Perhaps you, too, watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or The Gilded Age or binge Mad Men and sigh over the costumes of a bygone era? The petticoats, the sweetheart necklines, the fascinators, silk linings, smart housecoats, and kitten heels?
You can’t touch through the screen, but in Portland, you can go moon up close and personal at the under-the-radar collection of Elizabeth “Betsy” Warren, a scion of one of the city’s most prominent families and an obsessive curator of vintage fashion from the 1890s–1980s, housed in a stately Colonial Revival manse at the corner of NW 18th and Johnson Street.
The Bliss House Museum, which doubles as an event space, is open for tours by reservation only, Wednesday–Sundays at the civilized hours of 11, 1 and 2:30 p.m. Inside, there’s a seasonal rotating collection of clothing, hats, shoes and accessories that Warren has spent decades amassing from vintage dealers in Portland, San Francisco, London and beyond. A particular local favorite: Ray’s Ragtime in Hollywood, founded by the late, legendary Ray Tillotson. (Warren’s mad pash for vintage clothing began in earnest when her obviously now-ex-husband sniffed, “My wife doesn’t wear used clothes!”)
Some are outfits Warren wore herself—don’t miss the kicky Victor Costa number she chose for the inauguration of one Ronald Reagan, which could have walked straight off the set of Dynasty—while others are donated or were vintage finds, purchased for display only.
Case in point: the hand-knotted lace wedding dress at the start of the exhibit, which Warren spied in a London storefront and simply had to have (never mind that she was recently divorced, and unlikely to be walking down the aisle any time soon).
Don’t look here for designer names, though there is a leopard-print Oscar de la Renta to be spotted, and Warren’s past purchases have included Givenchy and Christian Dior. Mostly, though, the focus is on West Coast designers in whose work all the trends of the 1900s are evident, from a turn-of-the-century fur-trimmed opera cape to fringed, beaded 1920s cocktail dresses to to the Peter Pan collars to A-line silhouettes of the 1950s.
The museum’s sole staffer and exhibit designer, Violet Smalko, leads the tours, and will gladly discourse knowledgeably on the finer points, including why so many of the garments have no labels, notable in our brand-crazed age. But it’s even more fun to dream a little about which garment you’d wear if you had the chance.
We fell for a fetching dual-toned red pleated cocktail dress with sheer peekaboo paneling on the back, perfect for whirling on the dance floor during a winter sock hop, and a custom-made killer structured grey dress suit with black piping and exaggeratedly structured hip detailing, which would have been excellent for a day in the city, paired with gloved and seamed stockings.
Besides clothing, Warren has a keen eye for shoes (don’t miss the thigh-high appliquéd 70s boots in the coat room), costume jewelry (the bolder the better), and hats that are beribboned, befeathered, beplumed, be-everything’d, really. (Smalko says that before the dearly departed Hat Museum—run out of a similarly grand manse in Ladd’s Addition—closed down a few years back, they bought a few great hats from its gift shop that are now in the Bliss House collection.)
Bliss House will shut down for the last two weeks of February, due to both a series of bookings including a BodyVox event, and to give Smalko time to swap out the collection for more spring-like looks, including a roomful of Easter-parade-appropriate outfits and, for the first time since the collection opened, a full room of wedding dresses (including a stunning Japanese matrimonial kimono).
A pre-pandemic partnership with the Pacific Northwest College of Art that sees its students visit for regular inspirational trips that was put on ice during coronavirus is starting back up again, Smalko says, and they’ve been talking about a collaboration with the Pittock Mansion, too.
True mavens will want to keep an eye on their social media: The collection has ballooned so much that they’re planning an estate sale in coming months to sell some of the dresses and accessories. That doesn’t mean, Smalko says, that they are not still buying new pieces and accepting select donations. Right now, she says, she’s got a particular eye out for vintage lingerie, including the so-called ‘bullet bras’ familiar from many a 1940s pin-up.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story included incorrect information about hats from the Hat Museum. Portland Monthly apologizes for the error.