‘Fashion and Fantasy’ on display at Sheldon Museum

MIDDLEBURY — In celebration of its 130th Anniversary the Sheldon Museum of Middlebury, Vermont presents the exhibit “Fashion & Fantasy,” introducing selections from the museum’s vintage clothing collection paired with the unique, stunning, and imaginative couture creations from nature by Vermont artist Wendy Copp. The exhibit opened on Aug. 20 and runs through Nov. 3.
Reflective of Wendy’s work is the sophisticated ensemble of “It Had to Be You,” featuring a jacket from turkey and guinea fowl feathers and a skirt of hydrangea and sumac stalks and blossoms. Her work with natural materials began for Copp in 2012, when, in the Hindu tradition, she experienced the natural progression from being of the world to being of the forest, from responding to the business of the world to fulfillment through contemplation.
As curator of the exhibit, Copp has crowned selections from the museum’s vintage clothing collection with masks fitting for a costume ball, such as an owl head atop a fashionable purple silk skirt and bodice, circa 1880, and a doe’s head capping a fetching costume with housecoat, hoop skirt, bloomers and silk shoes.
Copp is deeply cognizant of the ephemeral quality of her artistic ensembles — all created from natural materials. She also recognizes that the fabrics of many of the museum’s dresses originate with silk worms and cotton flowers, all of which are short-lived. Couture cotton is exemplified by a 1913 tea gown included in the exhibit.
Commenting on the exhibit, Wendy notes that “both my work and the museum’s dresses address time as metaphor — the ephemeral nature of existence — the fact that materials, ideas, styles and humans are in flux, are impermanent and will someday cease to exist.” Her curatorial selections also reflect “changes in design as the sleeves got wider and then skinnier, the corsets got stiffer, and the petticoats turned into crinolines, and bustles moved farther and farther away from the body, as well as the shift from hand to machine stitching.”
Her work includes “Green Shoes” with a colorful, contemporary motif made of ferns and marigolds, a winter coat of phragmite tops, gooseberry leaves and pine branches with accompanying boots of bark and paper clay. This will be paired with a man’s buffalo coat with beaver collar from the museum collection. The shoes bring attention to the wearer from the bottom up; the coats reflect rugged winters and rugged men.
Copp channeled her artistic energies to the current exhibit after witnessing the physical and mental challenges experienced by her 90-year-old mother, a former vocal artist, as together they downsized decades of fashion in her mother’s closet. “The Body Electric,” a piece inspired by stage costumes is a ballet-like tutu made of poplar, maple and beech leaves, grape vine, hydrangea, chicken wire, and barbed wire, displayed on a wooden mannequin. A particularly arresting creation, “Runaway Bunny,” is a dress of birch bark with ears and boots that invites the viewer to imagine well-dressed nymphs frolicking in the forest. In addition to the birch bark, the materials are curly willow branches, poplar leaves, chicken wire, paint, newspaper and glue, guinea feathers, paper clay and fur.
Reflecting on her selections from the Sheldon’s collection, Copp says, “The dresses tell a story of people long gone. Who were those people? Who was responsible for changes in design? What was the social context? What is the connection between the 19th-century notion of cataloging and controlling nature and the re-forming and molding of the female form?”
In addition to being a gifted artist, Copp excels in theater design and on horseback. She co-founded Burlington’s Very Merry Theater, serving as its artistic director during its startup years, facilitating the creation of its set and props, and developing the signature graphic identity of the theater’s traveling wagon. She keeps her horse on a friend’s property at Vermont’s Shelburne Farms, where many of her explorations begin. Copp sets off on her horse for weeklong rides over rural trails in Vermont, laden with camping equipment for spending nights under the stars.
Copp says her imagination and images are provoked by the animals, trees and vegetation she encounters while on horseback, when exploring the Lake Champlain shoreline near her home in Chittenden County, and on trips abroad. Primarily, she says, “The natural materials I have chosen as a medium are found right outside my door — which connects to the notion of sustainability, and of using what is already there.”
The Sheldon Museum was founded in 1882 and over the years has benefitted by the donations of vintage clothing from generations of fashion-conscious, cultured, local residents. It has been said that life in Vermont has all of the natural elements, flora and fauna, that are a part of design inspiration. The exhibit will epitomize that inspiration, both by past designers and by Vermont’s own Wendy Copp.
Additional exhibit highlights will include gallery talks each Wednesday by Executive Director Bill Brooks and occasional presentations by Vermont-based costume and dress designers, a textile specialist and a fabric artist. Vermont e-commerce and sustainability are subtexts of “Fashion & Fantasy.”
The Henry Sheldon Museum is located at One Park Street in downtown Middlebury across from the Ilsley Public Library. For more information about the exhibit and related programs, visit www.henrysheldonmuseum.org or call 388-2117.

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