Jenice Armstrong: WHERE DID OUR GOWNS GO?

This dress was worn for the taping of "The Ed Sullivan Show."
This dress was worn for the taping of "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Philly museum displays Supremes collection

Posted: January 25, 2013

FOR NEARLY half a century, the signature sequined gowns and other lavish stage costumes belonging to 1960s Motown superstars the Supremes lay forgotten, boxed up and stacked in founding member Mary Wilson's various garages and storage spaces.

Many were in excellent shape, though some outfits were deteriorating and others had gone missing. In hindsight, it's jaw-dropping that nobody had bothered to catalog and preserve it all, a situation that's been remedied in "Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes Collection," opening Friday and continuing through July at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

The Supremes are pop-history legends. Their matching gowns and bell-bottom pants sets - many custom-made by Bob Mackie and other leading designers of the day - were integral to the group, helping cement its glamorous image.

At least Wilson didn't toss everything out.

She had always hoped to put together some sort of exhibit to preserve the legacy of the trio, whose original members included Diana Ross and Florence Ballard (see sidebar). Despite their continued airplay on oldies radio, Wilson always believed that the Supremes, whose popularity rivaled the Beatles during their heyday with 12 No. 1 hits between 1964 and 1969, have never gotten the recognition that the group deserved.

A public tribute, Wilson thought, would raise awareness of the impact the Supremes had on pop culture and in changing how the world viewed black women.

Still, Wilson, 68, didn't do anything with her stash until 2004, when she hooked up with Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. She and curatorial director Howard Kramer spent several days in Wilson's Las Vegas-area home looking at her trove of clothes and other Supremes memorabilia. Luckily, Wilson lives in a dry climate, so mold wasn't an issue despite the somewhat casual storage method.

"We basically moved the furniture in her living room and started laying things out on the floor to identify them and take pictures," Kramer recalled this week in an interview. "She knows her stuff. She could tell you the backstory of the dresses. . . . I was out there for at least three days."

Then came the painstaking work of restoring the stagewear to its former glory, he said. "We created an exhibit that opened here in 2005 and was shown in a total of six U.S. museums." The exhibit traveled overseas to Great Britain, to London's renowned Victoria and Albert Museum and elsewhere.

"It's been our largest touring exhibit we've ever done," Kramer said.

But after 4 1/2 years, the Rock and Roll Museum wanted to move on and returned everything to Wilson. Just as she'd forged on with the Supremes after lead singer Ross left in 1970, Wilson kept the exhibit alive, renaming it "Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes Collection."

"The gowns tell the story of an important era: the Supremes and the society that the Supremes helped to transform," said Mark Anthony Neal, a popular-culture expert at Duke University who guest-curated the show for the African American Museum of Philadelphia.

Wilson, who has a new single out called "Life's Been Good to Me," still tours and hasn't given up hope that she and the other surviving original member, Ross, may reconcile for a Supremes reunion tour. (The two have had some much publicized feuds over the years.)

Wilson and I spoke earlier this month about the collection, as well as the lasting legacy of the Supremes. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Q: I read somewhere that you got the gowns because you were the longest surviving member of the group.

A: It wasn't like a law or a rule. It just kind of happened. I think we all thought we were going to be together the rest of our lives, until people started leaving and then we realized not. The gowns had to stay with the group because the group was still going on. And so it just kind of happened that way. And then I was the last - is it the last person standing?

Q: Still standing!

A: So I did end up with these gowns. I must say, and I'm putting this out this year because I've not said a lot about it before . . . Motown moved from Detroit at a certain time, and we were traveling on the road. And when they moved, lots of the music that was in the can was lost or stolen or whatever, and so were some of our earlier gowns.

I have, thank God for some of the fans, bought a couple off eBay. Some are at the Hard Rock [Hotel &] Casino here in Las Vegas. I don't know how they got there.

Q: What's the condition of the outfits?

A: Many of them are so fragile that they cannot even be in the exhibit. We have one beautiful set, it's kind of bell-bottom-type pants made of very sheer material with fringes all over them. One of them has totally deteriorated.

What we're trying to do with just [one of the pantsuits in the exhibit] is to show what it was, but we can't hang it up. We have to lay it out. Many others did hold up, and they are absolutely exquisite.

Some, because of the size, we've had to retire. We were very skinny. I didn't realize that we were that small. I mean we were skinny, OK? I couldn't get a leg through one of them, the pants, and I'm not that heavy at all. Anyway, because of that, some of the gowns, we've had to retire. We can't find mannequins that are small enough [to display the outfits], so that's putting a lot of pressure on some of the gowns. We have to be very, very careful because they're old.

Q: Were most of the gowns custom-made?

A: When we [original members Wilson, the late Florence Ballard and Ross, whom Wilson still calls by her childhood name Diane] first started singing, we just bought casual, cute dresses. Once we started doing TV shows and all, we started buying gowns. In fact, a couple of years, Diane and I made a couple of the gowns. Diane was more of a sewer than I was because she took home economics in school. She knew how to do patterns and this and that.

Then we started buying them from department stores. The first was Hudson's Department Store, which was the big store in Detroit, where they had the finer dresses and this and that.

We also went crazy when we went to Saks Fifth Avenue. That was our first biggie. They would close the stores for us, or it would stay open later. And this was in the '60s, so that was a pretty big deal. I have one of the gowns we bought from there [Saks] in the exhibit. It's a white, chemise kind of dress with a jacket with mink fur covering the sleeves.

Q: Who managed your look?

A: We were pretty much in charge of that. No one told us what to buy. However, we always had chaperones. Mrs. [Maxine] Powell, who was our mentor from the artist development department [at Motown], would go shopping with us.

We all liked sparkly. That's when we really knew we had kind of made it because we were able to wear really sparkly, grown-up, dressy dresses. Prior to that we, we would wear gowns, but they would not be with the beads and things on it. When we finally got there, where they would start bringing us beads and sequins, we went out of our minds.

We each had different tastes, but there were some stipulations that Berry [Gordy] or some of the chaperones would have. They definitely wanted to keep us in that more modest type of cut. We would wear, often times, high necklines, long sleeves, and everything would be beaded.

We were not told, "You cannot do this," but they did steer us in that direction."

Q: Did you ever get into it over what to wear?

A: We were three different women with three different tastes. But I don't recall their being a major fallout.

Q: What were your favorite looks?

A: One of my favorites was when Diane and I made these orange balloon dresses. The most amazing thing is that they are back in style now. I recall us making them from, I don't know whether it was a Simplicity pattern or which pattern it was, but I remember going to Woolworth's, getting the patterns, making the dresses and wearing them. We all had pretty nice legs. They were very thin but nice.

Q: Is footwear part of the collection?

A: Back in those days, we just bought shoes, peau de soie usually, and we would dye them the color of the gowns. Then, as the '70s came along, we started buying these clunky shoes. So the shoes were not glamorous, is what I'm trying to say.

But I have thrown some in just so that people see what we were wearing at the time. But they were nothing like the Manolo [Blahniks] and all the shoes today. Nothing like these. The reason why our shoes weren't that beautiful was because a lot of times we were dancing.

Q: Does it surprise you how many of these gowns have stood the test of time?

A: I don't think there are any of them that you couldn't wear today.

Q: It must have been fun going through the boxes and pulling all the dresses out.

A: It was. I was happy to be able to do it. It's about history. The gowns are really a piece of art depicting history.


On Twitter: @JeniceAmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen.


"Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes Collection," African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., through July. Museum open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, $12 adults, $10 children, 215-574-0380, aampmuseum.org.

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