Edwardian Era fashion rules in Berkshire Art Museum exhibit

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NORTH ADAMS — About 20 years ago, Greg Lafave was browsing a Vermont antique shop when he found a black dress tucked in a closet. He later learned that the item was from the 1880s.

"Isn't this amazing that a dress like this could be this old and look this good?" he thought to himself.

He decided to buy the dark number; it was the first foray into antique clothing collection for Lafave, who had worked in fields such as carpentry, maintenance and manufacturing, but never fashion. The hobby has since taken Lafave to stores across New England and filled multiple rooms of his North Adams home with articles that draw their origins from the 1850s to 1960.

"It's overtaking the house," he says. "If I had a wife right now, she probably would not be very happy because she'd say, 'Where are we supposed to live?'"

His home has been a little bit less stuffed recently; some of Lafave's haul is currently on display at the Berkshire Art Museum through the end of the North Adams institution's season (Oct. 14). "Edwardian Era Fashion: Collection of Greg Lafave" includes 14 mannequins wearing clothing from the late 1890s until World War I's outset, a period commonly known as the Edwardian Era, due to Edward VII's time on the British throne during that epoch.

"[Berkshire Art Museum Founding Director Eric Rudd] was really gracious enough to give me some space because this has been, for the past 18 or 20 years, at my house," Lafave said during a July tour of the show. "I'd do little things in the house, but this was the first time to really put it out into the public view."

The exhibit currently resides in a room wedged between floors of "Faculty-Artists from New England Colleges"; happening upon the show can feel like entering a cocktail party unannounced.

"I want the audience I can get to go into the display and feel like they're part of it, feel like they've gone back in time," Lafave said of an era that (mostly) followed Queen Victoria's death.

Elite Edwardians had grand sartorial tastes. In the exhibit, formal attire abounds, but before gallerygoers can fixate on the items covering torsos and legs, their eyes are drawn upward.

"The attraction of this particular era were the big hats," Lafave said.

The large-brimmed lids worn by women at the room's center are black — winter wear — matching their dresses. Some elaborate, lighter-colored ones rest on a couple of women's heads closer to the door. They're in summer whites, reminding that this show's scope is of an era, not merely of one night out. But it is a gathering of sorts, and Lafave envisions the room's inanimate occupants as characters.

"That is probably a suffragette," he said, pointing to a woman dressed in black and wearing a bicorne hat near the back of the room. (By the Edwardian Era, the women's suffrage movement was well underway.)

Other mannequins hint at stories as well.

Near the suffragette, Lafave placed a female business figure; to her right, two men are on the verge of shaking hands. They're "looking like they're getting ready to make a deal," Lafave said, as if he hadn't posed them.

The show's items come from all over, according to their owner; Lafave often acquires different pieces at different times. If he hadn't traveled to antique shows and invested in his hobby, the exhibit would have never come about.

"I've gone without things for this to exist," he said.

Lafave grew up in Williamstown and has never lived outside Berkshire County. He worked at General Electric in Pittsfield for a handful of years, during which time he joined the Town Players of Pittsfield.

"I've always liked theater," he said.

He has often visited to New York to see plays.

"I was always amazed — the great acting, the set designs, the clothing that they did. I was very impressed with it," he said.

Lafave now sees how his interest in props, sets and costuming relates to his antique clothing fascination. When he first started collecting, he received some push-back.

"I got laughed at," he said.

He didn't let it deter him, though.

"It's a hobby that usually a woman would do, but nowadays we have women doing jobs that were traditionally men's and men doing jobs that were traditionally women's jobs," he said.

Books, movies and experts he trusts have helped him obtain knowledge about the Edwardian Era along the way. In the future, he hopes to expand his Berkshire Art Museum exhibit to another floor. He has no plans to sell the pieces; he wants them to be donated as a collection, possibly to a museum.

"We as humans live 70-90 years. These things are about 110 years old. They've gone through fires, floods, Halloween ... mold, bugs, and they've survived. They're in good shape," he said, "and, by God, they deserve to be around many more years."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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