Professor Designs Dress Commemorating Women of Rochester
“I wasn’t the oldest in my neighborhood growing up, but I was the tallest and the bossiest, so I would write plays and have other kids perform in them,” remembers Gail Argetsinger, associate professor and costume designer in the Department of Theatre and Music Studies at SUNY Brockport.
One of her favorite aspects of these neighborhood productions was creating costumes out of old drapes and pillowcases. She once used food coloring to dye a Peter Pan costume green.
Today, one of Argetsinger’s latest creations has become a museum exhibit.
What started as an idea to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York State evolved into an elaborate, 19th-century-inspired dress featuring more than 100 historically significant women with ties to the Rochester region. The dress is now on permanent display in the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Museum in Seneca Falls, NY.
Marla Schweppe, professor of 3D digital design at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), called upon the talent of Argetsinger — who has been designing costumes professionally for more than 45 years — to bring the dress to life.
The finished product reflects the application of several unique inks, printing techniques, and even electronics developed by RIT students and professors over the course of more than a year. Argetsinger, with the help of work-study students Kathleen Gibbons ’20 and Morgan Perrin ’19, assembled the finished product in the costume shop on the Brockport campus.
“Those two amazingly gifted students worked with me on making the dress, pinning it, doing the handwork, sewing 10,000 snaps, and making piping that went around each individual 3D-printed button,” said Argetsinger. The Brockport trio spent about three months completing its piece of the process.
Argetsinger regularly enlists the help of students for work executed in the costume shop.
“I love teaching, I love designing, and I really love working with students,” she said. “When I have a freelance gig that’s significant, I always take the students along and insist they be part of the design process.”
“Hard work and strong interdisciplinary communication went into making every aspect of the dress a success,” said Perrin. She learned basic sewing skills from her mother and advanced techniques both on her own and with help from Argetsinger.
“I teach history of fashion, so I know the late Victorian time period and its construction very well,” said Argetsinger. “It was fun to have the skill, the knowledge, and the artistic flair to take these materials and turn them into a really beautiful gown.”
Among the women featured on the dress are artists, activists, actresses, inventors, and Nobel laureates. While most are incorporated as names, 38 photo panels display the faces of women who have made a national or international impact, such as Susan B. Anthony, Kate Gleason, Harriet Tubman, Kristen Wiig, and Abby Wambach. A button featuring opera singer Renée Fleming even contains a sound bite.
Before finding its forever home in Seneca Falls, the dress was showcased at the United States Institute of Theatre Technology in St. Louis; Imagine RIT; and the Perkins Mansion on East Avenue in Rochester, owned by the American Association of University Women.
“People surge toward it. Women bring their daughters, stand there and ask questions, and photograph it. I’ve been overwhelmed by the sentiment, the tears,” said Argetsinger. “Sometimes I think, ‘It’s just a dress,’ but it struck a magic chord with many people.”