Alla Ripley

Alla Ripley around the time she began her dressmaking career.

“Threads of Imagination,” a new exhibit at the Ridge Historical Society (RHS), 10621 S. Seeley Ave., will open for the Beverly Art Walk on Saturday, Sept. 21, and run until mid-January 2020.

The exhibit will highlight the intersection of fashion and art through the creative work of five artists, one of whom is a historical figure and four who currently live and work in the community.

In the early decades of the 1900s, Alla Ripley Bannister (1867-1948) was a preeminent American “modiste,” the French term for one who creates and sells fashions for women. Using the name Madame Ripley, she owned a studio on Michigan Avenue, a few blocks south of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Alla Ripley is another name on the long list of incredible women who have lived on the Ridge. She did so much to establish America and Chicago as players in the world of fashion, a legacy that has traveled down to today,” said Carol Flynn, curator of the exhibit. “Her marketing skills were amazing, especially for a woman who had no formal training in the business world. And, she was clearly a women’s rights advocate during pivotal years.”

Alla Ripley was born in Michigan. After her first husband, Harry Ripley, a traveling actor, died in 1894, Alla, 26, and her toddler daughter, Jean, moved to Chicago to live with her parents who had relocated here.

Alla Ripley became a seamstress to support herself and her child. She married architect and building construction manager George S. Bannister (1860-1938) in 1902, and they moved to Beverly, residing at 10227 S. Wood St.

Women’s fashion was traditionally dominated by male designers. Seamstress work was considered an appropriate occupation for women until they married; then, they were expected to give up employment.

Ripley and other women designers of the time changed that. She spoke out publicly about women’s rights to independence and their rightful place in determining and designing fashions for themselves. This was an outcome of the Progressive Era of the late 1800s-early 1900s, a time of great social change.

Ripley became involved with the Chicago Dressmakers Club, which conducted fashion shows each year. In 1913, several designers including Ripley made headlines when they showed the first “cubism” or “futurist” gowns in the U.S. based on the new art of leading painters in France such as Pablo Picasso. Although cubism fashion never caught on, it established Madame Ripley as a premier dressmaker.

Ripley was also a savvy businesswoman and organizer. When she became president of the Chicago Dressmakers Club in 1913, she reorganized it into the Fashion Art League of America and served as its president for over a decade.

The league was comprised of fashion designers, manufacturers and suppliers of dressmaking materials, society women who bought the fashions, and artists. Ripley convinced all of them to agree to follow the fashion dictates of the league, issued through regular bulletins authored by Ripley. She gave numerous speeches throughout the country and wrote many articles, all while running her business and managing biannual league fashion shows.

The league promoted the idea that fashion is an art form. The visitors who came from across the country for the fashion shows were treated to visits to the Art Institute of Chicago to observe, among other things, how draped fabric was carved on classical statues.

The rallying cry of the league was “American designs for American women,” positioning fashions designed and made in the U.S. as superior to those from Paris and paving the way for American designers today.

Ripley’s career lasted well into the 1930s, when advancing age, the death of her husband and the Great Depression caused her to retire and move to California to be close to her daughter and her sister.

The RHS exhibit will display information about Ripley’s career and family, including illustrations of her designs that appeared in the fashion news.

As part of the exhibit, four current women artists who live and create on the Ridge will show their work.

“Beverly has attracted artists as visitors and residents since the 1870s when new train lines made the Ridge easily accessible from downtown Chicago,” said Flynn. “The arts continue to thrive in Beverly today, thanks to the Beverly Area Arts Alliance. We are thrilled that these four artists who all explore fashion from unique creative directions have agreed to share their art with the RHS.”

Judie Anderson worked as a fashion illustrator for the Chicago American newspaper after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s. She drew ads for designer fashions and produced illustrations for society fashion shows held for charity. Work from this period will be in the RHS exhibit.

Anderson assisted her husband, Bill Anderson, in starting the first arts school at the-then Beverly Art Center in 1972. She went on to a 20-year career with the Chicago Tribune, retiring as director of design. Today, she continues watercolor painting, teaching and exhibiting.

Maggie O’Reilly grew up locally and developed a love for travel and other cultures as well as a knack for working with fabric, texture and color. The exhibit will show works from her two companies, Maggy May & Co., a girls’ clothing line, and the MAYTA Collection, which works with artisans in Morocco and Peru to create handcrafted fashion and household accessories.

O’Reilly is committed to ethical production practices, fair wages and investment in the communities where MAYTA produces. MAYTA is a member of Chicago Fair Trade, a coalition to increase support for fair-trade practices.

Sandra Leonard’s work revolves around “sculptural costumes,” fashions she creates that turn the human form into sculpture. Her inspiration comes from many sources, including nature and historical and theatrical clothing, and she hand-paints many of her fabrics. Her costumes are often used in performances that make the human form a kinetic sculpture.

Leonard has been involved in numerous performances, improvised theater, alternative fashion shows and installation projects. She has designed interactive costumes for children for the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Art Institute. Some of her costumes will be on display at RHS.

Nicole Burns of Ni Bu Design approaches fashion from another unique angle—she takes vintage fashion and fabrics and incorporates them into new art forms. Her work in the exhibit will include clothing, bags, dolls and sculptures. Burns takes inspiration from vintage fabrics and loves their tactile nature.

Her art is created by recycling old and new materials from around the home into one-of-a-kind objects. She also collects vintage sewing items, and some of those will be on display, bringing viewers full circle to 100 years ago when Madame Alla Ripley was producing fashions.

In addition to Flynn as curator and researcher/writer of the Ripley section, the exhibit is designed by Linda Lamberty, RHS historian, who is also on the research team. Lamberty recently contacted Ripley’s family through the website ancestry.com, and for the exhibit, a great-niece has shared family photographs and information.

The exhibit will be open for the Beverly Art Walk, the RHS garage sale on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 27, 28 and 29, and Open House Chicago on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 19 and 20.

For information on additional times to view the exhibit, the upcoming RHS open house and reception to meet the artists and holiday events, contact the RHS at (773) 881-1675, email ridgehistory@hotmail.com or visit the RHS Facebook page or the website at ridgehistoricalsociety.org.