Baby You Can Drive My Car

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & magine for a moment that you're an anthropologist of the future seeking to explain American culture in the 20th century. How would you tell the story of that journey from nascent industrial revolution to post-industrial global capitalism? Where would you find those enduring icons that helped 20th-century Americans express who they were and who they wanted to be?

Look no further than the closet and the garage, says Laura Thayer, curator of collections at the MAC and the organizing force behind Mutual Seduction: Cars & amp; Costumes, which opens this weekend at the museum.

"American cars and clothes can be an expression of the American experience," says Thayer. "Americans use cars and clothes to express ourselves, to seduce each other, and to announce our status and our intentions."

That's the curator in her talking, and the evolution of technology and style in these two realms of consumer culture is certainly one of the major themes of the show. But the main reason everyone connected with the museum is excited about this exhibit, she says, is because cars and clothes are, well, fun.

"People 'get' cars and they 'get' clothes," she says. "You know, when you're a curator and you're sitting around talking about work, you think, 'What could we do to get this collection out and to make it fun and sexy?' We knew we had this fabulous collection [of clothing]. And the Inland Northwest has some great car collections. So it was an exhibit that we thought we could home grow."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & utual Seduction fills the large lower gallery at the MAC: 12 vintage vehicles, from a 1907 Cadillac to Chad Little's 1991 NASCAR racer, complemented by more than 50 examples of clothing and dress from the same time span. All of the cars belong to Inland Northwest collectors and most have stories and anecdotes that tie them to the region's history. Some have stories you may know already -- there's the original souped-up Hot Rod Lincoln, owned and made famous in song by Spokane's Charlie Ryan -- but some of the best bring to light stories that otherwise would have faded into the shadows of the past.

For instance, the 1911 Gleason on display was owned by a merchant from a place called Hazard, near Deer Park, and he made occasional trips to Spokane for business. "We have a quote from a business newspaper in September 1911 making a commentary," she says. "The newspaper talks about how he thought his troubles were over once he got motorized transportation, and he turned his horses out to pasture, but the silly thing doesn't really work very well, and now he's walking a lot."

Just seven years later came one of the first true luxury cars, a cherry-red 1918 Apperson Jackrabbit 8. The contrast between these two vehicles is remarkable: The Gleason looks like a wagon with a motor attached, but the Apperson looks like a car. And it has a great story, too.

"This car in particular -- the only one in the world -- in 1918 was purchased by a Lincoln County judge who lived in Davenport," says Thayer. "He sent his sister to Seattle to drive it home, all by herself. [This was] before paved roads."

After navigating up and over the Cascades, the judge's sister turned the car over to his wife, Blanche. She drove it until 1955, when it was bought by another woman, a car collector, who held it for another 30 years.

"It's always been driven by a woman," says Thayer. "The electric starter -- a technology that came from cash registers -- could turn a bigger motor than your arm could, so that meant a lot more people could drive cars, especially women."

Take a peek inside the Apperson and you'll see the original leather seats, including two small jump seats set between the front seats and the back. These seats fold down into the floor of the car, making more room for cargo -- and proving that "stow-and-go" seating is far from a new invention.

Next to the Apperson is a woman's leather touring suit with a story of its own. The stylish cropped jacket and flared skirt belonged to a Spokane woman, Vera Peasley Wickersham, who traveled to Yellowstone National Park in 1916 with her husband to take one of the last horse-drawn tours through the park.

"The year before that was when [park officials] allowed individual cars into the park, which really changed the park forever," says Thayer. "So [the Wickershams] would have been among the first people to drive their own car into the park. We have a picture of her standing next to Mammoth Hot Springs wearing this outfit."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he idea to combine clothes and cars at the museum has been percolating for a long time, Thayer says, but it picked up steam following the opening of the expanded MAC in 2001.

"For me, it's exciting to see more and more of our collections coming out over time," she says. "That really was the promise of the new museum. We have more room to work on our collections and to see what the possibilities are, and we have more real estate to show them."

As a locally produced exhibition, Mutual Seduction is the result of many hours of volunteer labor. Thayer has a team of 12 women volunteers who come in regularly to work on the textiles in the museum's collections; the idea for the exhibit grew from their work, and they helped select the costumes for display from the hundreds of clothing items in the collection. Another volunteer, Ray Riches, engineered the dozens of display standards -- mannequins covered in archival materials, each one custom built to display one particular outfit. With museum-quality mannequins fetching $1,000 or more apiece, Riches' work ensured that the MAC would be able to produce the exhibit within its limited budget. The stories told by the cars and clothes in Mutual Seduction can be read at many different levels: as examples of American daily life, as illustrations of social trends and mores, as examples of consumer culture, and as a history of technology and style. Car buffs will love the old cars; fashionistas will love the clothing. The exhibit also illustrates the social history of Americans' leisure time, the movement toward individual travel, and the beginnings of the Great American Road Trip.

Americans have used cars and clothing to fashion an identity -- both individually and nationally -- and Mutual Seduction tells those larger stories as well. But mostly, as Thayer says, cars and clothes are fun. And Americans love to have fun.

Mutual Seduction runs from April 22 through Feb. 25, 2007 at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave. Museum hours are Tues-Sun, 11 am-5 pm. Call 456-3931 or 363-5315 (24-hour hotline).

Make & Takes @ Art Salvage Spokane

Sat., June 19, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and Sat., July 17, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
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