Exploring the collection of gowns, gloves, and more at Northville’s Lace Museum
This article appears in the February 2017 issue of Hour Detroit.
A mid the modern-day restaurants, shops, and entertainment in downtown Northville, a small space that’s been fashioned to resemble a Paris lace shop houses an ivory silk wedding gown from the late 1800s and a peach-colored English Edwardian day dress from 1910 in its double bay windows.
Tucked away basement-level in Northville Square, “The Lace Museum” is stenciled above its violet door.
Mary Salmon, owner of the museum, welcomes guests entering the space she opened in late November as Debussy’s Claire De Lune plays in the background.
“This is my funny, odd museum,” she says.
Nearby, a stack of white gloves sits at the front of the space that Salmon says is only one of three dedicated lace museums in the country. By slipping on a pair, guests can hold any item in her more than 2,500-piece rotating collection, which includes portraits of unidentified aristocratic women, intricate fashion ensembles, sewing machines, lace-making bobbins, table linens, antique accessories, and more.
Salmon says some of her earliest memories — the building blocks of her expansive knowledge of the textile — include admiring the beauty of her aunt’s lace tablecloths as a little girl. She continued learning about famous presidents and their lace cravats in grade school, and says she viewed lace adorned outfits in oil paintings at the Palace of Versailles in Paris when she was 12 years old.
“Some people look at paintings and they think they’re beautiful, but for me it was just textiles and predominantly lace,” Salmon says.
She’s spent more than 20 years growing her collection, knowing for the last 10 that she’d one day launch a museum.
Prior to opening the space, Salmon — who is also a federal representative for people with disabilities and a former artistic staff member with the Dayton Ballet in Ohio — stored her pieces at her 1880s Northville estate. Despite being kept in protective bins and boxes, the items were prone to strange smells and fold lines by not being properly archived or displayed. She needed a dedicated facility to care for her pieces, and says she attempted to have the collection shown at local historical societies and museums, such as The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn.
“I tried really hard to give my collection out to venues where it would [be] beautifully displayed and the public could have enjoyed it … but I couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously,” she says. “So, I always thought that I would have to do it on my own.”
Although the space is only about 1,000 square feet, it covers a large range of time — one of its exhibitions will focus on American Civil War-era fashion — as well as cultures from near and far.
The museum has a number of local treasures along with more worldly finds from France, Ireland, Belgium, and Italy. There are vintage ensembles and accessories sold at Hudson’s department store, Detroit family heirlooms, and garments by Hugo Hill, a German fashion designer who ran a clothing business on Woodward Avenue during the 1800s.
“I found beautiful things that families, probably farming families, inherited and they just kept them and stored them very well,” says Salmon, who visits auction houses on the East Coast, local estate sales, rural areas near Michigan State University, and more to add to her collection. On a yearly basis, she says that she accrues about 150 “really solid” pieces.
Unlike most artwork, which can feature signatures from an artist, Salmon says it can sometimes be difficult to determine where her pieces came from. However, after years of practice, she now notices style characteristics that help her fill in the details.
A climate-controlled storage area and a small shopping space, which features a rack of vintage gowns and textiles as well as displays of hats, lace fans, and more, can be found behind the museum’s main display room. Instead of charging for admittance, profits from the space, along with sales to costume shops and personal requests, fund the museum. Salmon says the facility was previously empty, and she used her personal finances and sale profits to renovate and launch the museum.
Along with its regular hours, visitors can schedule an appointment with Salmon to view The Lace Museum collection. She says this approach, along with thoughtfully written description cards placed throughout the space, is meant to help her share her knowledge with others.
“If somebody came and wanted to look at things and peruse for an hour or two, I have couches they can sit on, and I’m there to describe things,” Salmon says. “I would love to educate people.”