The Captions are the Thing: Considering 50 Words to Speak for the Dolman

In writing the captions for the dolman, I am trying to include a number of key pieces of information as well as the argument that the dolman was an admission ticket to society.  I also have omitted the fact that the dolman was from the third bustle period because information on the bustle periods is relevant to a number of objects in the collection being exhibited, and I wonder if there is a way to provide one caption or visual graphic elsewhere in the gallery to help orient attendees with all of the female garments on display.

As you read the rationales provided for each caption, I will also present some other ideas I have for exhibiting the dolman, culminating in my rationale for Caption C.

For reference, I am aiming to include the following facts, but I can’t hit all of them in 50 words:

-The dolman consists of ivory silk brocade with chenille fringe.

-It was worn by Miss Rosalie Hassler on April 14, 1884 to a performance of Les Huguenots at the Academy of Music.

-The proper name of the Academy of Music is the American Academy of Music, though most people do not use its formal name.

-The dolman was an example of high fashion because of its quality and because it was on point with fashion trends set by Emile Pingat in Europe, especially the dolman’s features of ivory color and chenille fringe.

-Philadelphia music society was a target audience for merchants of silk garments and chenille fringe in Philadelphia 1884; the programs of music performances in that year featured advertisements for just such items.  In this way, Rosalie was on the forefront of fashion in Philadelphia 1884 because she was wearing the trends being advertised to elite music society at that time.

-Rosalie came from a prominent Jewish family of musicians.  After moving their family from Europe to America in 1842, her father, Henry Hassler, was a member of the Music Fund.  Her brothers, Simon and Mark, were current Philadelphia musicians in 1884, Mark being a music director with his own orchestra and Simon being a composer and violinist.

-It is likely Rosalie was attending the opera on April 14, 1884 because of her family’s musical society ties.  Wearing a high fashion and trendy garment made Rosalie “one of the crowd” when she very easily could not have been a part of that culture.


Caption A.

Miss Rosalie Hassler wore this ivory dolman of silk brocade and chenille fringe on April 14, 1884, to the Metropolitan Opera Company’s performance of Les Huguenots at the Academy of Music.  As the sister of two prominent Jewish musicians, Rosalie wore this jacket to signify her single social status.

Rationale: Caption A. captures all of the basic facts of the dolman from its appearance to its specific moment and place of life in time.  It attempts, in a small space, to tell the story surrounding the dolman, letting us know when, where, and who surrounded it.  The phrasing of this caption presents the argument that her brothers had something specific to do with her wearing the jacket.

Caption B.

Miss Rosalie Hassler wore this ivory dolman on April 14, 1884, to an opera at the Academy of Music.  The Academy’s programs of 1884 featured advertisements for both silk and chenille fringe, the materials used on this dolman.  Rosalie’s fashion choice reflected both her and her Jewish family’s social status.

Rationale: Caption B. looks to prove that the dolman was a fashionable reflection of elite status in Philadelphia by discussing the programs of music performances of 1884.  This caption offers the dolman more agency than Caption A.  Caption B. neglects to discuss the Hassler family’s relationship to music.  It is hard for me to let go of mentioning the specific opera attended, but my hope remains that the opera can be addressed in another way, and I will discuss that after Caption C.

Caption C.

This ivory dolman was worn by Miss Rosalie Hassler to an 1884 opera at the Academy of Music.  Consistent with trends of Emile Pingat, the dolman’s brocade silk and chenille fringe expressed both Rosalie’s and her Jewish family’s claim to Philadelphia society.  This included the stake of her musician brothers.

Rationale: Caption C. shortens some of the factual specifics of where and for what the dolman was worn for context within fashion and costume history at large.  This caption also offers the object as an agent for the family with musical context.  As I mentioned in the rationale for Caption B., it is hard to let go some of the specific facts of the dolman because the provenance is almost magical to me—after visiting the Academy of Music and even reviewing photographs from my visit to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I feel the object does strongly connect to place.  However, the argument in Caption C. is, I believe, carefully-constructed and most worth presenting.  I feel like the argument here has a purpose to introduce significance to the dolman and Rosalie beyond what the other captions present.  This caption seems exhibit-worthy—there is a conversation started here.

Beyond Caption C.

Because historical context is critically important, I argue that Caption C. is the strongest with the hope to firstly present earphones with a piece from the opera playing as well as some visual connection to the Academy of Music.  Obviously funding and logistical restrictions could pose issue with this suggestion, but as far as creative ideas, there are a few things I have thought about to connect the object to its place.  One obvious option is to position the object in front of oversized photos of the Academy’s space in some way, so that there is a recreation of the object engaging in the space.

What would be more interesting would be to provide eyeholes in a box or opera glasses connected to a viewer for the audience to view a photo of over the Academy’s music hall audience from box seats, almost as if you are peering into opera glasses of an elite audience member as they gaze over the place surrounding them.

The Exhibit as a Whole

Depending on the direction this exhibit goes, I wonder if there is a way to introduce a visual element to each object that relates to the place of Philadelphia which could add to audience engagement.  My thought is that the place could be related to an event such as an opera, wedding, or the Philadelphia Centennial or related to the object such as shops, residences or gravesites.  There needs to be some sort of tie between the theme of these places.  I still think there is a possibility to play with the theme of “life and death” of society, especially with our most recent item being the mourning card case.  What I am finding to be difficult is to find why this exhibit is relevant to the neighborhood where it will be displayed.  What makes what we have to say about these objects compelling to Philadelphia residents in West Philadelphia?  To a certain extent, the material could seem irrelevant.  How do we make it relevant?  I’m not sure, but there is certainly a relationship between the life and death of society in late nineteenth century Philadelphia and the current struggles of city life.  What makes me worry this exhibit could be irrelevant to local residents is that all of these material culture objects exist because those who owned them did have some sort of class holding.  The people of these objects, even the women who are otherwise undocumented, exist currently because of the class each of the people held.  This removes the owners of these objects from being representative of the entire Philadelphia culture, and on top of that, it makes these objects and their provenance as a whole to be removed from the current experience of local Philadelphia residents.  Why should they care about these objects if they do not speak to them?  Unless we find some common thread of struggle or weight, I worry there is a disconnect between local audience, in terms specifically of neighborhood location, and gallery.  I feel like there has to be a good answer to this question, and if that question is answered, will it change the way the exhibit is shaped or how the captions are written?

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