Exhibition File – Homefront & Battlefield

Quilters and Civil War buffs take note — the American Textile History Museum’s exhibition Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War examines this major U.S. event with a new lens. Placing textile-related artifacts at the center of the show, “each object represents a deeply moving and insightful personal story, from the noose reportedly used to hang abolitionist John Brown to a mother’s quilt stitched with the uniforms of her two sons, one who fought in Confederacy gray and the other in Union blue.”

This exhibition is sure to raise new thoughts and feelings about the Civil War and challenge assumptions about the importance of textiles to life, especially during times of war.

New Englanders should head there before it closes on November 25.

Address: 491 Dutton Street, Lowell, Massachusetts
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 10-5
Admission: adults $8, students and seniors $6, children under 6 and members free
Website: www.athm.org/exhibitions/current_exhibitions/exhibition_homefront_battlefield.php

Exhibition File – Pioneer Ladies

Pioneer Ladies exhibition image, from University of Alberta Museums

Mug shots and textile artifacts aren’t generally paired together in museum exhibitions, but Pioneer Ladies [of the evening]: A commemorative landscape for women on the margins in Western Canada, 1878-1916 uses them to “explore contributions of women on the margins to . . . history.”

The lives of several women are elucidated through their historic garments and quilts and mug shots at the University of Alberta Museums. Their stories sound fascinating, and I wish I could see this show. The exhibition runs through February 24, 2013.

Address: University of Alberta, 1st floor Human Ecology Building, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30-7, Saturday 8:30-4, Sunday 12-4
Website: www.hecol.museums.ualberta.ca/en/ClothingAndTextiles/Exhibitions.aspx

Exhibition File – Fashioning Philadelphia

exhibition photograph from Museum of Elfreth's Alley

I love hearing about small museums that tackle displays of fashion and dress — sure the big museum blockbusters are pretty, but they aren’t the only ones deserving attention.

Fashioning Philadelphia is a collaborative exhibition between the Museum of Elfreth’s Alley and Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. In it student-created fashion collections based on history tell stories about the American worker.

The exhibition changes every 12 weeks with new fashion designs. The first round is still on display but swaps with new student work on July 6. The show closes December 28.

Address: 126 Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10-5, Sunday 12-5
Admission: adults $5, family $12, children 6-12 years $2, children under 6 free
Website: www.elfrethsalley.org

Sarah Vowell in Fargo

photo by Bennett Miller

Sarah Vowell is one of my favorite contributors on This American Life, my favorite public radio show. She’s an amazing storyteller with a witty sense of sarcasm. And she’s got one of those voices that is priceless. If you’ve heard her, you know exactly what I mean.

Most of her work these days are books on American history — the kinds of stories that would actually make a ninth grader interested in American history. Everything she writes has a heavy dose of personal reflection, and she always talks about her research process. She’s a brainiac who is socially awkward, which, combined with her smart-alecky humor, is hilarious.

And so I was super excited to find out she was coming to Fargo this past weekend. On Saturday I went to the Fargo Theatre and listened to her read from a variety of her books. She opened with a story about vacationing in North Dakota to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park — not a destination most people would find enjoyable, but the story was a big hit with the Fargo crowd. Then she read from her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, about the American imperial take over of Hawaii, and told stories about research for it and her trip to Hawaii with her sister and nephew. She also talked about her book on presidential assassins, Assassination Vacation, and answered questions.

After the show I stayed to get my book signed — I bought Unfamiliar Fishes before the show. She wasn’t very talkative when I got my chance to introduce myself and get her autograph, but her social awkwardness isn’t a core punch line in her work for nothing. I think it is cool that I got to I meet her.

I’m looking forward to reading the book. From the excerpts I’ve heard, it’s going to be fantastic.

Reliving Titanic Through Fashion History

detail of dress by Paul Poiret, 1910-11 from The Kyoto Costume Institute

The 1910s are one of my favorite decades of dress. With all the attention on the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, it seems everywhere I look online there’s been a story featuring what people on the ship or their contemporaries wore.

evening dress by the House of Worth, 1910 | evening dress, 1909-11 both from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And I do admit that I watched Titanic, the 1997 Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio version, yesterday. I am pleased that I didn’t stoop to going to see it in 3D though. I was in 8th grade when the movie was released, and it was a huge deal to almost everyone my age back then. Now it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure movie for me, but I do realize how cliche it was to watch on the very day of the anniversary.

But back to the fashion of the period. The beauty of the clothing from the teens rests in the details and the colors. The way clothing was constructed rapidly changes after the teens. The beautiful tucks and pleats, embroidery and lace, sequins, and other elements just aren’t the same a few decades later. There’s something so quietly beautiful in the delicateness of the fabrics and the styling, especially in the early years of the 1910s.

detail of dress, 1913-15 from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The teens were part of a transitional period from restrictive dress to clothing that allowed for a wider range of movement. Women’s suffrage and participation in sports played a large part in the shift, and the tastes of American women impacted what styles designers in Europe produced.

female tennis players, 1910-15, photo from logicstock llc

So it’s not a big surprise to me that people are taking an interest in the clothing of the 1910s on the anniversary of the Titanic sinking. Dress studies is gaining importance as people realize it helps tell new stories about history. By looking at the clothing people wore on the ship, we have a new connection to that moment. And the clothing of this period is so lovely, that it’s hard not to be a bit fascinated by it.