With “Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile,” the Chicago History Museum salutes a retail wonderland.
An evening dress from the 1970s designed by Norman Norell, who was known for his elegant, tailored silhouettes.
Most shoppers thronging North Michigan Avenue would find it hard to believe that this stellar strip of real estate was once a pretty sleepy stretch of town. Sure, it had hotels and a few art galleries, but it was hardly the lively destination it is today. The street’s metamorphosis into the Magnificent Mile was fueled in a large part by fashion, as high-end retailers transformed the blocks between Tribune Tower and the Drake Hotel into one of the country’s premier shopping districts. This month, the Chicago History Museum celebrates our city’s most famous thoroughfare with the opening of “Chicago Styled: Fashioning The Magnificent Mile.” Drawing from its extensive clothing collection, the museum chronicles the transformation of North Michigan Avenue through the prism of design with an exhibition of 26 ensembles, including such pieces as a ’50s cocktail dress by James Galanos, a figure-hugging ’70s-era knit from Adolfo, and a form-breaking, hand-painted evening dress created by Yohji Yamamoto in the early ’90s as well as pieces by Norman Norell, Adolfo, Gianni Versace, Christian Lacroix, and Chanel.
Once known as Pine Street, North Michigan Avenue began to evolve with the opening of the Michigan Avenue Bridge in 1920. New buildings went up, and top retailers weren’t far behind. Martha Weathered, who was instrumental in keeping the well dressed woman au courant with fashions from France, set up shop in the Drake Hotel in 1921. Blum’s Vogue and Stanley Korshak’s The Blackstone Shop (long-established boutiques that had been doing business at 624 South Michigan Avenue) staked their claims in the neighborhood in 1931. And the appeal wasn’t limited to local retailers: Saks Fifth Avenue arrived in 1929.
Costume Council president Nena Ivon joined forces with museum curator Petra Slinkard to create the exhibition.
“What began as a moderate building boom in the ’20s slowed down during the Great Depression and World War II,” notes Petra Slinkard, the Chicago History Museum’s curator of costumes. “Then in 1947, developer Arthur Rubloff delivered a speech to businessmen and civic leaders, pitching the idea of creating a district that he referred to as The Magnificent Mile. As a savvy businessman, he realized that if you create a brand identity, it can serve as a way to market the area to a range of outside retailers.”
It worked. Bonwit Teller opened on the avenue in 1949, and by the 1970s—thanks, in part, to the dynamism of the new Water Tower Place and the John Hancock Center—shoppers had an ever-greater constellation of trendsetters to patronize, including Courrèges and I. Magnin. “While there was competition, there was also camaraderie,” relates Slinkard. “When I. Magnin came to town, Bonwit Teller ran an ad welcoming the store.” Set above a rather lengthy bit of copy, there appeared the hearty headline, “North Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile is becoming second to none—including Fifth Avenue and the Champs Elysées!”
“Chicago Styled” was organized with the support of the museum’s Costume Council. Founded in 1974 by Mrs. Phillip K. Wrigley, it is chaired today by one of Chicago’s own fashion icons, Nena Ivon, who for decades served as director of fashion and special events at Saks Fifth Avenue. Commenting on the museum’s holdings (more than 50,000 costumes from the mid-18th century to the present), Ivon remarks, “The Council works very hard to get people to understand the significance of the collection. These things are not fluff. What we wear and how we wear it are very important to our history.” Spoken like a true fashionista. November 15, 2014–August 16, 2015, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., 312-642-4600