Many iconic pop garments have passed through Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum during the Seattle rock museum's first decade - everything from Gene Simmons' studded dragon boots to Michael Jackson's glittery glove and black, sequined jacket.
When it comes to glitz and glamour, few if any of those garments hold a candle to the posh gowns on display for “Reflections: The Mary Wilson Supreme Legacy Collection.”
Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame organized the exhibit, culled from dozens of outfits that Mary Wilson wore as a member of the legendary Motown girl group the Supremes. It opened recently and will run through Sept. 6 at at EMP/SFM.
“I think the Supremes costumes are the greatest costumes we’ve ever had – one, just for the sheer number, but also, two, just for the design and the elegance of them,” said Jasen Emmons, EMP/SFM’s director of curatorial affairs.
“The Supremes outfits just have this great pizzazz,” he added, “and they also have this timeless quality, like their music, that has really held up.”
Wilson – who at 66 could pass for a decade or two younger – was on site June 11, leading a group of journalists and schoolchildren on a tour of the exhibit.
“The one misnomer that people always had was that Motown ... put us into this glamorous mode and said, ‘This is what we want you to look like,’ “ she said, recalling how she, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard – the original Supremes lineup – “liked to play dress-up.”
“We came to Motown with cheap pearls from Woolworths – you know, $5 pearls,” she recalls. “So we kind of wanted to be glamorous. We wanted to be like that. As you’ll see, some of the earlier gowns, they were not as overly beaded as some of the later ones are. But they were still classy and elegant for young girls.”
Wilson inherited the dozens of costumes on display because she was the Supremes’ longest tenured member.
“Every time everyone would leave the group, I would have all the responsibilities of the insurance, the storage costs and everything,” she said, also noting that several ensembles have gone missing. “There are about three sets I bought off of eBay. ... There’s still probably 25 sets out there someplace.”
Among the outfits displayed on silver mannequins at EMP/SFM are the first that Wilson, Ross and Ballard purchased as the Supremes; a set of black, velvet Bob Mackie dresses worn during Ross’s farewell show and on the “GIT on Broadway” television special in 1969; and Wilson’s favorites, a set of ornately embroidered gowns the trio wore while entertaining England’s royal family in 1968. Each outfit weighs about 35 pounds, Wilson said.
Those gowns “signaled, certainly, that we had been successful in a big way,” she said. “Being black girls from the projects and poor and all that stuff ... whoever thought we would be standing up there with the queen mother?”
At one point, Wilson was asked to comment on the more risqué and revealing styles preferred by many of today’s female pop stars.
“We just lost Lena Horne, who was one of the most beautiful women in the world and very, very elegant, and I can say probably she was the one that kind of inspired us,” she said.
In contrast, she believes many of today’s pop stars are sending the wrong message with their sexually explicit images.
“I think you still can be a lady and be sexy and not show everything,” she said, then flashed a big grin. “Even though we showed a lot. But it wasn’t that much,” she said. “I remember (Motown founder) Barry Gordy used to tell me, ‘Mary, cover up your boobs!’ And that was my best asset. And so you see most of the gowns were up to our necks.
“They were protecting us, and I think that’s really necessary. Adults should say what should be, because if you let a child just grow up on its own without any kind of supervision or directions, who knows where they’ll go. So they do need a certain directorial guidance from adults.”
Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389, firstname.lastname@example.org