Archive for January, 2018

History in the Seams

By Emily Dattilo

Working in a museum is full of surprises. Most days as a museum intern, and now as a Collections Assistant at the McHenry County Historical Society, I encounter objects that leave me with more questions than when I began the day. Some questions are eventually answered with research, many are left unanswered, and several questions make me wish that I hadn’t found an answer to them. For instance, in the few months since I began working in the McHenry County Historical Society clothing and textile collection I’ve been learning how to distinguish between different types of animal fur used on nineteenth and twentieth century coats and capes. In the case of identifying monkey and wolf (or possibly dog) fur, I almost wish I had remained clueless. But among the many questions in my work, it’s easy to wonder where my academic history training fits in with my newly acquired fabric and fur identification skills. I’ve realized time and again that my Master’s degree in United States History from Marquette gave me the knowledge base to provide historical context for all of the artifacts I handle on a daily basis.

One day while working on a dress from the 1930s my academic training proved to be especially helpful. I noticed an unusual tag sewn into the side seam of a green dress. (See NRA tag dress-MCHSphotos.) The letters “NRA” were printed in blue underneath a blue eagle clutching something in each talon. Below that the tag read “Made Under DRESS CODE AUTHORITY,” followed by some identification letters and numbers. Thanks to Fr. Avella’s class on Modern U.S. History, I knew that NRA stood for the National Recovery Administration and the blue eagle, clutching a gear and lightning bolts, was their symbol. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the National Recovery Act, which formed the National Recovery Administration, in 1933 as part of his New Deal plan to lift the American economy out of the Great Depression. This act in particular established regulations for manufacturers and workers, and after a littNRA tag-MCHSle more research I discovered that clothing manufacturers following NRA guidelines sewed this tag into garments to show consumers that they were following these new policies. The NRA only lasted for a few years (1933-1935) because the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Although FDR was unhappy about this ruling, it’s an uncommon blessing to museum professionals like myself because it allows the clothes with this tag to be dated to those specific three years instead of to an entire decade.

I’ve also unexpectedly encountered some historic clothes relevant to my own previous research. On one occasion I found a long velvet robe with a satin lining printed with paper lanterns, probably Japanese, and cherry blossoms from the 1910s. Another Chinese house coat-MCHSartifact, a house coat from the 1920s,resembles traditional Chinese jackets and features an embroidered and painted pagoda and garden design on the front.  I could have easily incorporated both of these items into my research for Dr. Donoghue’s seminar on Race and Gender in International Relations. For that paper I analyzed the relationship between late nineteenth and early twentieth

century American immigration policies and Orientalism in Western fashion during the same time period. As pieces of loungewear, both the robe and the house coat illustrate my point that popular

Lantern robe interior-MCHS

Western fashions relegated many elements of East Asian traditional clothing and design to garments worn in private spaces, instead of the public spaces where the traditional clothing would have been worn.

Even though I graduated from Marquette less than a year ago, it has been gratifying to see the ways in which I’ve already continued to learn about history outside of the classroom and to share my knowledge with others. One would hope I’d be doing that as a museum professional with degrees in history, but it’s not difficult to get wrapped up in the aspects of my work more fixed in the present moment, such as photographing the garments. When I handle historic clothing like the dress with the NRA tag or encounter a robe similar to ones that I studied, I can’t help but be reminded that the historical context is still very much present. Sometimes I just have to look again at the details or in the seams.

Emily Dattilo received her MA in history from MU in 2017. While here, she worked on digital projects for Milwaukee County Historical Society’s exhibits on brewing and on music. She was also an intern at the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear in summer 2017.


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