Mouton coats, riding the bus to downtown Lubbock to shop, eating at the tea room in Hemphill's, and of the city's power brokers who dined there. The excitement of shared memories warmed the room, and most left with smiles on their faces. Jouana Stravlo (Tech Association Executive Administrator) and Gretchen Scott (Volunteer Chair of the Association Resource Committee) joined forces with the museum’s curator of Clothing and Textiles, Dr. Marian Ann Montgomery, and the museum’s Executive Director, Dr. Gary Morgan, to create a memorable luncheon.

The excellent meal catered by Top Tier, lovely table decorations designed by Jouana Stravio and her assistant Natalie, along with the special display of old hat boxes from the museum’s collection, set the tone for the day.

The exhibit itself is enlightening: there was an elegance attached to many of the ladies' accessories that hinted of a West Texas mindset I have observed my entire life.

We women who grew up on the Texas South Plains came from hardy pioneer stock, to be sure. My own ancestors homesteaded here in the late 1800s when life was very tough, and it took hard work and perseverance to survive. Yet there was a lively spirit, a sense of joy, and a love of things beautiful that was evident even then. Those pioneer women designed colorful quilts, crafted lovely household furnishings, and stitched dress-up attire for themselves and their families. My own experience testifies to the fact that in the 1950s, we were not just the daughters of farmers, or cotton gin managers, or school teachers. We had a sense of style and wanted beautiful things despite the rugged landscape and plain views surrounding us everyday.

The museum exhibit displayed some of the most elaborate shoes, handbags, and hats you can imagine--items that would seem to be most out of place here. Imagine holding onto a wide-brimmed hat in our gusty West Texas wind, or walking across muddy dirt farm roads in high heels to get to the car on a rainy Sunday morning. A common memory of school days in the 50s for me includes wearing dresses to school no matter how cold or windy it might be. We recently laughed during my high school reunion at the days of marching band practice as we tried to remember our half-time routine while playing our instrument, trying to read our music that flapped in the wind from the flimsy music holder, while at the same time attempting to keep our full skirts from blowing up to reveal unmentionables. That experience in itself typifies the West Texas can-do spirit!

The Tech museum exhibit typifies all of those elements of society from a by-gone era: the eternal need of women to look lovely and fashionable, paired with a practicality borne out of the necessity of living in a place hundreds of miles from the nearest well-known fashion and culture centers.

We were too remote from the Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, or Oklahoma City standard bearers of culture, so we had to create our own. Stores like Hemphill-Wells gave us our own little slice of culture and dignity, and how we ladies grasped at anything of beauty and grace to which we might cling!

If you live in the Lubbock area, take a few minutes to visit the museum to view the exhibit. The museum is located at 3301 4th Street and this particular exhibit will be on view until January 15 in Gallery 7 just off the Helen DeVitt Jones Auditorium. The Tech Museum is doing an outstanding job keeping our local culture alive, and preserving the memories of what it has always meant to be a West Texan.