Mary Lawler's senior group visited several museums before pulling up to a beige townhouse near Washington's historic "Black Broadway," where the 70-year-old tourist saw a thread of history she never anticipated.
There, draped over a dressmaker's mannequin, was the yellow floral silk dress that Rosa Parks carried in a shopping bag when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.
Parks's dress, still unworn, has found a home in the Black Fashion Museum, a unique cultural attraction in a city full of museums.
With its alluring concept, exceptional garments and home on Vermont Avenue NW, the Black Fashion Museum illustrates the difficulty of earning a niche in Washington's competitive museum world.
Only 600 visitors tour the museum each year, but the two-member staff expands its reach by assembling traveling shows and running a fashion design competition. Even so, after nine years in the city, the Black Fashion Museum struggles for visibility.
"I didn't even know it was there," said Lawler, who lives in Arlington.
Although the fashion museum has received grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and is listed on brochures distributed by the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition, it is open mostly by appointment.
The museum got a big boost last year when the dress collection of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. More than two-thirds of the people who normally tour the museum in a year walked through one Black Fashion Museum exhibition: "Ann Lowe: First Ladies Gowns."
The museum had an intimate connection to the citywide celebration: Jacqueline Kennedy's Washington. The former first lady's wedding dress was the creation of Lowe, a black designer whose life and works are highlighted at the Black Fashion Museum.
"We are educational, historical and cultural," said Joyce Alexander Bailey, the museum's executive director. "We educate, showcase and help young and upcoming designers."
The fashion museum is the brainchild of Lois Alexander-Lane, a seamstress, former boutique owner and fashion instructor, who got the idea to open a museum in Harlem in 1963 while researching her thesis on blacks in retailing. She could not believe the dearth of information available on the role of blacks in clothing design.
"Black women have been sewing since we arrived on these shores in 1619," Alexander-Lane said in a 1979 interview with Essence magazine. Founder of the Harlem Institute of Fashion, Alexander-Lane, who began sewing doll clothes as a child, wanted to dispel the myth that blacks were newcomers to the fashion industry.
For years, the Harlem museum -- with 5,000 bits of fashion memorabilia -- was housed in a four-story brownstone, where Alexander-Lane lived. The museum received such raves in New York that she wanted to expand it to the District. In 1988, she persuaded Bailey, her daughter and a District resident, to open an exhibition to showcase talent and skills of black fashion designers.
Bailey, a retired teacher at the former McKinley Tech Senior High School, jumped at the chance. She had always enjoyed researching contributions of black designers and was fascinated by a particular project.
She and her husband, Norman, traveled to Dinwiddie County, Va., to comb municipal records for information on a former slave who designed dresses for President Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd.
With the emergence of black designers on the international fashion scene, interest in blacks' role in the industry began to grow. In 1993, Bailey moved the fashion museum to her mother's Shaw townhouse on Vermont Avenue near U Street. Alexander-Lane, now 86, was forced to close the Harlem museum in 1996 when she was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, and the New York collections were eventually moved here.
Unlike the Harlem museum, which received raves and national media attention, its Washington sister is far from a community landmark. Located within a block of the African American Civil War Memorial, it offers an intimate experience. Visitors must call and make an appointment for a guided tour.
Besides Bailey, a full-time volunteer, the only staff member is curator Valerie Chisholm. The institution survives on membership fees, donations, grants and the founder's personal funds.
The exhibition that Lawler saw last summer featuring Parks's dress and other historic items has gone on tour as "A Stitch In Time: 1800-2000." It features 30 photos and 42 artifacts from two centuries, including an original slave dress and contemporary clothing by black designers. An 1800s opera cape, designed by Louvenia Price, a former slave, was donated to the museum by her granddaughter.
The highlight of the exhibition is a special tribute to Lowe, who died in 1981 at age 82. Born in Alabama, she lived in New York, where she owned a Lexington Avenue dress shop. She designed dresses for Rockefellers, Roosevelts and DuPonts and the bridal gown of Janet Lee Bouvier.
In 1953, the former Ms. Bouvier asked Lowe to design a wedding dress for her daughter, Jacqueline, who was preparing to marry John F. Kennedy, then a Massachusetts senator. The wedding dress is at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and no longer taken on tours.
The Kennedy dress took more than two months to design and finish, requiring 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. Little wax flowers were sewn on the skirt. Just days before the wedding, a flood in Lowe's New York workshop ruined the dress fabric, so the one worn by Jacqueline Bouvier was actually made in only five days.
In New York, Alexander-Lane befriended Lowe. The Harlem museum became a natural platform to highlight the dressmaker's work, and in 1965, Lowe recreated 18 miniature gowns worn by presidents' wives. The museum owns three of the gowns, part of the exhibition now on tour.
At the exhibition, Lawler, the tourist, learned about Lowe's contributions.
"I remembered that Jackie Kennedy had a black designer," Lawler said. "I did know a little bit. That impressed it on me, seeing it at this museum. I was so pleased that the blacks had so much input. They were such great seamstresses."
Lawler's experience exemplifies what Bailey hopes to achieve. She wants museum visitors to recognize blacks' contributions to fashion from the time of slavery. The Black Fashion Museum, at 2007 Vermont Ave. NW., is open by appointment. Donations of $2 for adults and $1 per child are requested. Appointments can be made by calling 202-667-0744.