Style and Song Maven Nancy Wilson Donates Gowns to the American History Museum

Wilson’s dresses join the museum’s collection of famed ensembles, including gowns from: the First Ladies, Ella Fitzgerald, Beverly Sills and the Supremes

Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson signs the deed of gift, donating two of her gowns to the American History Museum, alongside museum director Brent Glass, at the Music Center at Strathmore. Photo by Jim Saah (c) 2011, Strathmore

Renowned jazz singer Nancy Wilson recently donated two of her designer gowns to the National Museum of American History, fulfilling a long-time dream of John Edward Hasse, the curator of American music.

“Mindful of her importance in American song and jazz, I’ve been seeking a donation from Nancy Wilson for some years,” says Hasse.

Born in Chillicothe, OH in 1937, Nancy Wilson knew she wanted to be a singer from a young age. With early influences like Billy Eckstine, LaVerne Baker and Nat King Cole, she began her professional singing career at 15, when she became the host of a local television show. In 1956 she began singing and touring with The Rusty Bryant Band throughout the Midwest, but Wilson had bigger ambitions. She moved to New York City in 1959, and soon after her arrival, the artist had a regular gig singing in a nightclub and within six weeks, she had a record deal with Capitol Records. Her songs were so successful that she recorded and released five albums in two years. The three-time Grammy award winner would go on to perform on variety shows, host one season of her eponymous Emmy Award-winning television show, and take acting roles on many popular TV series into the 1990s, including the The Cosby Show and Hawaii Five-O.

Hasse says he pursued an acquisition from Wilson because of her distinctive song styling, versatility, range of intensity, clear respect for the lyrics and her impeccable musicianship. “We can’t literally collect her voice, of course,” says Hesse, “so the question becomes, what material culture represents her?” Her distinctively-styled dresses seemed like an obvious choice .

The jazz vocalist’s decision to donate the gowns came in the wake of two events—her participation in an oral history interview for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program and the decision of her manager, John Levy, to donate his professional archives to the museum.

As is true with most donations to the museum, these two dresses have stories.

In February of 2007, Nancy Wilson wore  a sliver-gray silk velvet wrap-dress with poet sleeves to the 49th Annual Grammy Awards, where she received her third Grammy Award for “Turned to Blue,” selected as best jazz vocal album. “I designed this dress for Nancy with an expression of elegance and timelessness,” said dress creator Angela Dean, according to a report.

In October of 2010, Wilson appeared at a special event at Jazz at Lincoln Center wearing a strapless “Trumpet” gown in champagne silk and wool. The dress, with hand-draped embroidered tulle and a matching tulle bolero, was designed by b michael. “Nancy has a sound and a motion that is visual and inspires the epitome of glamor, sophistication and sensuality,” said the designer, who grew up listening to Wilson’s music, according to a report.

Wilson's two dresses are flanked by the museum's director Brent Glass, left, and Eliot Pfanstiehl CEO of the Strathmore Music Center, and curator John Edward Hasse. Photo by Jim Saah (c) 2011, Strathmore.

“I’m not an expert on fashion design,” says Hasse, “but it seems to me that the dress styling, like Ms. Wilson’s public personae and her singing style, are graced with individuality, ‘class,’ and elegance.”

Wilson’s dresses now join the museum’s collection of famed ensembles, including gowns from: the First Ladies, Ella Fitzgerald, Beverly Sills and the Supremes.

While plans have not been established for the display of the Wilson dresses, the Levy Collection and the Jazz Oral History Collection can be found in the museum’s Archives Center.

Update: Nancy Wilson made the donation official April 22, signing the deed of gift after her sold-out performance at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland.

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