“On the Home Front” Took Us on a Sunday Ride to the Kent State University Museum

Outside, it was a grey, drab November Sunday, but inside the Kent State University Museum, it was a bright, beautiful oasis for this girl who has a penchant for historic fashions.

I love visiting Kent State’s museum. Inventorying digital images of Ohio Historical Society garments took me to Kent for the first time in 2003 to see “Fashion on the Ohio Frontier, 1790-1840,” but when I got there, I was also hooked by “An Eye for Design: 18th & 19th Century Fashion and Decorative Arts.” The day I graduated from Kent State’s library school, I stopped at the museum to celebrate my accomplishment with a run through “The Age of Nudity.” During other visits to the museum, I’ve gotten great wardrobe ideas with “Linda Allard for Ellen Tracy,” marveled at lavish needlework in “The Art of the Embroiderer” and “Lace: The Art of Needle and Bobbin,” and was in my Gilded Age element with “Belle Époque Brides.”

During my last Kent pilgrimage to see “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” this past March, I marked my calendar for the next exhibit: “On the Home Front: Civil War Fashions and Domestic Life.” I couldn’t wait to see garments, historic photographs, letters, diary entries and decorative arts objects that illustrate the daily life and experiences of civilians during the Civil War.

Inside the gallery, we marveled at the excellent condition and beautiful workmanship of the clothes. First, we saw military influences in children’s wear, from dresses smartly trimmed with soutache braid, snappy boleros and zouave jackets to a spectacular Brooks Brothers coat made for Major General Jacob D. Cox, an Army commander during the war who was elected governor of Ohio in 1866. This is one exquisite coat. The pockets and sleeves are elaborately decorated with toggles and braid trims, and the durable fabric adds to the commanding appearance of what must have been a very warm coat. For more on this coat, read “Brooks Brothers and Civil War Uniforms” on the museum’s blog (read some other entries while you’re there).

Down the platform, I admired the blue silk taffeta dress with glass beaded fringe, but I really coveted the red, black and blue paisley shawl that perfectly complemented it. Imagine walking into a room with that draped around my shoulders! The ivory wool burnous (hooded cloak) with quilted, salmon-colored silk taffeta was stunning, surpassing the famed “Red Riding Hood” Geiger coat that’s seen me through the last 15 winters. Then there was the black lace wrap with the tan silk taffeta skirt and sheer pinstriped cotton blouse. And then, a brown velvet cape, decorated with embroidery and fringe, atop a brown plaid taffeta day dress. I would have been happy wearing any of them.

Archivists like me would appreciate the text from primary sources that lends historic context to the exhibit. Adorning the wall next to a lineup of formal evening dresses is this quote from a letter that Miss Annie E. Anderson wrote to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James H. Anderson of Marion, Ohio, on May 23, 1864: “Parties are rare now-a-days, for the people do not feel like giving them. The times are too serious.”

To illustrate the importance of preserving memory during the Civil War, curator Sara Hume selected a number of period daguerreotypes, cabinet cards and cartes de visite from the collection of the museum’s founder, Shannon Rodgers. Elaborate bracelets, pendants, brooches and wreaths made of hair were attention-getting examples of this curious Victorian custom. A fringed quilt attributed to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley combined embroidered sections with scraps of fabric that may have been from Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses.

For me, the most educational part of the exhibit was the “Foundations” section. The stiff petticoats of the 1850s were replaced with a steel structure to support the crinoline, so several examples of these hoop skirts were on display. I learned that the word “crinoline” comes from the French words for horsehair (“crin”) and linen (“lin”), since it was originally was woven from these two fibers. Did you know that women wore pantalets to protect their legs from this “metallic scaffolding?”

1860s fashion featured the cotton fabrics that were so important to the country’s economy, so the exhibit also covers the war’s impact on cotton manufacturing, both in the South and abroad. Finally, the exhibit includes several wedding dresses, from a sheer white cotton one with bouillonné (bubbly) trimming to a practical striped and floral-printed brown wool one that was worn by a bride in Poland, Ohio. On the wall behind the dresses, there’s a quote from a May 25, 1862 letter written to James Garfield by his wife, Lucretia. Describing the Cleveland wedding of a couple named Burke and Mary, Mrs. Garfield wrote, “…we all said that we felt when we saw her standing beside Burke so womanly and dignified that she was indeed very good looking.”

Who wouldn’t look good, dressed in these lovely garments? They’ll be on display at the museum until August 26, 2012. Since photography isn’t allowed in the galleries, my friend and fellow librarian Joanne Fenn, collections manager and registrar at the museum, shared these official museum photos with me so you can see how wonderful these clothes are.

Also on view at Kent State’s museum is “A Day at the Beach,” complementing the Akron Art Museum’s exhibition, “Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism,” which continues until February 5, 2012.

Often, Impressionist painters depicted women at the seaside on a summer holiday, wearing elegant white gowns as they strolled along the beach. The exhibit features several garments for women and children that would have been worn near or at the beach between 1865 and 1915. Pintucked linen dresses in hues of white, beige and blue; a point d’esprit lace dress with a matching wrap; white cotton dresses featuring eyelet and embroidered flowers; a child’s coat of white pique; straw boaters; and elegant parasols—one is made of Irish lace with a porcelain-figure handle—will be on display until October 7, 2012. I loved that exhibit too, especially how the parasols are displayed. Joanne is right when she says, “I can hear sea gulls and the waves gently breaking when I walk in the gallery.”

The museum’s store is a great source for Christmas presents. In addition to picking up a copy of the “On the Home Front” catalogue for ourselves, we brought home a few handmade items and other special things for people on our list.

This entry was posted in Art, Fashion, History, Museums, Ohio. Bookmark the permalink.

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