Tucked inside the Hamon Arts Library is a collection of intricate fashion illustrations by one of SMU’s most noted benefactors. Colorful drawings of 1930s and 40s dresses, accessories and hats line the walls of the Mildred Hawn Gallery and provide a peek into the imagination of the library’s premier patron.
Nancy B. Hamon’s fashion design sketches (circ. 1933-42) will be on display in the Hamon Arts Library now through Dec. 13. The exhibition, curated by Meadows archivist Emily George Grubbs includes some of the 33 total drawings that are part of the Jake and Nancy Hamon Papers in the Meadows archive.
Hamon donated $5 million to the Meadows School in 1988 for the construction of the library, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall. The drawings serve as a small window into her world, and allow SMU students to find common ground with one of Dallas’ elite benefactors.
Meadows costume design professor Claudia Stephens finds the collection to be a more approachable legacy than any monetary contribution.
“This is a very concrete gift and memory, and gives you an understanding of the person that you don’t get by the announcement at a big occasion,” Stephens said.
However, Hamon’s designs aren’t on display simply because of her contribution to SMU. Her talent for art is clear and her enthusiasm for style is legendary.
“It’s obvious that she was very interested in fashion and the arts from a young age, and that turned into a passion later in life,” Grubbs said.
The sketches, done during Hamon’s teens and early twenties, include imaginative dresses, accessories and beauty looks.
“It’s fun, and it’s always nice to see the artist’s sketchbook stuff, to see where they’re coming from,” Stephens said.
Hamon’s period of inspiration, the 1930s and early 40s, is something that makes her drawings particularly interesting. America’s Great Depression and reduced access to European fashion houses restricted women of the day.
“They were going into the war and then coming out of the war,” Stephens said. “So there’s a limited amount to look at.”
The sketches are also an example of Hamon’s skill with watercolor and tempera paint. Based on the quality of her work, Stephens believes Hamon likely received lessons in illustration.
“There must be other sketches where they’re not as good, whether we have those or not,” Stephens said.
Stephens’ graduate students of costume design visited the collection this semester and noted the precision of Hamon’s work.
“She knows exactly what she wants it to look like, I think,” graduate student Hunter Dowell said. “Or she’s seen it and she’s mimicking it quite well.”
Hamon’s desire to test new styles is clear, not just with her designs, but also as she plays with elements like makeup, eyebrows and hairstyles.
“You can see that she’s kind of experimenting,” Stephens said.
At the center of Hamon’s evening gowns and imaginative dresses, sits a sketch of a casual ensemble featuring a knee-length black skirt and red collared blouse.
“It’s surprising amidst all of these gowns,” graduate student Mari Taylor said.
The black-haired girl in the same sketch, Grubbs said, may have been modeled after Hamon herself.
“You start off by drawing yourself anyway, that’s just what you see everyday,” Stephens explained.
Hamon studied paleontology at The University of Texas, and she later worked as an actress in several 1940s films, before returning to Texas in 1949. She was known for throwing lavish theme parties with her husband, oil man Jake L. Hamon Jr., many of which can be seen in photos on display at the exhibit.
“Everyone dressed up,” Grubbs said. “Everyone looked fabulous.”
In addition to her contribution to the Meadows School, Hamon also supported the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Zoo, Presbyterian Hospital and more. Hamon passed away in 2011 at the age of 92.
“She was just a wonderful, generous philanthropist,” Grubbs said
It’s unknown if any of the designs on display were later produced by Hamon, Grubbs said. It is clear however, that fashion and style fascinated Hamon throughout her life, and her talent leaves a lasting impression with visitors.
“It does make you want to know more, doesn’t it?” Stephens asked.