This exhibit plan is a thought exercise, in which the constraints of physical space, budget, and responsible stewardship are ignored. Unsurprisingly, it is also rather more vague (and not simply as a result of time and the nature of the assignment). Solving specific problems has a way of sharpening ideas.
The items will be arrayed from those intended for public use to those intended for private domains. The items worn as regular signifiers of status (18th century waistcoat, 19th century waistcoat, shoes, assembly gown, day dress, and dolman) will be followed by the single-use dresses (1837 wedding dress, 1845 wedding dress, 1850s wedding dress) and other items of ceremonial (if not necessarily one-off) use (top hat, trousseau dress, card case and card). The corset, straddling public/private realms, will be followed by a pair of domestic objects: the crazy quilt and smoking jacket.
The early parts of the exhibit will be fully lit, reflecting the highly visible nature of the clothing designed for use in public. The lighting will dim along with movement into the private sphere; spotlighting may be used on those objects. The most significant lighting transition will occur with the corset: its effects upon Emma Handel’s figure were publicly consumable on her very high profile wedding day, but the corset itself was seen by a very limited number of people.
The objects will be displayed in a naturalistic manner. Most articles of clothing will be set up in central areas, leaving visitors with the impression of (for instance) milling about during intermission at the opera Rosalie Hassler attended. The wedding attire will be set back from traffic lanes; visitors will be able to approach and examine the garments, but their initial impression will be that of observers at a certain remove, akin to guests at a wedding. The crazy quilt can be spread upon a bed.
The objects will be accompanied by additional pieces to provide sensory details or historical context. Fabrics (period or close simulations) can be made available for visitors to fondle. The weight of garments—particularly the heavy skirts—can be simulated. Emma Handel’s corset, placed on a mannequin, will be accompanied by a “before” mannequin, to give some idea of Emma’s natural figure and the effects of her undergarments. Lacking figures shaped by corsets since childhood, visitors will not be able to fully experience nineteenth century female fashions. But we can provide corsets of modern manufacture and bras more commonly worn with formal attire. (This will necessitate changing rooms and a number of mirrors.)
Modern analogs of garments will also be featured. A designer wedding gown, versus an off-the-rack dress from David’s Bridal, will help give a sense of the social and financial gulf between the Appleton and Grube weddings. A well-worn flannel bathrobe will contextualize the comfortable relationship between the smoking jacket and its owner.
Other objects will provide further context for exhibited items. The quilt will be accompanied by a variety of magazines: period publications (such as Godey’s and Peterson’s) but also contemporary magazines aimed at women (fashion, crafting, fiction, confessions).
The captions from my other exhibit designs can be used here, at least as a starting point, perhaps reworked to emphasize the costumes’ role in public/private spheres. The smoking jacket—too fantastic an object not to include—could get one along these lines:
Smoking jacket: The smoking jacket showcases nineteenth century technological developments. Synthetic aniline dyes offered consumers fabrics in a range of brilliant colors. In public, men wore subdued colors. But in the privacy of his own home, the smoking jacket’s owner was free to indulge in more whimsical attire.
The types of materials mentioned in my earlier exhibit plans—images of the Centennial, department stores, archival newspapers, maps, etc.—may be used in this exhibit as well. With a greater amount of space, we can also take a step beyond informative panels and make an effort to reproduce the public and private spaces in which the objects were used. We can use period-appropriate decorative elements to simulate the interior of a middle class home, and devise a rather more ornate display for the interior of the Academy of Music.
The Web and social media options outlined in earlier plans can still be used. The informational audio presentations outlined in earlier exhibit plans may be used here as well. Because there are no spatial constraints, we have the freedom of creating multiple audio tracks. Les Huguenots can serve as accompaniment to the dolman. Musical selections from the Centennial can play in the vicinity of the assembly gown, shoes, and other Centennial related objects.