Idealized and Realized Exhibit Plans

The social life of fashion in 19th century Pennsylvania

The Ideal Exhibit

As I designed my ideal exhibit, I developed a thesis that the objects within the exhibit were all social agents, actively influencing the social access and experiences of those who wore them within Philadelphia.  In order to illustrate this agency, I decided to portray each object as a user on a social networking site, much like facebook.  In this way, it makes the exhibit as a whole look like a piece of the social network of Philadelphia, especially in the late 19th century.  Essentially, this exhibit uses an artistic expression of facebook and social networking to create an interactive experience for the audience while also making an argument about the objects within the exhibit.  Because each object is exemplified as the social network user, I argue that these objects all have agency.

At the very beginning of the exhibit, a large commentary on the wall would argue not only about social networking, but that the purpose of social networking and the use of objects with agency is to firstly perform and then to remember.  In this way, I am carrying the themes from my “real” exhibit discussed later into this idealized exhibit.  I interpret my use of facebook as an inspiration and as a means of explaining social networking, but I do not see specific copyright issues. Instead of actively using the term facebook, I would use philadelphia as the title of the social network in the exhibit.

Because my usage of facebook is arguably an artistic expression of history, I do not think this would pose copyright issues, especially because no mention of the word facebook would be within the exhibit.  Firstly, the title of the exhibit’s social network would be philadelphia, done as closely as possible to the facebook font.  In other words, I am looking to use imitation to do something new.

Ideally, there would be a philadelphia social network site, and each of the objects would be on it and “friends” with each other.  In lieu of captions on the wall, each item would have an interactive philadelphia page to read which would include all of the information from the captions each class member has written (see sample illustration).  Each object would also have an interactive wall with the ability for curators to change status updates or leave messages on the wall of other items.

The ideal exhibit floorplan.

The ideal exhibit floorplan.

I have provided my ideal floor plan and a sample of optional setups for the exhibit.  To create an illusion of a social network, I would suspend white frames off-center from each object with the option of posting large “cover” photos on the wall behind some or many objects.  While the white frames pose the potential to cause clutter, I would aim to place them in a non-obstructive place to create the expression of a photo frame without harming views to each object.  Sizes would vary by object.  In this way, the presentation could add to the thesis of the exhibit without detracting.  The cover photo idea is more problematic in regard to specific objects such as the crazy quilt for “busy” reasons, but also a problem with objects such as the top hat or mourning card case for dramatic reasons.  Some objects may be best against white walls without photos added to their environment.

Sample of framing in exhibit and philadelphia page as caption, pencil sketch.

Sample of framing in exhibit and philadelphia page as caption, pencil sketch.

The most interactive piece of the exhibit has to do firstly with the top hat and inspiration from Kenneth Ames.  When reviewing my ideal exhibit floor plan, the top hat is located in the exact center of the C-shaped exhibit hall, suspended from the ceiling.  I would like this top hat to be suspended as if it is on a hall furnishing (maybe a bit tilted), with a Victorian hall furnishing potentially sketched on the wall.  Directly across from the hat stand, there would be a small uncomfortable chair.  The interactive piece comes in that when guests sit in the uncomfortable chair, their photo is taken (with warning in a sensory-friendly manner) through a porthole in the wall where the hall furnishing is.  Guests will be uncomfortable sitting across from the hall stand just as many a person was found to be in the Victorian period.  The caption card beside the chair would read:

Feeling comfortable?  Probably not.  The design of hall chairs used in calling during late 19th Century Philadelphia were meant to keep you on the edge of your seat.  The hall furnishing across from you, including the top hat, was meant to remind you of a person’s stature and your place in relation to them.  Now it’s time to fit in.  Say cheese!

This highlights the level of discomfort many of the people who wore the objects faced at some point or another trying to join the Philadelphia community.  This proposed idea is also assuming that a form of digital photography would be gallery-friendly and possible in an ideal setting.

As you look at the exhibit floor plan, notice how guests will walk from the hall furnishing, around the corner of the C and into a center room.  This center room is the location of a post-roller-coaster-esque photo station where guests can locate their photo in the uncomfortable chair with help of a docen.  Guests can then log into the philadelphia network site from a computer station to create their own page and become friends with the objects in the exhibit, making a digital memory of all those who participate in the exhibit.  In this way, the philadelphia caption pages at each object will always be updating with more friends, more comments, and more content.

Other interactive highlights of the exhibit include earphones at the dolman to listen to the opera Les Huguenots, the opportunity to review a fabric tape measure the length of the corset’s waist, and the opportunity to hold coal while reviewing the mourning card case.  In both the ideal and real exhibit, I also would like to include a silhouette of straight shoes on the floor for visitors to stand on when reading about them, as well as a copy of the article about the blue and brown wedding dress with a caption.

To offer reflexivity to the exhibit, each class member would make a philadelphia page, and we would be friends not only with each other, but also our objects.  I would like for our objects and us to be linked in a relationship status— perhaps it would be phrased, “In a Research Relationship with [name].  On each of the class member pages, I would hope we could post a short podcast or youtube video for visitors to hear about our experience.

I feel like a good question to pose about this exhibit is, “Why make this an ‘imitation’ of facebook?”  I did this for a number of reasons beyond the argument about social objects.  I chose this approach because it is audience-friendly.  It is relatable and engaging for younger audiences despite content that might be hard for younger students to approach.  It is also easy to market—the word philadelphia could easily be styled by designers to look like facebook’s font, and the wall entering the exhibit could even have a small white p in a blue box.  I love the idea that this exhibit not only argues for object agency, but it also puts forth the idea that social networking isn’t new.  It has always been a heavy part of culture, and by combining the social network items of the past with the social networking visuals of the present, it becomes juxtaposition easy for people to digest.

Back to Reality (Mostly)

When designing my “real” version of this exhibit, I broke it into the two themes heavily discussed in class.  I still like the idea of using a facebook-esque logo for the word Philadelphia in the exhibit titles because both themes directly relate to the social fabric of Philadelphia.  The first part of the exhibit is philadelphia: performance of social life in 19th Century Pennsylvania, and the second is philadelphia: the memory of social life in 19th Century Pennsylvania, playing themes we discussed heavily in class (performance and memory) in the context of social rituals.

Performance Exhibit Floorplan

Performance Exhibit Floorplan

The items within the performance exhibit are the top hat, corset, dolman, assembly gown, both waistcoats, the crazy quilt, and one of the two wedding dresses of the pairing.  One of the wedding dresses was cut due to space.  The items within the memory exhibit are the shoes, card case, trousseau dress, day dress, the blue and brown wedding dress, and the crazy quilt.  The crazy quilt is in both exhibits for the sake of showmanship, exhibit continuity, and because the quilt performs memory in a very specific, non-obtrusive way.  I find it to be the linking item between the two exhibits.

Memory Exhibit Floorplan

Memory Exhibit Floorplan

The dolman, assembly gown, waistcoats, top hat, and wedding apparel all specifically speak to performing social rituals in an active way.  The mourning card case specifically is used to remember a person.  The blue and brown wedding dress works well in the memory exhibit because of the magazine article being showcased.  The shoes are a retro celebration of Colonial fashion.  The Trousseau dress posed me the largest issue because it could fit in either exhibit, but due to space issues with dresses, I chose to place it in memory, feeding into the idea that a couple is making new memories when a woman is wearing this dress.

I think the corset and the mourning card case both serve well as central items in the vitrine.  The dramatic presentation of the corset offers a great opportunity for the public to see explicitly the somewhat unrealistic and difficult challenges of social performance through clothing in 19th century Philadelphia.  I like the mourning card case positioned in a central way even if it is small because of its emotional energy.

In order to engage audiences in performing memory, guests will be invited to, at the performance exhibit, stop in a photo booth on the way out to pose in a “performance” stance.  Between exhibits, these photos will each have a sticker or photo-shopped image of the top hat added to them.  When the second exhibit opens, guests will be directed by signs to pick up one of these photos from a stack at the door of the gallery and mount it on the wall on the back of the exhibit.  In essence, all guests will be welcomed into the community of our exhibit by practicing the ritual of the photo booth and then being donned in a top hat.  The larger picture here is that memory is being performed at both exhibits.  Ideally, guests would create a crazy quilt of performance and memory on the board.

Performance Exhibit Captions

Waistcoat, 18th Century

This 18th century satin waistcoat, English in design but American in manufacture, belonged to Captain William Brown. During the Revolutionary War, the Philadelphia resident led marine reinforcements to join General George Washington and fought alongside Washington’s battalion during the battles of Trenton and Princeton in 1776.

Waistcoat, 19th Century

Waistcoats played a large role in American society.  They sent a message of dignity and civility.  This velvet and silk waistcoat was worn by Mr. Joseph Schipper.  Judging by the waistcoat’s materials, Mr. Schipper most likely belonged to an upper social and economic class.

Top Hat

This Man’s top hat was worn by L. Llewellyn W. Jones at his wedding to Violet W. Andrews at St. Mary’s P.E. Church in Philadelphia, PA. This beautifully-made silk hat has a curvy edge decorated with another layer of silk grosgrain.


This dolman was worn by Miss Rosalie Hassler to the premier of the Metropolitan Opera Company’s performance of Les Huguenots at the Academy of Music on April 14, 1884.  As the sister of two prominent Jewish musicians, Rosalie wore this jacket as her family’s admission ticket to Philadelphia society.


This white satin corset was worn by Emma Hendel on October 22, 1885, during her lavish wedding to Isaac Spang in Reading, Pennsylvania.  When laced, the waist of the corset measured to just nineteen inches around.  Judging by the ribbon and lace ornamentation and extremely high quality of craftsmanship, the corset was likely designed especially for Emma to wear on her wedding day.

Wedding Dress, 1837

This wedding dresses of 1837 is in the style of sentimental dress.  The rise of the middle class culture created a cult of womanhood from the mid-1830s to 1840s.  Sentimental women were less active and simple in style, embracing domestic virtue of women.  The styling and material of these dresses, however, demonstrate societal status.

Assembly Gown, 1875

Fine silk, intricate goldwork threading, and a Renaissance collar highlight this 1875 Assembly Gown, details that hint at the high society clientele for which the garment was fashioned by Homer, Colladay & Co. of Philadelphia. The prominent Crozer family of Upland, Pennsylvania owned the gown at the time of the Philadelphia Centennial.

Memory Exhibit Captions

Day Dress, 1880s

This two-piece Day Dress from the 1880s was designed by Augustine Martin in France and sold at Darlington, Runk & Co., located at 1126-28 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia.  The slimmer bustle is indicative of the second bustle period, and the long sleeves of the bodice represent the modesty found in women’s day garments.  The level of detail in the interior of the dress suggests the wearer was of high status. (silk, velvet, lace)


These mid-1870s quilted-satin ‘Colonial Revival’ shoes were part of a widespread wave of nostalgia for all things Eighteenth-Century, embodied by the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This first Non-European “World’s Fair” included Revolutionary-Era military uniforms and a 1770s kitchen display, while encouraging nearly ten-million visitors to celebrate American independence.

Crazy Quilt

Philadelphia’s 1876 World’s Fair introduced Americans to Japanese aesthetics, including asymmetrical designs and the cracked glaze of “crazed” pottery. The creators of crazy quilts embraced irregularity and incorporated other Japanese-inspired designs. The fan motif was very popular. Look closely and you can see an embroidered figure wearing a kimono and clogs.

Mourning Card Case

Jane Bright carried this jet beaded pocketbook when widowed. Jet, the remnant of ancient trees pressurized on the ocean floor, was mined in Europe. It can be polished, but dull jet was more appropriate for mourning. Jane’s husband Joseph was a Pennsylvania hardware merchant whose business served coal mining operations.

Trousseau Dress, 1888

A Trousseau Dress was purchased for the bride to be worn during her honeymoon and newlywed phase. The newlywed was expected to where the Trousseau dress as a status symbol and it was tradition for her to wear the dress the first time she and her husband entertained guests in their new home. This Trousseau dress is lavished with lace and the owner traveled to Paris to have the dress made custom for her.

Wedding Dress, 1856

The girl next door, Fianna Grube wore this handmade wedding gown at the age of nineteen. She married her neighbor Martin Peiffer, 18 years her elder, in Salunga, Pennsylvania on January 22, 1856. As Mennonite farmers, they were fairly wealthy and raised six children on their Lancaster County Farm.


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