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A common thread

The newest exhibit at Wilson Library is an annotated walk-through closet called “From Frock Coats to Flip-Flops: 100 years of Fashion at Carolina.”

The newest exhibit at Wilson Library is an annotated walk-through closet called “From Frock Coats to Flip-Flops: 100 years of Fashion at Carolina.”

The display cases hold real clothes and accessories that Tar Heels wore on campus from 1900 to 2000, donated by Carolina alumni. From classic cashmere sweaters worn in the 1950s to a pair of Levis lovingly patched with colorful scraps from the end of the 1960s, the shifting sartorial splendor of college students is on display.

The exhibit, housed in the North Carolina Collection Gallery on the first floor, is laid out chronologically and traces two fashion movements that reflected changes in 20th century society. One was the gradual switch from formal to comfortable dress and the other was from uniformity to variety.

“It’s a fun way to talk about UNC history,” said Emily Jack, the gallery’s outreach librarian. “Clothes and the stories behind them are an excellent way to tell the social history of the 20th century.”

The display begins with (what else?) a dark frock coat and a stiff linen collar that the very formally dressed students (all male) wore at the turn of the century. It proceeds through the flashier dress of the Roaring ‘20s, the pared-down styles of wartime, the uniformity of the 1950s, the rebellious counterculture dress of the 1960s and 1970s, the preppy 1980s and the grunge and hip-hop 1990s.

One newsworthy item is the cheerleading uniform belonging to Bernie Oakley, who was removed from the squad in 1970 for refusing to cut his long hair. From the same era is a dashiki donated by Jacqueline Solis, a loose-fitting and elaborately patterned West African garment that was part of the black pride movement.

Michael Hill donated his Earth Shoes, symbolic of the “granola fans and environmentalists” of the late 1970s. The flat wide shoes were supposed to improve posture and encourage a more natural walk. “It’s like walking with a clod of dirt under the front of your shoe all day,” Hill said. “They are a definite icon of the era.”

The clothing is paired with advertising or news items of the era and note cards with very personal reflections by their owners. The 1950s cashmere sweater, for example, is the kind of item that a “co-ed” might be “using as bait” to “reel him in,” according to an ad from Robbins of Chapel Hill.

Those patchwork Levis had real meaning for owner George Simpson, Class of 1972. He’s shown in two photos, one wearing a football uniform and the other in his jeans. “It was hard to be part of both the football team and the counterculture,” he recalled. “So some of us showed solidarity in what we wore.”

One display case has 16 T-shirts from a wide range of sports, residence halls, fraternities and sororities, and other organizations. Another case holds just one item: an 1892 football uniform from one of Carolina’s earliest teams. The jersey is a dark blue knit sweater and the pants are white and quilted.

The exhibit continues through June 5. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays.

In a related event, fashion designer Alexander Julian, the Carolina alumnus who designed the distinctive argyle on today’s basketball uniforms, will talk about “The Threads of Carolina Style” at 5:30 p.m. April 19 in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room of Wilson Library.

The free public talk is the 2016 Gladys Hall Coates University History Lecture. An exhibition viewing will begin at 5 p.m.