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Gowns of Acclaimed Singer Marian Anderson Featured in Exhibit

"Marian Anderson: A Digital Installation" at the Museum of the City of New York. Photo: David Lurvey, courtesy of the museum.

Concert gowns worn by acclaimed contralto singer Marian Anderson in the mid-1900s are the focus of a digital installation created by the Museum of the City of New York.

Designed by the Eaves Costume Company and worn by singer Marian Anderson, this gold lamé concert gown features a heavily beaded black chiffon underskirt. 1938–1939. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Bette Midler, 1993.

Four garments were chosen from the museum’s collection of 11 concert gowns and one coat worn by Anderson between the early 1930s and late 1950s. Donated to the museum in 1993 by entertainer Bette Midler, the collection helps to preserve Anderson’s legacy as a vocalist and African American woman who broke gender and racial barriers. Read about the singer’s gowns and her significant contributions to the civil rights movement on the museum’s website.

Marian Anderson, 1940. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress.
Marian Anderson in 1940. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress.

Many well-known designers in New York and other cities where Anderson performed created the ensembles. The gowns helped Anderson develop her onstage persona, according to Callie O’Connor, the museum’s Costumes and Textiles Collections assistant.

Anderson took great care in choosing her performance gowns. She reportedly said she preferred simple, tasteful clothes. Midler, who describes in a video on the museum’s site how she found the gowns, calls them “quiet clothes, but they had great dignity.”

The graceful Anderson achieved many firsts throughout her career. She was “the first Black woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955; the first African American to perform at an inauguration in 1957 [for President Eisenhower]; and the only person known to have performed at two inaugural ceremonies when she sang again at Kennedy’s swearing-in in 1961,” according to the museum’s exhibit information.





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