Piece of the week

History of the dress

This dress was donated by Phyllis Thysell and designed by Joan Leslie.

Phyllis Thysell was born on March 29, 1923, in a farm outside of Parkston, South Dakota. As a result of her parents divorcing at a young age, her mother Olga joined the workforce as a housekeeper to a wealthy couple, the Walraths. They were influential to young Phyllis by promoting her education and giving her the opportunity to go to college.

In 1945, Phyllis received her Bachelor of Science in Education from the University of Minnesota and later received her Bachelor’s in French at Moorhead State University in 1967. She was a founder and later president of the Red River Arts Board, today it is widely known as the Plains Art Museum. She was an active Minnesota State Senate Candidate and was awarded in 1978, ‘Fargo-Moorhead YWCA Woman of the Year in the Arts.’ Phyllis dedicated her life to improving the Fargo/ Moorhead area arts and culture scene; she understood the importance of preserving and exhibiting works.

One of her important contributions was expanding the Emily Reynolds Costume Collection by gifting this black, gold, and red paisley brocade dress.

The dress was created by Joan Leslie for Kasper (a company based on selling wholesale apparel to department stores). The Kasper Group today includes Anne Klein, Nine West, Le Suit, Evan-Picone and Albert Nipon.

During the mid-1990s, Joan Leslie was boycotted for their use of sweatshops and indifference to human condition; other companies included The Gap, Liz Claiborne, Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren were also boycotted. The argument of Leslie Fay (a woman’s clothing company) was that in order to “compete” in global markets they had to move factories outside of the United States and into “developing countries”, such as Honduras.

In reality, the goal was to drastically cut costs and increase profit for the company. By moving factories overseas, companies were not faced with hour, age or wage regulations that sought to protect workers.

Although the gown is stunning, it does make one wonder, what conditions were it created in? With the majority of our clothes in the United States being made overseas, one can only think of what this one dress can symbolize since it was created at the turning point of fashion with the rise of fast fashion becoming prevalent only a few years later.

Although this gown is absolutely beautiful, fashion should never result in poor working conditions. I love using Piece of the Week to spread awareness about our costume collection, and the histories of different modes of dress. By looking at this dress and its history, we can trace back what steps the apparel industry took to in turn affect the many problems it faces today. In modern-day especially and the rise of fast fashion, we are exposed to a not-so-glamorous side of fashion.

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