Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Kimberly Jondahl's blog

3 North Dakota Fashion Designers You’ll Want to Know About

Headshots of three women. The one on the left is Native American and is wearing a black shirt with green jacket over it and a necklace and earrings. Her hair is pulled back. The middle one is white with long, blonde hair. She is wearing a black shirt, and there are pink and red color blocks behind her. The one on the right is Native American and has her hair down behind her shoulders. She is wearing a black shirt with a red shawl around her shoulders and earrings.

Norma Baker-Flying Horse, Casey Paul, and Lauren Good Day

North Dakota has historically been the home of women changemakers—inspiring self-starters who create lasting impacts. Women’s History Month is the perfect time to highlight three contemporary fashion designers from the Peace Garden State—Norma Baker-Flying Horse, Casey Paul, and Lauren Good Day—making their mark in the clothing industry. All three incorporate traditional inspiration, hand-crafted designs, and an intent to empower the wearer in their work.

We feature stunning dresses by these style innovators in our newly opened Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit, which includes more than 400 historical and contemporary garments. Come see these designers’ gorgeous creations at the State Museum in Bismarck and learn about the role of clothing in North Dakota life!

Norma Baker-Flying Horse

A bright blue/teal mermaid style dress with a black top picturing ledger art styled horses and a woman riding one of the horses. The horse the woman is riding is gray with a blue mane and the other two horses are blue with red manes.

Gown worn by journalist Corinne Oestreich at the 2019 Grammy Awards. This gown was designed and sewn by Norma Baker-Flying Horse, owner of Red Berry Woman.

Norma Baker-Flying Horse’s couture apparel brings contemporary Indigenous design to the wider fashion world. Among her growing list of accomplishments, she holds the distinction of being the first contemporary Native American fashion designer to have a gown worn on the Oscar stage and at the Grammy Awards. Her work has even been featured at Paris Fashion Week, attracting global attention to her exquisite Indigenous designs.

Red Berry Woman, Baker-Flying Horse’s Dakota Sioux name as well as that of her business brand, creates one-of-a-kind formal wear in New Town. Using a variety of textiles, she sews and embellishes clothing for both female and male clients. Baker-Flying Horse’s designs merge her cultural heritage with a modern sense of style. An enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, Baker-Flying Horse is also a member of the Dakota and Assiniboine tribes. She pays homage to family traditions through her nationally recognized appliqué work and beading, skills learned from her grandmother and mother. A few months ago, this rising star was honored with the International Indigenous Designer of the Year award by International Indigenous Fashion Week in Regina, Canada.

Casey Paul

A long, red dress with sleeves that is being displayed on a mannequin

New York designer Casey Paul, who grew up in Grand Forks and Bismarck, created former North Dakota first lady Mikey Hoeven’s inaugural ballgown worn in 2001. The ensemble includes three pieces in shantung silk and organza.

An accomplished New York City fashion illustrator and dressmaker, North Dakota native Casey Paul has created evening wear for celebrities and Broadway stars—Liza Minnelli, Mary-Louise Parker, and Madonna among them. Paul grew up in the sewing rooms of her mother and grandmother, where she discovered her love of fabrics, fine beadwork, and couture. As a young girl, she pressed the costumes of entertainers like Johnny Cash at Norsk Høstfest in Minot. (Her family played a role in the annual Scandinavian festival’s founding and continues to be involved in its management today.) She studied apparel and textile design at North Dakota State University and couture dressmaking at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

“I always feel extremely grateful that I grew up there,” the designer says about her state roots. “We, from North Dakota, have a strong compass, good values, and a good work ethic.”

Most recently, Paul and her friend the model/actor Stephanie Seymour co-founded Raven & Sparrow, a company creating vintage-inspired sleepwear at their New York City studio. Barneys New York launched their original 2017 line, which was widely featured in fashion magazines.

Lauren Good Day

A black dress with red trim and a red tie around the wais. On the black fabric is the backside of cowrie shells repeated throughout.

This cowrie wrap dress, featuring a modern interpretation of a traditional cowrie shell, is from Lauren Good Day’s 2019 clothing collection. Cowrie shells were long used as a form of currency among various Native American tribes.

Lauren Good Day’s skills as an artist and an imaginative fashion designer have landed her works in Vogue and in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Good Day, “Good Day Woman,” is a multiple award-winning Arikara, Hidatsa, Blackfeet, and Plains Cree influencer in the international worlds of art and clothing.

Honoring cultural lifeways is key to Good Day’s design inspiration. This Bismarck designer’s clothing lines are inspired by traditional culture and attire and include the beadwork, quillwork, and ledger art illustration skills learned from her mother and grandmother. An enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and a registered Treaty Indian with the Sweet Grass Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, Good Day is passionate about creating authentic, culturally appropriate patterns for her fabrics. She first develops digital graphic designs for a new clothing idea, adding modern twists to traditional inspirations. Those designs are then printed onto fabrics and produced as everyday wear clothing lines.

Good Day includes her signature on each piece, signifying that her fashion designs are works of art. When I talked with Good Day recently, I was curious to know how she felt about non-Native people wearing her clothing collections. She assured me that her designs are meant for all, and she is honored when non-Native people choose to wear her culturally inspired designs.

In addition to her fashion career, Good Day is an accomplished artist, who has garnered top awards at prestigious Native American juried art shows for her tribal arts, beadwork, drawings, and textiles. Her art is featured in museums and private collections across the country.

3 “A-ha” Histories Hidden in North Dakota Museum Work: Quirky discoveries about Peggy Lee, Gannon Mystery Murals, and a Tunnel to Nowhere

An impossible ache runs deep when you hold an old document, a childhood toy, or a photograph and connect with its history. It might involve the thrill of finding an unmarked musty dusty box, coming across a long-forgotten love letter, or finding a black-and-white photograph of your hometown. Those moments cause you to pause and sigh with a satisfied “A-ha” as the lines blur between past and present. I’ve been fortunate to experience several of those twinklings in 2020 while working on an upcoming exhibit and new visitor tours. Here are three of my favorites.

1. Mystery Murals in a Hidden Box

Nothing gets a curator’s heart racing with glee like finding a mysterious box on a storage shelf. The large box was unmarked when a few Audience Engagement & Museum collections staff discovered it. What mysteries would lie within the box? Inside they found 30-some rolled strips of painted canvas with torn edges. As these 10-foot strips were unrolled, my collections team realized these pieces came from State Historical Society murals created as backdrops for 1930s natural history exhibits. Clell Gannon (1900-1978), a regionally known artist and historian, painted the canvases.

A man stands outdoors wearing a hat, bandana around his neck, button up shirt, and pants with belt.

Clell Gannon lived an adventuresome life as a skilled artist, poet, historian, and creator of a charming stone home in Bismarck. You can view a few of his murals at the Burleigh County Courthouse. SHSND 00200-4x5-0402c

Part of this story remains a history mystery, but we think that Gannon’s North Dakota badlands landscape scenes hung in the Liberty Memorial Building on the Capitol Grounds (now the home of the State Library) until the North Dakota Heritage Center opened on the grounds in 1981. In 1980, the State Historical Society staff moved all museum collections from their space in the Liberty Memorial Building into the North Dakota Heritage Center. The unexplained history mystery evolves around “why” and “who” tore the 13’ x 10’ murals into long narrow strips and placed them in an unidentified box on a shelf.

6 deer and 2 elk stand posed in an exhibit display with outdoor scenery

Deer and antelope shared the exhibit platform in front of artist Clell Gannon’s painted mural at the former State Museum location in the Liberty Memorial Building. SHSND 00200-4x5-C-00402

We’re thrilled about discovering these fragile murals and are in the process of digitally bringing Gannon’s artwork back to life. In June, while the State Museum was closed due to COVID-19, we opened the box while we had daily access to sparkling clean and empty museum corridors. Our curators carefully unrolled each 90-year-old strip on long tables and gently brushed off areas of flaking paint. All the strips have deteriorated, but oh my, they are still beautiful. Gannon’s bison—blurred from peeling paint—represent a former generation of these majestic herds that continue to thrive in the badlands today.

museum staff unrolling large mural piece

David Newell, Jenny Yearous, and Lori Nohner of the Audience Engagement & Museum team unroll and prepare a section of a Clell Gannon mural for photographs.

museum staff carefully brushing loose particles from mural pieces

Loose paint flecks are carefully removed from the panels by Jenny and Lori, one small brushstroke at a time.

photographer taking photos

New Media Specialist DeAnne Billings begins photographing two adjacent strips of a mural. Similar to a quilter, she’ll digitally stitch the pieces together to create two murals.

Over the next several months, DeAnne will be digitally “stitching” the sections of these two murals back together, like a careful repair of a beloved old quilt. Watch for our 2021 digital reveal of these artistic treasures.

detail close up of painting

Here’s a sneak peek at a few of Clell Gannon’s badlands bison on small section of a mural, painted about 90 years ago.

2. Peggy Lee’s Hidden Talent Trove
Like one of Grandma’s quilts tucked into a dusty attic trunk, famous Wimbledon native Peggy Lee’s fashion designing talents were hidden away. Familiar with Disney’s classic “Lady and the Tramp” film? Then you already know Peggy Lee’s trademark sultry purr. She’s the voice of both Siamese cats, Peg, and Darling. The talented Lee also composed and sang three of the movie’s memorable songs (“He’s a tramp, but I love him...”). Or you might know her from her many #1 Billboard hits such as “Fever.” What you might not be aware of is this North Dakota native’s lesser known artistic talent.

sepia photo of Peggy Lee with Disney's Tramp on her shoulder

The “Lady and the Tramp” film (one of my all-time favorites!) showcases the multifaceted brilliance of Peggy Lee. She helped compose the score, sang songs, and was the voiceover of four characters including Peg. Did you know “Peg” was named in tribute to her? Credit: © Walt Disney Productions

Peggy Lee was considered a celebrity fashionista of her day, often appearing on stage in gorgeous form-fitting gowns. Over the years, I’ve wondered where she purchased her stunning wardrobe. Where does a North Dakota girl shop after she becomes internationally famous? Which designer’s label was her go-to?

While recently researching and writing about Peggy Lee for an upcoming fashion exhibit, I had an opportunity to speak with Lee’s granddaughter Holly Foster Wells. Of course, I had to ask about the gowns. Wells shared, “After she became famous, my grandmother used to sketch all of her gowns. She designed her gowns and had a seamstress who made clothes for her come to her house every day. She was very into fashion.”

From bathrobes to ball gowns, this Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award winner designed most of her own stylish garments. I love learning another dimension to Peggy’s amazing talents—Grammy award-winning singer, composer, and actor by day, and talented clothing designer at night.

Peggy Lee's formal dress

“Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm,” Frank Sinatra once said about Peggy Lee. You can view one of Peggy Lee’s early performance dresses in our Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit opening at the State Museum in Bismarck in January 2021.

3. Rumors of a Hidden Tunnel to Nowhere
About 20 steps from my office at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum is a non-descript, ivory metal door--always locked. Behind this door is a short tunnel, winding around a couple of turns and abruptly ending with a stark cement wall after 79 feet. So what’s the story behind this quirky hidden tunnel?

white door

What’s behind this locked door at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum?

As a high school student when the ND Heritage Center opened in 1981, I remember hearing rumors about a newly constructed tunnel system running underneath the State Capitol. As the rumor went, it was allegedly a secret emergency escape route for the governor. While “The Case of The Secret Escape Tunnel” might have caused Nancy Drew and her gal pals Bess and George to come running, alas, the rumor isn’t true. The real story, however, is a noteworthy piece of North Dakota government’s architectural planning history.

Here’s the scoop: This tiny tunnel was part of the original ND Heritage Center construction project. The architectural plan included an underground passageway connecting this building with the Department of Transportation (DOT) building and the State Capitol, all located within eyesight of each other. If completed, the service tunnels would have been used by state employees for easy multi-building access. An underground walkway between the Capitol and DOT was constructed and is currently used by staff, but at the ND Heritage Center, only our small concrete segment of the tunnel was started. Lack of funding stopped the project. Your challenge: Try to find the door to the “hidden tunnel” during your next trip to the ND Heritage Center & State Museum! It’s hidden in plain view.

detail of tunnel wall

No physical distancing is needed in the North Dakota Heritage Center’s tunnel to nowhere. This cement wall is the end of the journey.

COVID-19 concerns have caused our team to shift several professional priorities in 2020, providing an unusual invitation for us to look deeper into some hidden places. While living the sobering realities and challenges of a pandemic in our personal and professional lives, our Audience Engagement & Museum team continues to create positive, engaging visitor experiences for the citizens of North Dakota, retaining a sense of wonder as history continues to reveal itself in our work.