Everyone wants to give Jean McElvain their old clothes. Three or four times a week, her phone will ring with a fashion enthusiast on the other side of the line. How would you like a collection of 1950s petticoats? they may say. Or, How about some hand-edged handkerchiefs? Would she like to come over Monday to look at grandma’s old wedding dress? (The answer to this last offer: a sympathetic no.)
To be clear, McElvain welcomes these calls. As a PhD in apparel studies and curator of the Goldstein Museum of Design, at the University of Minnesota, she knows that local donors occasionally offer the museum some of the most amazing pieces of fashion history. Seven years ago, for instance, McElvain received a call about a woman downsizing from a midcentury modern home on Lake Minnetonka. There, she found a great deal of shag carpet, a number of 19th-century beaded gowns (nice but not all museum grade)—and a 1930s haute couture Chanel gown in fairly mint condition.
On a cold, snowy Monday in January, I visited McElvain at the Goldstein to see for myself what the museum keeps in its giant storage facility, an impeccably clean third-floor storeroom filled with 8,000 pieces. An 11-year veteran of the Goldstein, McElvain wore a kelly-green blazer that beamed amid all the gray, brown, and beige walls and furnishings in the ’70s building that is McNeal Hall, on the university’s St. Paul campus. She smiled every time she pulled a new piece from the racks.
While the Goldstein presents from five to seven exhibits a year (these are free and open to the public), this private tour presented something different: a glance at some of the most amazing couture and iconic ready-to-wear pieces—Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Issey Miyake, and Isaac Mizrahi—ever worn in the Midwest.
Beyond the tweed overcoats, Mary Jane heels, and top-handle purses, this runway tour—presented on acrylic hangers and mannequins—hinted at a richer story. The dresses, the high-society donors (Dolly Fiterman and Margot Siegel), the iconic stores (Dayton’s Oval Room), the salesclerks, the galas—all these were the province of powerful and influential women. And the clothes at the Goldstein: This is how they’d present themselves to the world.
Like a lot of women’s history, the Goldstein hasn’t always attracted the attention it deserves. Some 6,000 visitors attend its exhibitions each year (its current show, Initial Impressions: Renaissance Type and the Grammar of Ornament, continues through May). But in the realm of fashion history, the Goldstein is a major national name.
Collecting clothing like this in a place like the Twin Cities is different from what goes on in fashion capitals like New York or Paris. We’ve had few high-profile designers here, for one thing. Which brings us back to those phone calls.
During one site visit in 2015, McElvain discovered someone unique: A donor who owned pieces—from outerwear to undergarments—from only one designer, Yves Saint Laurent. (Her collection from the luxe French fashion house later appeared in the museum’s 2018 exhibition Storied Lives: Women and Their Wardrobes.)
What did this look like? Think: a Victorian-inspired puff-sleeved silk taffeta blouse with a plunging velvet neckline; knee-high boots embellished with multicolored glass beads; and an embroidered marigold-yellow silk quilted cape with a matching satin pencil skirt.
Not all of McElvain’s home visits yield such glamorous finds. For every piece she wants for the museum’s collection, there are 10 she doesn’t.
“A lot of times, I’m walking into a situation where I’m sifting through mobs of tea towels and table linens,” she says. “It certainly makes it eclectic.”
This means that no matter how beautiful or expensive your art deco wedding dress may be, she’ll likely take a pass. The museum’s storage facility already holds nearly 30 different gown styles from 1920–29. “We’re always toeing that line between trying to decide what’s best for the collection,” she says. “Unfortunately, what’s meaningful and important to a donor doesn’t always necessarily mean it is to us.” Each year, McElvain sees about 2,000 items, from which she brings only a few hundred into the Goldstein.
You’re probably wondering how this small gem of a museum landed on the St. Paul campus—that is, the farm campus—of the University of Minnesota. That story starts more than a century ago with two Polish sisters from Michigan: Harriet and Vetta Goldstein.
The Goldsteins studied under Frank Parsons, an influential professor at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now the Parsons School of Design).
After arriving at the University of Minnesota in the 1910s, the sisters went on to develop an object-based approach to teaching design. “Harriet and Vetta believed that students learned best when surrounded by examples of design—both good and bad—from all around the world,” says McElvain.
The Goldsteins, then in their 30s, filled their studio classes with vernacular design picked up during their travels: Indonesian batik, Pueblo pottery, Indian saris. They proceeded to create the university’s related arts program: fashion, interior, graphic, and industrial design. And they sold a quarter of a million copies of their textbook, Art in Every Day Life.
“Harriet and Vetta laid the groundwork for Minnesota as an innovative design destination,” says Lin Nelson-Mayson, director of the Goldstein. “Designers around the country were wondering where this demand for good design was coming from, and much of it can be traced back to the Goldstein sisters. They truly had a national effect.”
Alumni campaigned to name a new exhibition program at the university in the Goldsteins’ honor before the museum opened in 1976. Today, their namesake building houses a gallery (the only museum in the Upper Midwest that specializes in designed objects), a workspace, and a storage facility that holds a variety of textiles, ceramics, furniture, and fashion. The Goldstein also includes objects that represent local industrial design achievements. Last spring, the museum acquired 600 objects from Target’s collaboration with American architect and designer Michael Graves.
The Goldstein may be small in size: It covers just 8,300 square feet. But it has had far-reaching impacts. Some of its objects have traveled for exhibitions to national and international institutions, including a 1938 Schiaparelli gown, borrowed by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.
As I accompanied McElvain into the storage area, she asked what I’d like to see. The better question would’ve been, What did I not want to see? It wasn’t long before we were examining pieces that once belonged to grandes dames of the local fashion scene: pop art clothes from fashion journalist Margot Siegel, for instance, and Bill Blass and Emanuel Ungaro designs from art collector and gallerist DeLoris (Dolly) Fiterman.
I’ll never forget the Oscar de la Renta ostrich-feather dress, once donned by Dolores DeFore, a retail executive who ran Harold, the downtown Minneapolis department store, and was a buyer for the legendary Oval Room. I was in heaven.
The Oval Room, of course, was the luxury showroom on the third floor of the downtown Dayton’s, from 1943 until the store closed. McElvain says patrons of the Oval Room, and their wardrobes, helped put the Goldstein on the map.
But she traces the real start of the Goldstein’s modern collection to the Minneapolis–St. Paul Fashion Group—now the Fashion Group International–Minneapolis/St. Paul—started by Helen Ludwig, in 1957. According to McElvain, prior to the firm’s involvement with the Goldstein, the museum didn’t particularly focus on apparel.
“The Fashion Group rallied local, high-profile devoted fashionistas to donate styles they weren’t wearing to the Goldstein,” says McElvain. You can see these gifts in past exhibits such as last fall’s Dior to Disco: Fashion in the Era of Second Wave Feminism and Storied Lives: Women and Their Wardrobes, which celebrated the wardrobes of prominent Twin Cities women of the 20th century.
While it’s hard to ignore the allure of the Goldstein’s trove of prestige designers and haute couture pieces, we shouldn’t confuse its collection with the perfect online vintage shop, like a Poshmark or Depop store. The museum thinks expansively about textiles and materials.
“We don’t just put stuff up,” says Nelson-Mayson. “We tell stories for a general audience and explore design history or aesthetics or a topic in ways guests can enjoy while learning.”
For example, in 2011, the Goldstein staged an exhibit based on well over 1,000 objects donated by or borrowed from Donald Clay Johnson, a retired librarian and curator of his library’s South Asian collection. Johnson, who began collecting Indian cultural objects in 1966, embraces the museum’s deeper mission.
“Rather than selling my collection, I want to see it go to a well-regarded teaching and research institution like the Goldstein,” Johnson says.
The generosity of donors like Johnson points to a problem that may sound familiar to many lovers of great clothes. The Goldstein is running out of closet space. Or, to be more accurate, the storage facilities are filling up.
If the Goldstein holds too much stuff, I never tired of looking at it. At the end of my runway tour, I asked McElvain what decade was best represented in the Goldstein’s costume collection. She dug through the racks and pulled out two pieces that helped answer my question.
The first was a cropped highlighter-yellow blazer accentuated with black-and-white feathers and shoulder pads. The second was a short neon bustier-style fit-and-flare party dress decorated in colorful, Memphis-style pop art shapes. Both garments were fashioned by Bob Mackie, who created splashy, eye-popping costumes for entertainment icons—Cher, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, and Elton John—in the 1980s. (If I ever get invited to a Sixteen Candles prom-theme party, I know exactly what I need to wear.)
Fashion envy aside, the Goldstein is not only a treasure trove but an archive of how design has responded to (even shaped) society—a snapshot of the times.
Who Wore it First
Goldstein by the Numbers
- 35,000 – Total objects
- 21,000 – Costume and fashion pieces
- 3,600 – Square feet of storage
- 5 to 7 – Exhibitions a year
- 1,000 – Visitors for each exhibition
- 1,600 – Donors