Dress forms on display at SFO

Quarter-size dress forms
Quarter-size dress forms, c. 1950 (Helen Mignon Collection, History San Jose)

These quarter-size dress forms were used by San Jose State students in the Home Economics Department, and are part of a new exhibit just opened at San Francisco International Airport, “Threading the Needle: Sewing in the Machine Age.” Donated with a collection of textile and fashion samples, these were originally part of the Estate of Barbara Gae Christensen Coffee, a professor at San Jose State University.

As the SFO’s exhibit display tells it, “Domestic science or domestic arts, later referred to as home economics, has its roots in eighteenth-century needlework and sewing classes. When families could afford it, they sent their daughters to young ladies’ academies, where needlework was an important part of the curriculum in the United States. Domestic science or arts courses were first introduced in public schools around the country in the 1880s and 1890s. Specialized schools in sewing were also established at this time. By the late 1930s, nearly 90 percent of schools in cities and towns with substantial populations offered home economics programs in schools at the junior high and high school levels. Teachers of home economics traditionally made home sewing a critical part of the curriculum, emphasizing self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Junior high students typically became familiar with the sewing machine and simple hand stitching and mending, while more advanced garment construction was taught at the high school and college levels. Quarter-size dress forms allowed students to create miniature versions of their designs, before crafting the full-size versions.”

The Home Economics Department at SJSU has a long history, beginning with Maude Murchie in 1911 and a course on Dietetics. Helen Mignon was named Department Chair in 1925, and her collection of San Jose State College Homemaking Department programs and teaching materials (1917-1935) were donated to History San Jose in 1979. Home Economics is now the Nutrition, Food Science, and Packaging Department at SJSU, but the San Jose State Textile Program was once under the Home Economics umbrella, instructing students in clothing and fabric design. This department dissolved in 1987, but instruction in weaving and textile arts can still be found on campus through the School of Art & Design.

The dress forms above were previously displayed at History San Jose in 2008, part of the “She Made It” exhibition of over 35 handmade items, some from SJSU, that explored the transition of women’s craft making from that of utilitarian production or social development tool to a form of art and individual expression.

A Guide to the Helen Mignon Collection is available at the Online Archive of California.