DARIEN — In the restored barn area of the Darien Historical Society, there are 19 mannequins. Some wear boxy suits. Others wear ball gowns. Many of them are set up to look like they’re walking down a runway. There’s one wearing a blue and orange dress with a hem of feathers and another sporting a skintight Pucci dress. In the corner is a full skirted Carolina Herrera wedding dress.

These 19 dresses make up five decades of fashion and are the historical society’s first twentieth-century fashion exhibit, “Mannequins on the Runway, Haute Couture and Contemporary Designs of the 20th Century.”

“It’s our first modern costume exhibit,” said costume committee member Ulla Kremer. “It shows haute couture from the 20th century which is way up from what we did before. I’m very excited because we’ve been working on the show since last summer, so we hope public will receive it well.”

The exhibit was curated by Babs White who has been serving as the Darien Historical Society’s costume curator for almost 50 years. Now in her nineties, White got her start in fashion after graduating Smith College in 1947 with a degree in art history. From there, she went to New York City and got jobs in advertising, eventually working as a designer for Women’s Wear Daily.

“In its day, it was a very strong arbitrator of fashion,” she said. “It was fun to work there.”

White moved to Darien in 1966 and in 1970, she channeled her love of fashion into costume work at the historical society. There, she helps collect donations from Darien residents, maintain the society’s costume collection and plan exhibits. This latest exhibit is her sixth one since the society began using a restored barn for exhibits in 2010.

In the past, White has had exhibits based around historic wedding gowns, undergarments and the ladies of Darien’s historic Prospect Avenue. “Mannequins” is not only her first exhibit of clothing from the twenty-first century, but also of designer clothing.

“This isn’t the only group we have of haute couture,” she said. “These are all designer which makes them special.”

“[All the exhibits] have been quite difficult,” she added. “But they’ve all been earlier than this one.”

Part of the exhibit preparation has included researching the history of haute couture, as well as the designers displayed in the exhibit. There are dresses from Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta and information on them all will be in brochures and on display throughout the exhibit. White and the other costume committee have found the information they need by reading fashion books. The costume crew meets once a week, but even more in the weeks leading up to an exhibit.

When they’re not preparing for an exhibit six months out, the committee attends to their costume collection. While the society doesn’t take pieces stored in mothballs, polyester wedding gowns or furs, they welcome other historic clothing items. The donated items are then stored in the society’s attic or on acid-free paper. The items are aired regularly and then steamed, fitted and padded in the time leading up to them being put on exhibition.

White said she’s already thinking about future exhibits that will make the most of the historical society’s 3,000 piece costume collection of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing items.

“Costumes are an ongoing history of artifacts,” she said. “It’s a tangible artifact. To me, it’s the best example of history. It’s so vivid.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata

More Information

See the exhibit

“Mannequins on the Runway, Haute Couture and Contemporary Designs of the 20th Century” opens on April 21 with a Champagne Reception from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Ladies’ Luncheons with White take place on May 3 and 10 at 11:30 a.m. The Darien Historical Society is located at 45 Old Kings Highway North. For more information, visit darienhistorical.org or call 203-655-9233. The exhibit runs through August.