Three Ship graduate students in the Applied History program had the opportunity to install eight mannequins in support of the Brandywine River Museum’s exhibit “Votes for Women: A Visual History.” The exhibit curator, Amanda Burdan, and the FA&M Director Dr. Karin Bohleke had already selected the outfits representing the suffragists during the design phase of the display preparations, and FA&M staff and volunteers had already performed all needed conservation. The final stages of the exhibit loan and installation were now in the hands of the graduate students under the supervision of Dr. Bohleke.
As an assignment for their independent study on museum exhibition installation, Cijianna “Ciji” Berry, Amanda Partner, and Martavis Washington dressed the mannequins. They learned how to adjust the fit through padding and to select appropriate underpinnings to achieve the proper period silhouette. This exhibit features mannequins from head to toe, meaning the students also added footwear, styled the mannequins’ hair, and finished the look with hats and gloves. Given that the mannequins sported purple hair, namely one of the official colors of the suffragist movement, the results were certainly dramatic. Then all of the outfits had to be undressed and packed for transport, the mannequins labeled, their hairstyles protected, and everything loaded into vehicles for transport to Chadds Ford, PA.
Dr. Bohleke and the students then spent January 24 at the Brandywine River Museum working with Ms. Burdan and the others. The mannequins’ outfits had been deliberately chosen to match those in period photos of suffragists, and the finished mannequins were positioned on the platforms near large graphics reproducing the original images. The Brandywine exhibit team welcomed the students as professional art handlers and were wonderful hosts. The final result featured two mannequins each in winter outerwear, cool summer whites, tailored walking suits, and driving gear. In a whimsical touch, the students added purple or gold gloves from the exhibit support materials, again to match the official colors of the suffragist movement.
In reflecting on this first real-life exhibition experience, Martavis Washington noted that the installation at Brandywine Museum was a “proud moment” and that “seeing the end result turn out as fantastic as it did was rewarding.” He was thrilled at the genuine, hands-on experience that the Fashion Archives provided him. Ciji Berry also greatly appreciated the real-life opportunity and found that dressing the mannequins and helping to create them by carving the bodies and styling the hair “provided skills that I may not have learned elsewhere. This experience also gave me the chance to meet others in the field with whom I hope to work in the future.” A visitor to the Brandywine exhibit wrote to Dr. Bohleke, commenting that the FA&M “did a fabulous job and deserves the credit.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “Votes for Women” is temporarily closed at the time of this publication. However, the exhibit’s time frame has been extended into the fall. Please check the Brandywine River Museum’s own website for reopening dates and schedule (www.brandywine.org).
Photo, below, from left to right: Cijianna Berry, Amanda Partner, Karin Bohleke, and Martavis Washington post in front the “tailored” mannequins. The suffragist sash is a surviving original on loan to the exhibit from another institution.
Inspired and excited by a presentation at the 2019 annual symposium of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) that FA&M director Dr. Karin Bohleke attended with the FA&M Advisory Council President Robin Dolbin, Dr. Bohleke assigned her graduate costume Applied History class a real-life museum task: select artifacts to purchase for the permanent collection. Thanks to a combination of special donations and revenues from the sales of deaccessioned items, her students had a budget of $9,000 with which to work. With such a sum, it was entirely possible to purchase significant items to enhance the collection holdings.
During the fall 2019 class, the students assessed the existing holdings and consulted with Dr. Bohleke to define areas of weak representation and at the same time become aware of time periods or types of items that needed no further development. Armed with this knowledge and a list of reputable dealers, the class divided into smaller groups and ultimately each group presented its list of proposed purchases, justifying the choices with supporting arguments. The students then had to come to a consensus as a whole in the course of an evening’s debate.
The students finalized their choices, and Dr. Bohleke purchased the following items:
As is evident from the list, students placed their emphasis on early items that are less likely to arrive at the FA&M in the form of a donation. Their choices are especially important given that students in the early American history undergraduate classes build their final research web exhibit projects starting from artifacts from the FA&M collection. In fact, a number of the items listed above made their debut in student projects before the items were even catalogued.
In addition, a generous FA&M supporter stepped in and donated the necessary funds to purchase a pair of shoes associated with a wedding that took place in Kent, England, in 1780. To maximize the available funds still further, Titi Halle and her staff at Cora Ginsburg LLC extended a generous special discount when they learned of the project and fully supported the students’ learning experience.
This project is an example of the real-life museums tasks that students pursue in the FA&M, and it is a genuinely unique aspect of the programming. Regarding her experience, Nastassia Gantz commented, “The class had to think about whether or not an item could tell a story about an important moment in fashion history, be a stand-out piece among the rest of the collection, and whether we believed that people would be excited to come and view the item it on display in a future exhibit. I was able to gain a better understanding of how institutions acquire objects along with what the general decision-making process looks like, and I left the course feeling elated that a short gown that I found was actually chosen by the class to have a permanent home at the Fashion Archives.”
Another student, Courtney Smith, noted that in their excitement for the project, “Our group took the project a step further. In order to show how the garments we selected would fit into the museum’s collection, we designed an exhibit around them. The entire experience was fantastic. It taught us real-world skills that we will definitely use.”
Students in Shippensburg University’s Theatre Arts program had the opportunity to study costume history in the Fashion Archives & Museum this spring semester. Prior to spring break, as an integral component to studying fashions of the past, the students explored different eighteenth-century hairstyles. “Too often,” the instructor Dr. Karin J. Bohleke explained, “women’s hair is reduced to the towering and exaggerated styles associated with the 1770s and 1780s that featured boats and other elaborate headpieces. But there were so many other options and the century featured a much broader evolution of looks and techniques.” Using the recent publication The American Duchess Guide to Eighteenth Century Beauty, students busily worked at recreating different styles—with elegant results. One student, Eliza Eames, brought in her sister as a willing model and recreated the soft, curled hairstyle of the 1790s that appears in a number of portraits by Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun (see image below). The students unanimously agreed that the style was still eminently flattering and wearable today. They thoroughly enjoyed this hands-on experience, and of course, a towering feather adds an element of fun.
The FA&M’s current exhibit, Fashionable Dances and Dancing Fashions, which opened in January, is available for viewing online as a video tour. In this time of social distancing, technology has made it possible for the FA&M’s display to come to visitor homes. The clothing in the exhibit dates from the 1810s through the 1970s, and additional paper ephemera from the early 1800s through the 1980s provides dynamic graphics and history of a favorite social pastime.
The original exhibit closing date of July 2 has been extended, but no new closing date has yet been set pending decisions from the appropriate state and university authorities.
In the meantime, please enjoy this virtual tour by clicking on or copying this link and pasting it into your preferred browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxW3eK3pJFE.