For more than 150 years, Anacostia has been home to some of the most significant changes in the District’s history. From the opening of St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1855 to the escalating violence and drug use that ravaged the area in the 1990s, the neighborhood has witnessed it all. Now, this history is being illustrated in an unusual way: at a local art exhibit called “Anacostia In Fashion,” where clothing designer Brian Evans has created a five-piece showcase documenting the evolution of the neighborhood through interpretative fashion.
The exhibit details several points of the community’s history mainly though a series of outfits inspired by specific time periods. The show is part of Lumen8 Anacostia, a three- month art initiative highlighting visual and performing arts events through a collaboration between nonprofit ARCH Development Corp. and the city’s Office of Planning.
Launched in April with a 12-hour festival, Lumen8 Anacostia was funded in part by a grant from ArtPlace America, and has allowed various galleries and buildings within Anacostia to transform underutilized spaces into art areas.
Evans based the historical periods he chose to illustrate largely on personal interest. “I knew I wanted to do the ’50s,” he said of capturing what became known as the post-WWII “new look” by Christian Dior. through a newspaper poodle skirt and short coat adorned with olive toothpicks, straws and drink stirrers. He touches on the highs of the neighborhood through the elegant dress reminiscent of the fuller skirts and heavier fabrics of Frederick Douglass’s era in the late 19th century.
He also designed a dress symbolizing the 1960s, when the Smithsonian opened a community museum in the neighborhood (1967). “I thought that was really powerful that they did that, and I wanted to show that,” he says of the museum, which originally started as a storefront on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
Evans even goes so far as to illustrate straps used to hold patients down at St. Elizabeths Hospital by weaving restraints fashioned out of velvet ribbon that he placed on a prone mannequin.
“We wanted exhibits that were unique and had impact,” said Nikki Peele, director of economic development and marketing for ARCH Development Corp., who sat on the committee that selected the exhibits. “Brian’s exhibit has turned out to be thought-provoking ... and not only compelling fashion but he’s telling a compelling story.”
The exhibit seemed to come as a natural evolution for Evans, who moved to the District in 2003. A dressmaker by trade, he served as the innkeeper at Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast in Dupont Circle and helped curate art displays for Busboys and Poets and later its neighbor, Eatonville.
“It seemed like I always was trying to figure out a way to have a creative outlet,” Evans said. “It was a fun experience, but something was lacking — I wasn’t really happy anymore. Fashion just kept coming back to me; I could really never get away from it.”
Evans as began recharging his creative juices by designing women’s dresses again under his label Chauncy Couture, and soon realized he needed new images of his work to showcase to prospective clients. Intrigued by an enormous tree situated close to his home on Good Hope Road, he started doing more research on his neighborhood, he became inspired to shoot more photos of his clothes in nature.
“I recognized that that tree was at the fort of Anacostia, which overlooked the city during the Civil War, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s some historic stuff going on.’ It just kind of organically unfolded into this,” he said. He made contact with local poet and artist Fred Joiner of Honfleur Gallery, learned of Lumen8 and ended up submitting a proposal. Evans was given a grant of $500 to put his project in motion and set up an online funding page to raise more money. He used the $400 raised to “create the vision” in the space, which took about three weeks.
Now, Evans is focused on submitting a proposal for an additional grant from the Commission on the Arts and Humanities so he can add to his exhibit by producing more time periods through clothing. Evans encourages visitors to read the accompanying placards that have been designated for each mannequin, instead of taking his work at face value.
“You come in and you see this lady on a table, and she’s naked and has ribbons on her, but if you don’t read to see that she’s representative of St. Elizabeths and the restraint, then you kind of miss that,” he says. “I want people to be proud that this kind of history is here.”
“Anacostia in Fashion” is open Saturdays through June 16 from noon to 5 p.m. in the Arch Business Center at 1231 Good Hope RD SE. For more information, visit lumen8anacostia.com.
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