IT'S TO BE expected that a bridal show presented by the Portland Design Collective (PDC) would feature Portland designers, but this week's "Something Olde, Something Now" brings two designers to the fore whose work could easily have already seen its last days on local soil. The first is Julia Barbee's Frocky Jack Morgan, making its first return to a Portland runway after Barbee returned home from Los Angeles just one month ago. The other is now-retired Elsie Bartling, whose work in the show is among the last 30 pieces remaining in her collection.
Barbee has made a name for herself with romantic, theatrical deconstructed dresses and accessories assembled from a bounty of vintage materials, before the practice became omnipresent in independent fashion circles. The dresses she will showcase here were used in a short film titled "Wearing Their Whites," which was featured at the Mosaic LA Film Festival. She's also created whimsical, pixie-like headpieces out of repurposed belts and jade leaves.
The show also coincides with PDC's acquisition of Bartling's work, which owner Tacee Webb recognized as a complement to the approach of Barbee and her peers. Eighty-three years old this week, Bartling's career was defined by her fascination with vintage and antique textiles, which she worked into dress designs modeled after the fashions of the Victorian era. Now that those pieces themselves are 30-some years old, Tacee jokes that they're "double vintage."
Bartling now fills most of her days as an active member of the 55-and-older community where she resides, participating in theatrical productions and founding an active square dance society, and where she's also staged a runway show of her work. While she's left the details of this weekend's show in the capable hands of the PDC, she plans to attend, and to wear one of her own designs. In a telephone call, she reminisced about a career that came to be defined by taking the lead from a clientele that often repurposed her original intentions. When she began selling a unique style of wraparound aprons, she was asked by stockists to make them "less kitcheny" because women were buying them to wear as dresses. Likewise, it wasn't until she discovered that clients were wearing what she considered sundresses as wedding gowns that her career in bridal wear solidified.
Many contemporary designers cite the virtues of reuse and the environmental ills of textile manufacture as factors in their materials choices, but Bartling says that while her '70s-era flower child clients may have taken that into account, it wasn't her motivation. "I loved working with the hand-embroidered fabric done by women from long ago," she says. "Women once had plenty of time to do that, but now it's a lost art." Indeed, Bartling's dresses imply a respectful female lineage, with post-feminist female professionals ("even one truck driver," she remembers) bearing the craftsmanship and reclaimed high-necked proprieties of their housebound forerunners. In turn, artists like Barbee carry on her work.
As a precursor to the now-bustling Portland apparel industry, Bartling's similarities don't end with her methods. Largely self-taught, she personally attended to construction of the majority of the pieces she sold in boutiques in the Portland area, the Oregon coast, and Las Vegas. When she looked into expanding the operation after piquing the interest of a bridal shop in New York, she decided to maintain it as a smaller labor of love. Citing aesthetically similar lines that went on to be household names like Laura Ashley and Gunne Sax, Bartling admits, "I could have done a lot more had I been willing to manufacture... but that was my attitude."
"Something Olde, Something Now" w/live music by Denim Wedding, Portland Design Collective, 902 SW Morrison, Saturday July 16, 7 pm, $5