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Delving into fashion’s dark side at History Park

History San Jose’s newest exhibit takes a hard look at what we do to look good — and it’s not always a pretty story. “Fashion To Die For: A Shopper’s Dilemma” showcases pieces from the museum’s collection, including some clothing items made from endangered animals.

A colorful hat made out of pheasant feathers is among the displays at<br />“Fashion to Die For: A Shopper’s Dilemma,” a new exhibition at History Park<br />in San Jose that opened March 19, 2017. (Sal Pizarro/Staff) 

There’s a cheetah paw coat that uses 150 paw strips from 38 cheetah skins, which today would make anyone shudder but was considered the height of fashion back in the 1940s. There are also alligator handbags, hats made with pheasant feathers and raccoon fur and fans made out of elephant ivory. The exhibit makes a point of noting that History San Jose no longer accepts donations of furs because of concerns about animal cruelty.

Cate Mills, curator of library and archives at History San Jose, said the exhibit’s aim is to draw attention to the difficult choices consumers face when it comes to “must-have” fashions. “We hope to raise awareness of the various issues surrounding retail clothing today,” she said.

The exhibition also examines shopping and fashion in San Jose during the mid-20th century and features an elegant brocade gown worn by former Mercury society columnist Marjorie Pierce in the mid-1960s and examples of haute couture outfits from the 1950s and ’60s. And San Jose’s role in one key element of clothing manufacture is also highlighted: The use of poisonous mercury to make hats and other items. Some of that mercury — or quicksilver — came from San Jose’s New Almaden Mines.

The show, which opened Sunday, was sponsored by Bonnie and Marvin Bamburg, Elizabeth and Dave Monley and Kathleen Watson. It’ll be open for viewing at the Leonard and David McKay Gallery in the Pasetta House at History Park, 1650 Senter Road, on weekends through the…

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