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How Historical Costuming Changed My View of History

Sometime in early 2020, I came across a video that changed how I approach history. In this video, costumer Bernadette Banner was constructing an Edwardian walking skirt to wear around her native NYC. While at the time I had no idea what a bias was, center seams, or really any idea how to sew beyond simple embroidery, I found myself drawn to this world of history as she narrated. Not only was she showing her reference patterns, she explained how women would wear these long garments, as well as how to read clothing for the history and culture of the time. There was so much to learn about the textiles that went into extant garments and how the quality of the textile was so important. Clothing had more Easter eggs than a Taylor Swift music video, and honestly the approach to dressing made more sense than our modern ways. The more I watched Banner, the more I was exposed to other historians such as Abby Cox. She truly opened the door to understanding how people in history were actually exceptionally smart, even if there were no iPads or internet. 

We often think about people in history as being stupid, purely because they didn’t know the same things we know today. George Washington died just before the first dinosaur bones were discovered, germ theory didn’t exist when the plague hit, and people didn’t bathe in tubs for a long time. But this doesn’t mean that people were dumb and dirty. For example, the outer layers of a woman’s clothing was often re-worn several times before it was washed. And it was not because the fabric was like your jeans and you were concerned about the fabric stretching or the dye coming out. There was strategy

Instead of having your nice expensive garments touching your body and getting sweat and oils on it, multiple underlayers would be worn. Depending on the period in history, there would be a lightweight linen shift or chemise and some form of support garment for the bust. In the middle ages it was a kirtle, in the 1700s it was a pair of stays, and in the 1800s it was a corset. These garments were designed to provide support, take pressure off the back, and give clothing smoother lines. There was no need to suck in your stomach or do extra ab workouts!

These underlayers not only protected you from the outside, they also protected your clothing from you. Linen and cotton (natural fibers) are exceptionally breathable and dry quickly when the wearer is sweating or exposed to more heat. Underlayers like the shift would be rotated out daily and washed consistently. Things like the stays or corset would be washed less frequently, but still more often than the outer layers. If you think about it, women at this time washed their undergarments more frequently than most women today do. (seriously, ask a friend how often she washes her bras.) 

In the 1700s, women didn’t wash their hair as often (maybe once a week or two), but they used the equivalent of a hair mask and dry shampoo to protect the hair from the world and handle oils. Cox went as far as to spend a year doing this method, and documented how her hair felt mostly the same as it did with her modern hair routine. She also did an in depth exploration into shapewear and how if women in history didn’t match the shape of the day, they could modify their clothing to look like they had a tiny waist or a flat chest or whatever was en vogue for the time. Women weren’t pressured to change their bodies like they are now. If you were pregnant or bloated, you could let out your corset. Trying to attract a man at a ball? Add more hip padding so your waist looks snatched. Fashions would stay on trend for years at a time, garments were made to last, and if you are following along and counting, this means that women only needed a few items of clothing to last through their whole adulthood. 

I would not call myself a stylish person by any means, but I love watching historical sewing videos. Not only have they given me perspective on how slow fashion has worked throughout history, they’ve changed how I think of people in history. They may not have known about germs or dinosaurs, but they were smart and strategic – down to their undergarments.

Museum Job Roundup 2/19/24

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Dates for the Museum Romantic

If you’re looking for museum dates to set the mood for romance or just a fun time with friends, we’ve got you covered with our Valentine’s Day roundup.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

If you enjoy making fun of bad taxidermy with your partner or admiring a room full of sparkling gems, this is the spot for you. Bonus points if you buy a Valentine’s gift from the top tier gift shop.

Museum of Science

Hands-on learning always makes for a fun date (wink)! The Museum of Science offers plenty of opportunities to engage in fun discovery with your partner. Check out the Garden Walk for a little bit of Spring in February.

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Lovers of mystery and true crime might enjoy the site of the famous heist, still the single largest property theft in the world. Sleuthing aside, touring the grand rooms of the Gardner and looking out over the courtyard is enough to make anyone swoon

Boston Athenaeum

If you’re looking for book-filled romance straight out of Beauty and the Beast, the Boston Athenaeum is the perfect date for bibliophiles. Founded in 1807, the Athenaeum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. Visitors can buy a pass for admission to the first floor or level up your date with a day membership.

Museum Job Roundup 2/5/24

Welcome to the weekly roundup! We do our best to collect the latest job openings and welcome submissions from the community. For more opportunities, we recommend the following databases:

INTERNSHIPS

NORTHEAST

MIDATLANTIC/SOUTHEAST

 MIDWEST

WEST COAST/SOUTHWEST

Unconventional Museums

When one thinks of museums, we generally think of art, history, or science museums, but all kinds of museums exist and today we take a look at just a few selections of unconventional museums in the US. Whether because of topic, presentation, or collections, these museums are for those who are looking for something different, and perhaps, like me, consider themselves “strange and unusual” just like Lydia Deetz and these museums.

 

International Cryptozoology Museum (Portland and Bangor, ME)

Inconsistent in its interpretation but steeped in enthusiasm and interest, the International Cryptozoology Museum bills itself as the world’s only cryptozoology museum. For those unfamiliar, cryptozoology is the study of hidden or unknown animals or creatures (which are referred to as cryptids), some of the most well-known being Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Mothman. The exhibits feel similar to old-school museums in their “cabinet of curiosities” days, and that’s by design. The ICM presents curated looks at either one cryptid or a regional look at a few cryptids, offering some labels with information but more often that not just questions, allowing the visitors to decide what they believe in. 

National Museum of Funeral History (Houston, TX)

Though some may shy away from darker topics like death and funerals, the National Museum of Funeral History celebrates and honors “the compassion and dedication of the funeral services industry.” Exhibits include 19th Century Mourning, The History of Embalming, Presidential Funerals and Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of Popes–an eclectic collection of funeral industry topics and popular history topics, including an exhibit about the Shroud of Turin.

Maine Coast Sardine History Museum (Jonesport, ME)

Only open seasonally from the third Sunday in June through September 30th, the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum is a labor of love dedicated to an area of the country that was once home to a booming cannery business–Jonesport alone once had as many as 15 canneries in town. Run by a couple who spent 7 years collecting artifacts, the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum houses objects related to canning and fishing with exhibits dedicated to the steps in the canning process and regional cans and photographs. The most poignant display, however (at least from someone who has yet to visit), is the wall of scissors that sardine packers used, each labeled with the woman’s name for who used it and which canning company they worked for.

The Mob Museum (Las Vegas, NV)

Housed in a former US Post Office and Courthouse, the Mob Museum focuses on organized crime as well as law enforcement which offers an interesting take on a contentious topic. Boasting items on exhibit as notorious as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Wall (with bullet holes spotlighted), a Godfather script, Bugsy Siegel’s sunglasses, and a Tommy Gun that belonged to an associate of Al Capone, the Mob Museum entertains as much as it informs. Those looking for a little bit of excitement after seeing the exhibits can head downstairs into the speakeasy–so long as you know the password for that night (found on the museum’s website).

Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles, CA)

This staple of Venice Boulevard (open since 1988) calls itself “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic,” though others have described it as “a museum about museums” “where the persistent question is: what kind of place is this?” Exhibit highlights include “The Garden of Eden on Wheels: Collections from Los Angeles Area Trailer Parks,” “The Unique World of Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian,” and “Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition.”

Oasis Bordello Museum (Wallace, ID)

Step back in time in this cathouse turned museum that has been virtually untouched since the FBI raid that shut it down in 1988. Full of the clothes, toiletries, drawings, liquors, and food in the fridge that was left behind by Madame Ginger and the sex workers of the Oasis, this museum offers a unique glimpse into days gone by in a town that was defined by the mining industry.

VAMPA (Bucks County, PA)

The newest museum on this list, having just opened in October of 2023, VAMPA is a museum dedicated to vampires and paranormal activity. So far their only exhibit is “The Art of the Kill” which features “vampire killing sets and weapons,” a term that doesn’t shed any light onto what the objects actually are, though the website does mention possible components of a set with no indication whether those objects are the ones on display. Perhaps the only place where any hint of what the museum stands for comes from the mission statement: “VAMPA strives to create an environment where psychological drama and spiritual conflict are given free reign for imagination. A place that stimulates learning and understanding on how the magical mystery of the supernatural, folklore, myth, and faith has influenced the world in sculpture, painting, furniture, and objects of art throughout the ages.”  

National Museum of Toys and Miniatures (Kansas City, MO)

For fans of the current trend of miniatures, you’re sure to find all kinds of joy and wonder at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, which currently boasts more than 93,000 objects. A glance at their website–which offers an impressive look at their collections–shows off some of the delights to be found at the museum, including a 1.5 foot tall Tudor style bedroom, a four-inch tall portrait of Madame de Pompadour, and a 1 foot tall Beacon Hill house. In fact, dollhouse fans will find plenty to love, especially on the toy side of the collections.

International UFO Museum (Roswell, NM)

Located in the town notorious for a crashed down UFO, the International UFO Museum (and Research Center) was organized “to inform the public about what has come to be known as ‘the Roswell Incident.’” On their about page, they mention that they “endeavor to be the leading information source in history, science and research about UFO events worldwide.” Having visited only once back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, I’d be curious to return and see it again, and perhaps get a better idea of what the exhibits actually look like–other than the alien statues that I took a picture with as a child.

National Atomic Testing Museum (Las Vegas, NV)

Though Vegas may more readily bring to mind casinos and showgirls, back in the 1950’s about 65 miles northwest of the town a nuclear testing site was set up and soon the mushroom clouds coming from the testing site were as much a part of the Vegas skyline as the glittering lights. Exhibits at this Smithsonian affiliate include authentic and replicas of nuclear equipment, a temporary exhibit on the NSA and data gathering, as well as pop culture artifacts that feature the atomic bomb, showcasing its ubiquity and popularity at the time. 

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