George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason Professor’s Exhibit Tells Story of D.C. Icon Marjorie Merriweather Post

June 1, 2015

Professor Harold Kurtz, assistant curator of costumes/textiles works with graduate student Lorraine Burns, intern, on an upcoming Marjorie Merriweather Post exhibit at Hillwood. Photo by Craig Bisacre.

Professor Howard Kurtz, assistant curator of costumes/textiles works with graduate student Lorraine Burns, intern, on an upcoming Marjorie Merriweather Post exhibit at Hillwood. Photo by Craig Bisacre.

By Jamie Rogers

Nestled on a 25-acre estate in Northwest Washington, D.C., is the last home of a woman who lived a life so extraordinary that it’s been immortalized in a new exhibit curated by a George Mason University theater professor.

Marjorie Merriweather Post was a businesswoman who grew her father’s cereal venture into a multimillion-dollar company while establishing herself as a fashion-forward socialite. She did both in the early 20th century—at a time when it was unusual for a woman to be the boss, much less a boss with a wardrobe that demanded as much respect as the position.

Seventy-five dresses from this wardrobe make up the exhibit “Ingénue to Icon” opening June 6 at her former home, now known as the Hillwood Museum.

Exhibit curator Howard Vincent Kurtz handpicked the gowns displayed in the exhibit from the 175 Merriweather Post had in her possession when she died in 1973 at the age of 86.

Professor Harold Kurtz, assistant curator of costumes/textiles works on an upcoming Marjorie Merriweather Post exhibit at Hillwood. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Professor Howard Kurtz, assistant curator of costumes/textiles works on an upcoming Marjorie Merriweather Post exhibit at Hillwood. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

“She wanted her home to become a public museum,” said Kurtz, who has divided the last 18 years of his career between teaching at George Mason and curating at the Hillwood. He conducts research, conservation and costume display at the museum.

“I’m actually carrying out her wishes; she saved [these dresses] for a reason,” he said.

The exhibit, located in a small cottage on the property called the Adirondack, is arranged in a semi-circle with the dresses Merriweather Post wore as a young girl to the far right. As visitors move left, they see her evolution from a Midwestern girl clad in the feminine blush pinks of the Edwardian era to a mature mid-century woman.

Many of the dresses, some in the conservative style of women’s suffrage and some in the flapper style of the 1920s, are in fragile condition—so fragile they can’t be displayed. Elizabeth Lay, a 2012 graduate of Mason’s MA in History of Decorative Arts program, is assisting Kurtz with the exhibit. All of the clothes are custom made and so intricate in detail and design that Lay likens them to being “engineered” by the dressmakers.

Throughout her life, Merriweather Post was known to change clothes four times throughout the day, for the various activities of her daily routine, Kurtz said. He plans to display dresses in different rooms of the house, allowing each dress to tell the story of the room and how it was used.

This is the third curated exhibition highlighting the Post family fashions at the Hillwood Museum. “Invitation to the Ball: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Fancy Dress Costumes of the 1920s” was held in 2009, and “Wedding Belles: Bridal Fashions from the Marjorie Merriweather Post Family, 1874-1958,” took place in 2011.

Kurtz wrote the book “Ingénue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion from the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post,” which doubles as the exhibit’s accompanying catalog.

The exhibit will be on display through Dec. 31.