Arts & Entertainment

Exhibit highlights history of the little black dress

The little black dress is the epitome of a blank slate, easily dressed up or down for the occasion.

Karen Sullivan-Schwebke of Kennewick has spent about six years collecting little black dresses and period accessories and has been doing retro fashion shows, instructional classes, history exhibits and demonstrations.

She was invited to show her collection at several museums including one at the University of Washington and beginning Feb. 4 at the East Benton County Historical Museum in Kennewick. She's also teaching classes on the subject.

Her collection spans the eras from the gay 1890s, through the flapper era, into the 1960s -- think Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's -- through the 1980s. Sullivan-Schwebke also has collected the purses, shoes, jewelry, hats and other accessories women wore to complement their little black dresses.

She recently took part of her collection to a fashion merchandising class at Hanford High School and invited all the students to wear their little black dresses.

"Looking at the dresses I've brought and what you're wearing, you can see that everything in fashion is recycled sooner or later," she said asking one of the students to stand up. "See her halter top? They were very hot in the 1930s and again in the 1970s."

She asked another student to show the cut out back of her slim dress.

"This one shows a 1930s influence when clothes were cut on the bias and were quite revealing," Sullivan-Schwebke said. "You'll find, looking over my collection, that fashion details go round and round. They just get reinterpreted or given a twist to make it fresh and new."

"See this dress? It belonged to my mom," she said, holding up a dropped waist sheath. "It's a revival of the flapper look but my mom wore it in the 1960s when we were all drooling over the Beatles."

Sullivan-Schwebke's little black dress collection will be on exhibit at the museum, 205 Keewaydin Drive, through Feb. 26. The exhibit will include story boards, some hands-on items and fashion information, decade by decade. The museum is open noon to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and children 4 to 17 years are $1.

*Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513;